Youngest solo sailor returns to UK

Chris Green
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:30

Three years ago, at the tender age of 14, he became the youngest person to sail solo across the Atlantic, smashing a world record in the process. Today, he returned triumphantly to British waters having accomplished an even more remarkable and dangerous feat.

Mike Perham, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Potters Bar in Hertfordshire, is now the youngest person to sail solo around the world, after an epic nine-month voyage.

At 9.55am this morning, he steered his trusty 50ft racing yacht across the finishing line between Lizard Point in Cornwall and Ushant in France. Since setting off from Portsmouth last November, he had fought 50ft waves and gale force winds over 30,000 miles of ocean – and also celebrated his 17th birthday in the South Indian Ocean.

Although he had aimed to complete the voyage without making any stops, technical problems forced him onto dry land on several occasions. His record therefore applies to “assisted” solo circumnavigation.

When The Independent spoke to him today, Mike had been joined by his father Peter and the pair were sailing through the English Channel towards Portsmouth, where he will arrive on Saturday after 158 days at sea.

“To say it feels good would be an understatement,” he said between mouthfuls of digestive biscuit, one of the foods he had missed most. “I’ve always dreamt about sailing around the world, it feels amazing. I feel so happy – not just for me but for the hundreds of people involved with the trip who have worked tirelessly to get me here.”

The teenager’s task was made even more difficult by a series of technical problems with his boat, which hit almost immediately after he set sail. His autopilot system failed almost immediately after he left England, which he said had been “hard to cope with” as it meant he had to stay awake constantly to prevent the boat veering off to one side.

The initial problems lasted for nine days, so by the time he arrived at the Canary Islands he was already physically shattered. His route took him past South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and he was also forced to navigate the Panama Canal after missing the weather window which would have allowed him to sail around the southern tip of South America.

“I did get frightened sometimes – if I hadn’t I think it would be a bit strange,” he said. “There were quite a few moments where I genuinely thought: ‘Uh oh, that’s not good.’ But I was always convinced I was going to finish, that I would get there eventually. I didn’t go out there to fight the ocean, I just prayed that it would be nice to me.”

The teenager, who speaks with such assurance that it would be easy to mistake him for a man twice his age, is a member of a growing group of intrepid adolescents intent on conquering the Earth’s oceans.

Last month, an American named Zac Sunderland who was two months older than Mike completed a similar round-the-world trip, briefly holding the record. Laura Dekker, a 13-year-old Dutch teenager who was born on a boat, has also stated her intention to tackle the voyage, as has Jessica Watson, 16, from Australia.

“These sailors seem to be getting younger and younger. I don’t know why,” said Peter Perham. “But when I look at Mike, and his abilities and skill levels, I don’t know how much younger it could get, because you need to be so mentally and physically strong to do all of the necessary things at sea. He’s not a typical adolescent with a rebellious mindset, he’s definitely old beyond his years.”

To keep his strength up during the journey, Mike took on 5,000 calories a day, eating almost constantly. In the yacht’s small kitchen, he prepared vast quantities of pasta and rice to add to his staple diet of freeze-dried and tinned food.

His achievement also drew plaudits from Dee Caffari, the only woman to sail solo, non-stop in both directions around the world.

“What Mike has achieved is fantastic,” she said. “I am sure he will have learnt and developed a great deal during the months he has been away. The Mike that will return will be very different to the Mike that left all those months ago. He has had to make some very difficult decisions along the way and some of these have been very grown up ones that would have been difficult to make.”

The teenager’s family has strong maritime connections. His father was a merchant naval officer, his grandfather served with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and his great-grandfather was a Royal Marine in the Crimean war.

In recognition of this, he was escorted across the finish line by the Royal Navy guard ship HMS Mersey and was sent a special congratulatory message by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope.

“This is a remarkable and inspirational achievement in one so young, another impressive event in the rich maritime history of this island nation and of the Perham family,” the message read.

“Michael sets a fine example showing remarkable character, grit and self discipline in completing this his

toric record-breaking voyage and the Royal Navy is delighted to participate in welcoming him back home to the UK as an honoured and much-respected fellow seafarer.”

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