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My best teacher

Yachtswoman Emma Richards talks to Judy Parkinson about her sailing coach

When I was young I always dreamed of sailing around the world, but back then I never considered the possibility of being a professional sailor. I wanted to be a sports physiotherapist, an ambition I pursued at Glasgow University.

Since then my life has definitely taken a different path from the one I expected.

I read sports medicine at Glasgow, where Neil Spurway was professor of physiology and sports science. However, years before that, Neil was my sailing coach and he was the one who persuaded me to study sports medicine as an academic subject. He was a big influence on me, encouraging me in both sailing and education.

I grew up in Helensburgh, on the west coast, with my two brothers and sister. My dad was a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and when we were young he used to build 6ft wooden dinghies called Optimists from kits.

From the age of 12, I took sailing lessons at Cumbrae, an island west of Largs. I joined the Scottish Optimist sailing squad and Neil was our coach. There were probably 12 of us in the squad, about four girls and eight guys.

Neil organised long weekends where we'd go to points such as Garroch Head and practise sailing techniques in unfamiliar waters with different tidal flows. We went out in a little coach-boat with Neil, then he set exercises for us, such as racing around a course, or sailing backwards between two marks, or sailing without the rudder, which meant you had to steer purely on the trim of the boat.

He was a real father figure with his white beard and white hair. It was a great joy to be coached by him because he believed in everybody he worked with. He was the best kind of coach for us at that age. He motivated us by making it fun while we learned to sail, and he encouraged us to be competitive, which I definitely gained from.

Neil was very friendly and would always greet you as a long lost friend with a big "Hello", whether he'd seen you just a couple of days or a month before. He would open his arms and his eyes would be as wide as saucers.

He was exactly the same when he was my teacher at university many years later. He taught me so much about both sailing and sports science. He was a wonderful all-round teacher.

Neil was a big help in my career because he wrote a great reference for me when I first took my cv to Tracy Edwards to apply to sail on her boat. He wrote a glowing report about my sailing and was very positive about my university years.

Neil has retired now and I don't speak to him very often, but during my round the world race I met up with him. He happened to be on a month-long tour of New Zealand and our stopovers coincided. He greeted me in the same friendly way, flinging his arms wide and beaming his big smile.

The sciences were my favourite subjects at Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh. I passed an acceptable seven O grades and four Highers. I had piano lessons for a while after school, but it was eating into my sailing time so I gave up as soon as I was allowed.

I might have music on while I'm sailing, but you're always thinking about the next thing, like the weather, battery voltage or your food levels. You don't have any time to relax at sea.

I wouldn't change anything about my education. I don't think I could have worked much harder.

Her story so far

1974 Born in Brussels, Belgium

1979-1983 Hermitage Primary, Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute

1983-1991 Hermitage Academy

1990 Member of Scottish Olympic training squad

1992-1996 Studies sport medicine at Glasgow University

1998 Youngest member of Tracy Edwards's all-women crew in the Jules Verne around the world race. Launches solo sailing career

2000 Wins Royal Ocean Racing Club Round Britain and Ireland Race, breaking the women's speed record

2002 First British woman and youngest person to complete 30,000-mile solo around the world yacht race, Around Alone

2003 Awarded MBE

2004 Memoirs Around Alone published

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