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  • Gerry's solo voyage is an inspiration to all Deaf people

    Gerry's solo voyage is an inspiration to all Deaf people

    By: Paul Cuddihy on 04 May, 2013 11:51

  • WHEN Gerry Hughes was just 14-years-old, he scribbled on a sailing magazine of his dad’s that was paying tribute to St Francis Chichester’s historic round the world solo voyage. At the top of the magazine he wrote ‘One day I will go like Sir Francis.’

    Now, just over 40 years later, Gerry is fulfilling his ambition, sailing solo round the world via the five great capes. It’s a journey of some 32,000 miles which he started on September 1 last year when he set sail from Troon. What makes the voyage all the more remarkable is that Gerry is Deaf.

    And when he finally sails back into Troon within the next couple of months, he will become the first Deaf person to have circumnavigated the globe.

    It’s not the first sailing feat that the 55-year-old from Glasgow has achieved. Previously he became the first Deaf skipper to sail round the British Isles, which he did in 1981. And in 2005, he was the first Deaf skipper to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in the Original Single-Handed Transatlantic Race OSTAR.

    Now, he’s in the latter stages of his greatest sailing challenge yet. Gerry, who teaches Deaf children at St Roch’s Secondary in Glasgow, is also a lifelong Celtic fan and has been trying to keep up-to-date with how the Hoops have got on this season. And manager Neil Lennon emailed a message of support to him, which was passed on to him via one of his support bases in Australia.

    And the Celtic View was also able to chat with Gerry via email in an exclusive interview.

    What motivated you to attempt to sail, single-handed non-stop around the world?
    I loved sailing which I learned from my father since the age of two. Since I was 14-years-old I had dreamed of one thing - I wanted to sail around the world single-handed via the five great capes. I wrote this dream down on a magazine my father gave me. My father kept sailing books beside the fireplace. I would often pick these up and struggle with the words on the page - I didn’t understand what it all meant. I enjoyed studying the maps and diagrams, but the pages and pages of words were for years a mystery to me. But I didn’t give up. I struggled to read and write until I was 15. Since the age of 14, I have wanted to become the first Deaf skipper to sail single-handed around the world – a dream I have waited over 40 years to realise.
    NB: It is not classed as a ‘non-stop’ circumnavigation as Gerry has had to dock due to an electronics failure.
    How did you get into sailing?
    My father was a keen yachtsman and former Royal Navy man, and I started my apprenticeship at the age of two. Together we sailed around various ports in Scotland - The Firth of Clyde, West Coast of Scotland, all beautiful parts of Scotland. As a teenager I had hooked up with a group of deaf sailors in the South of England and sailed across the English Channel to France.
    Was it the personal challenge or the fact that, as a Deaf man, you would be an example, motivation, role model for other people in the Deaf community?
    The Quest III project has two aims:
    - To fulfil my lifetime ambition to sail around the world solo, via the five great capes.
    - To inspire young Deaf people, by demonstrating that they too can overcome many of the obstacles they face in life.

    The excerpt below is taken from an old website when I did the OSTAR (Original Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race) in May 2005, and it explains my motivation for doing this challenge.

    ‘It has long been my dream to become the first Deaf person to sail single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. This I know will be a huge challenge for me, but like most people I have faced many challenges in my life.

    It has often been hard for me to get people to see beyond my disability and instead to see my real potential. Over the years many well-meaning people have tried to save me from the disappointment of failure by discouraging me from pursuing ‘unrealistic goals’ such as when I decided to study for a degree. Yet I managed to graduate with a maths degree from the Open University.

    Institutions too have in the past underestimated my potential as a disabled man. For many years the authorities refused me entry into teacher training college for example, making it seemingly impossible for me to realise my dream of becoming a teacher. But after a long struggle I was eventually allowed to attend the college and in due course I became a qualified teacher. I have since taught Deaf children in schools in Edinburgh and Glasgow and presently teach in St Vincent’s School for Deaf Children. I am very lucky to be in my dream job and believe that I am in a unique position to be a positive role model for other Deaf children.

    It is my great desire to sail across the Atlantic on my own and to use this experience to benefit my pupils and other Deaf children in the UK by showing them that dreams of such achievements aren’t just for hearing children but for Deaf children too. It is my intention to allow pupils to follow my progress throughout the challenge, to learn about weather forecasting and navigation.
    I want to show the world that your dreams can be a reality if you believe in your own ability. I believe in mine and believe that all disabled people should be given the opportunity to realise theirs.’

