Mike Perham: Sailing into the record books
PUBLISHED: 16:08 13 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 20 February 2013
Hertfordshire teenager Mike Perham is the youngest person to have sailed around the world single-handed. Read his incredible journey...
Hertfordshire teenager Mike Perham is the youngest person to have sailed around the world single-handed. Here, he tells Pat Parker about the agonies and ecstasies of his incredible voyage...
On August 28, after 158 gruelling days at sea, 17-year-old Hertfordshire student Mike Perham sailed into the record books to become the youngest person to sail around the world single-handed.
Mike, from Potters Bar, had survived treacherous seas, 60ft waves and repeated technical and mechanical failures to claim his record. When he set off, in November 2008, he was just 16 years old he celebrated his 17th birthday alone in the South Indian Ocean. He completed 30,000 miles 6,000 longer than planned and had to stop for lengthy repairs in Portugal, the Canaries, Cape Town, Tasmania and New Zealand. A journey which was originally planned to last four and a half months ended up taking twice as long. When he finally sailed into Portsmouth Harbour after crossing the finishing line, he was greeted by thousands of well-wishers. His expedition has since been featured in a 90-minute Channel 4 documentary, The Schoolboy Who Sailed The World.
Circumnavigating the world solo is an impressive achievement for the most experienced sailor, but for one so young, it is truly remarkable. Yet, when you talk to Mike, who is now studying for a national sporting diploma at St Albans Oaklands College, he talks about his exploits with remarkable understatement. He is down-to-earth, unshakeably positive, with a maturity and self-confidence which belie his years.
Mike comes from a family of seafarers. His grandfather served in the Royal Navy, and his father Peter was a merchant seaman before becoming a quantity surveyor. Peter, who has always nursed an ambition to cross the Atlantic single-handed, taught Mike to sail when he was seven, at Stanborough Lakes in Welwyn Garden City. By the time he was just 14, Mike fulfilled his fathers lifelong ambition, by becoming the youngest person to sail the Atlantic Ocean.
On that occasion, Peter shadowed him, sailing not far behind. How difficult was it to undertake a trip like that at such a young age? I had a few problems, concedes Mike. I had to stop in the Canary Islands. But it wasnt too hard.For me, thats what I do, he says, matter-of-factly. Its my life. After crossing the Atlantic, I thought, I want to go bigger, I want to go better. I wanted a greater adventure. Circumnavigating the world was the obvious choice.
Father and son spent a year raising sponsorship money for the trip. Several companies were reluctant to associate themselves with a trip which could have resulted in a teenagers death. But the money was raised, and Mikes 50ft open yacht, Totallymoney.com, was chartered and paid for by three main financial sponsors and several large donations. Peter had planned to shadow his son, as during the Atlantic trip, but the cost was prohibitive. So Mike was on his own, supported by the love and prayers of his devoutly Christian family his father, his mother Heather and his elder sister, Fiona.
Things went wrong right from the start of the voyage. The autopilot, which steered the yacht, began to play up across the Bay of Biscay. Mike had to continually keep resetting it manually, which meant he could only sleep for a few minutes at a time. I can safely say the worst part of the trip was the first couple of weeks. It was very, very frustrating about the worst start you could get.
There were physical problems too. It was hard trying to fit into a sleep pattern and getting used to a diet of freeze-dried food. I was seasick a couple of times, but once I got my sea-legs, I was fine.
Mike was forced to pull into Portugal for repairs to the autopilot. Further repair stops meant he eventually had to relinquish his original goal of achieving the non-stop record, instead achieving that of the youngest solo circumnavigation with assistance.
Although he was in daily contact with family and friends via satellite phone and email, Mike found the sense of isolation difficult to cope with. The hardest part was being alone out there. I dont like being alone. For five of the nine months I was away, I was totally on my own. But you just have to get on with it. Before you set off on a trip like this, you need to know what youre letting yourself in for, so I prepared myself. I knew it wasnt going to be fun being alone, but I wanted that challenge and adventure. But it did get me down at times.
Before setting out, Mike trained with a sports psychologist to help him overcome the mental pressures of loneliness. He also built up his physical fitness in the gym, and learnt how to carry out repairs. When youre alone at sea, you have to be your own sailmaker, boatbuilder, mechanic, electrician and navigator.
Conditions on board were cramped and damp, there was no fresh food, and Mike suffered repeatedly from sleep deprivation. My sleep patterns were constantly changing. Some nights Id get five or six hours, but other nights Id get no sleep at all. At one point, I managed only three hours sleep in three days. That was incredibly draining.
Lack of space on board meant he lost stamina in his legs. But I built up my upper body strength because the sails are very heavy. They weigh 100kg, and then theres friction on top of that.
After prolonged repair stops in Portugal, the Canaries and Cape Town, Mike headed into the notorious Southern Ocean, feared for its treacherous currents, towering seas and raging storms. Once, his yacht was knocked flat, battered by giant waves. The boat was picked up by a freak 60ft wave, and we were chucked in the air and thrown 90 degrees on to our side, Mike remembers. I was flung across the cabin, and ended up in total darkness, with my head trapped under the table and my feet on the ceiling. I was genuinely scared for those few seconds, but luckily the boat righted itself.
Soon afterwards Mike had to climb the 70ft mast to make repairs, wearing body armour and a helmet to protect him from being smashed into the mast as the boat moved in the rolling seas.
At the mercy of the elements, there were times he felt immensely vulnerable. But he says he never feared for his life. I always felt in control.
The Southern Ocean brought both the lowest lows and the most exhilarating highs of the trip. It was cold, wet and there was storm after storm. But there were times when we were just flying along at incredibly high speeds. Dolphins would suddenly appear from nowhere and sometimes hang around for an hour. I saw albatrosses, sea turtles incredible wildlife.
The lengthy time spent ashore repairing the yacht meant Mike missed his window of opportunity to round Cape Horn. Winter was well underway by the time he approached it, and the weather just too treacherous to contemplate. He sailed north through the Panama Canal instead.
Even in the final stretch of his return journey across the Atlantic, his progress was impeded by Hurricane Bill. He finally crossed the finishing line off Lizard Point, Cornwall, on August 27, arriving two days later at Portsmouth.
What was the best thing about coming home? Good food! he replies unhesitatingly. His first meal was his favourite steak and chips.
Hes now catching up on his academic work at Oaklands College. Im not really sure what career I want yet but if I can continue having adventures, that would be just perfect. Once you do one, you just want to do another.
Just a few days after arriving home, Mike announced his next adventure. He is to join Australian adventurer Don McIntyre on a re-enactment of the 4,000 mile trip endured by Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, after he was set adrift by his crew in the Pacific in 1789. Mike cant wait.
Were taking a 25ft wooden boat, and well have exactly the same rations that Bligh and his men had, he says. Well have no drinking water on board, so well have to hope it rains. And well use the stars to navigate by.
The trip will raise money for the Sheffield Institute Foundation, which is raising funds to build a research institute for motor neurone disease. Mike is also hoping his solo trip will raise 24,000 for Save the Children and the Tall Ships Youth Trust, which gives deprived youngsters the chance to experience sailing. Hes also an ambassador for the Princes Trust.
Mike describes himself as fun-loving and positive. I always knew I was determined, he replies. I have learnt some stuff about myself, but really it just proves youve got to go out there and enjoy these things.
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