My best teacher

5th August 2005 at 01:00
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 of Scotland with my two brothers and sister. My dad was a professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and when we were young he used to build little 6ft-long wooden dinghies from kits, called Optimists. From the age of 12 I took sailing lessons at Cumbrae, a small 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 to you and his eyes would be as wide as saucers. We all used to go back to his house for parties, especially at Christmas.

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 the Hermitage Academy, the local community school 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 to. I might have music on in the background 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.

Yachtswoman Emma Richards was talking to Judy Parkinson.

The story so far

1974 Born in Brussels, Belgium 1979-1983 Hermitage primary school, Helensburgh, Scotland 1983-1991 Hermitage Academy, Helensburgh 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 Jules Verne round 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 round the world yacht race, Around Alone 2003 Awarded MBE 2004 Memoirs Around Alone published August 7 2005 Competes in Rolex Fastnet Race

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