    All of the above can be said of this challenge – the world circumnavigation.  It has taken me 40 years to be able to realise my dream of sailing single-handed around the world. Despite many peoples’ disbelief and advice not to go ahead with the challenge, I believe that I have made the right decision. I believe that this achievement will create a positive role model for Deaf people from around the world - that they too can break down the barriers they face in life. Only when Deaf people are afforded the human right to use their first and preferred language – sign language - then they too can learn, grow, realise their potential and achieve anything they set their minds to just as hearing people can.
    What are the particular challenges of sailing for a Deaf person?
    As a Deaf person, the biggest challenge for me to get where I am today has been my education, or lack thereof. I, like many other Deaf people, was brought up under Oralism - where sign language is forbidden. Most of my time in class was spent trying to listen – when I am profoundly Deaf and cannot hear! Time was spent on trying to speak - when I could not hear the words that the teacher wanted me to say, nor could I hear my own voice. Can you imagine trying to learn a foreign language which you have never heard and when you can’t hear your own voice? This time spent teaching me something I could never learn resulted in a lack of education in all the other curriculum subjects that children normally learn at school and I could not read or write until I was 15. 

    This experience is very common for many Deaf people in my own time and even today many Deaf people still leave school with little or no qualifications.
    Can you imagine a schooling where you can’t understand what your teacher is saying, you can’t make your teacher understand what you are saying, you have no Deaf role models to look up to and you feel like nobody understands you? For me this was a life lived wrapped in barbed wire … completely trapped. Like many Deaf people who have lived through this, their self-esteem is very low and they struggle with their self-identity. 

    When Nelson Mandela was at school he was taught that the best ideas were English ideas, the best government was English government, and the best men were Englishmen. He was an African and yet he was never taught about African culture or ideas. This same colonisation has happened to Deaf cultures and languages. Deaf cultures and languages have been subjected to oppression for over 120 years since the ban of sign language in 1880 and Oralism prevailed. Before the ban there were hundreds of talented Deaf educators, writers, statesmen, lawyers, artists and so on. Since Oralism, I was the first Deaf teacher in Scotland since 1880!

    For years Deaf people have been forbidden to learn their own natural language, their own history, their own culture – essentially our individual and collective identity has been oppressed and almost stamped out. British Sign Language – BSL - is a rich and complex language. It is now recognised as a language in its own right, with its own grammar and structure.  Anything that can be said in English can be signed.

    Just as Nelson Mandela cherished the idea of a free society where all persons, black and white, will live together in harmony with equal opportunities – I cherish that idea too for all hearing and Deaf persons.

    Yes, circumnavigating the world is indeed a massive challenge – but being Deaf at sea is no different for me. It means that I cannot hear radio communications, but with modern technology I can communicate through emails via satellite. The education of Deaf people is in fact my biggest challenge, bigger even than the challenge of circumnavigating the world. As a passionate teacher of Deaf children, I also teach by example. My aim in circumnavigating the world is not only to fulfil my own lifetime’s dream, but also to stand up as a role model for other Deaf children and Deaf people alike. Now that I am nearly home, I hope it presents a positive image to see a Deaf yachtsman pass all five of the great Capes – just like any hearing sailor - despite struggling to read and write until the age of 15. I hope that other Deaf people will be inspired to overcome the barriers and challenges they face every day in life, to go on and reach their full potential and realise their own dreams.

    My biggest challenge of all is to tell the world to let Deaf people be themselves, let them speak for themselves in their own language. When that happens – just look at what can be accomplished!
    How difficult is it doing this solo challenge, not only in terms of the sailing itself, but also in terms of things like loneliness?
    Well there’s no time to get lonely. I am working most of the 24 hours in a day. My sleep pattern is very broken and I usually only sleep for short bursts of time. I consider it luxurious to have a two-hour sleep rather than a 30-minute nap. The job is never done; plotting the best route, weather observations and reports, changing course according to weather, steering, repairs to the boat, sewing the sails, cooking, on look-out, log book reports, communications to home, checking you are still on the right course depending on the change in weather. Only when all this is complete can I afford to have a wee break and catch up on sleep. 
    Do you come to Celtic Park when you’re at home in Glasgow?
    I often head to Celtic Park when I’m in Glasgow, often with my Deaf friends as we’ve all been lifelong supporters of Celtic.
    Are you keeping in touch with how the team are doing this season? For example, where were you sailing on November 7 when we beat Barcelona?
    Yes, I’ve kept in touch regularly with how the team are doing. My mate, Jim Colhoun from Glasgow, regularly emails a rundown of the matches and results. I will never forget our victory over Barcelona! I was in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean and I knew all the Bhoys would be glued to the game back home. I was dying to hear the results and waited eagerly for the news from Jim. When it finally came through I jumped around with joy on the deck, thinking ’God Almighty what a brilliant result!’ At the time I was alone at sea and working round the clock, underway on my own challenge of a lifetime. But the news of the triumph of our team made me the happiest man in the world! It spurred me on to write a congratulations note to Neil Lennon for all his hard work which paid off with the team getting through the last 16.
    Has modern technology helped in keeping people, most importantly your family, up-to-date with his progress?
    Modern technology has been very useful. I use PredictWind which combines sophisticated wind weather prediction technology with local topography maps to create marine forecasts. I also use email to keep in touch with my family, send back reports for my webpage and send this interview to the Celtic View from the high seas!
    The cost of Gerry’s extraordinary journey is ongoing, and to donate towards this, you can to: www.gogogogerry.com
    For more information and to keep up-to-date with Gerry’s progress, go to:

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