Solo yachtswoman's pearls of wisdom

Record-setting sailor tells of her ordeals during epic 10-month voyage. Ian MacKinnon reports
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The Independent Online
Few, if any, record-holding round-the-world sailors can claim that they were helped in their feat by a pearl necklace.

Lisa Clayton, 36, the first woman to achieve a solo non-stop unaided circumnavigation from the northern hemisphere, yesterday told how she used a string of pearls to make running repairs during her record 31,000- mile voyage.

As the cheers of thousands of supporters and well-wishers who welcomed her arrival in the picturesque port of Dartmouth, in south Devon, died away, she told how pearls from the necklace had helped her after a battering in the Southern Ocean.

With ingenuity she seized on the idea of using four of the gems as bearings for her generator after her back-up team at the end of a fax machine in the Midlands had exhausted all other solutions.

The generator, towed behind her 39-foot sloop, Spirit of Birmingham, to top up the power in her boat's batteries during the voyage, had failed many times until the situation looked hopeless after a violent storm off New Zealand.

"I was desperate for the generator and took it apart," she said. "I tried all the ball-bearings out of some silly puzzles I had, but they were the wrong size. Then I remembered I had a pearl necklace given to me before I went off. Four of the pearls were just the right size. I worked for six hours to get it going."

While the results of her labours saw the generator working for only a short time, after which she was forced to continue the rest of the journey on reduced power, it is a reflection of the uniquely female outlook of the epic odyssey that began on 17 September last year.

It also encapsulates the endearing amateur qualities which seemed to tinge the whole enterprise and has left the divorcee facing outstanding costs of pounds 60,000 on the pounds 420,000 voyage because she failed to secure a major sponsor.

Crossing the finishing line in her rust-streaked and battered yacht at 10.47am yesterday, after 286 days without setting foot on land and with a flotilla of 40 small boats to escort her home, none of that mattered.

All that was important, as she faced the world's media, was that she had made it when many times she feared she might die.At a news conference at the Royal Dartmouth Yacht Club, Ms Clayton confessed that prior to the voyage the most exciting thing she had done was slide down the banisters at Birmingham town hall.

She said that one of the worst moments during the expedition came as she crossed the treacherous Southern Ocean after another ferocious storm in which she was washed over the side while attached to the boat by her lifeline, only to be swept back on board by the next wave. "When I sent back a fax I asked that the Provost of Birmingham say a prayer for me because I thought I was not coming back."

But with true grit, the Birmingham travel consultant, who sank her life savings into the project, decided to keep going when the odds often seemed stacked against her - Spirit twice turning turtle and being knocked down on to its side by fierce seas on nine occasions.

"Many times I thought 'I can't take it any more', really hating it," she said, still bubbling with energy despite the last sleepless days after her lights had failed. "But then you think for the rest of your life you had a chance ... why did you not take it? I knew I was never going to get a chance again."

Now that she has achieved her ambition - as her father Dan, 64, put it, "not to strike a blow for womankind, but for herself" - she was yesterday keeping the "crazy" notions of what she might do next to herself.

Apart, that is, from celebrating with her parents and project director, Peter Harding, who was first on board to welcome her with flowers and a bottle of champagne. "I am going to go and drink so much champagne I'm going to fall into bed drunk and wake up with a hangover. I can't wait," she said.