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Yachtswoman Nikki Henderson gets on board with Scottish ocean adventure

Woman who sailed with Thunberg becomes ambassador for voyage manned by young people who have been in care.

She was the youngest skipper to take part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and accompanied climate activist Greta Thunberg across the Atlantic. Now, record-breaking yachtswoman Nikki Henderson has become ambassador of a Scottish initiative to train vulnerable former care children for the adventure of a lifetime circumnavigating the globe.

The 27-year-old, who credits sailing with rescuing her from depression in her teenage years, claims it has huge potential for tackling mental health.

Not-for-profit social enterprise Care to Sail (CTS) is the brainchild of Irvine-born 22-year-old Declan Cox, whose traumatic childhood and time in the care system led to multiple suicide bids until he discovered the extreme sport. He is now fundraising to buy a suitable yacht for the year-long 40,000-nautical-mile voyage, expected to depart in 2022.

The enterprise will take a dozen youngsters aged 16 to 25 to the high seas led by racing skipper Amelia Ralphs, following the same route as the Clipper oceanic dash.

“Offshore sailing has so much to offer for young people,” said Henderson, who described the sport as “a saviour for my mental health” with potential to “do the same for hundreds of people”.

Henderson said that team building and leadership would be crucial on the trip, which will take in countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and several in South America. She added that survival instincts and the elements would help people “get out of their heads”. “A gale can blow for five, 10, 15 days. There is no finish line until you get to shore . . . no quit option. This builds a true thick skin and understanding of what endurance means on a physical, mental and emotional level.”

Henderson has witnessed waves as big as skyscrapers on her adventures, but said “people and emotion are much more terrifying to me than bad weather”.

The yachtswoman is determined to introduce marginalised groups to take up a sport often associated with the elite. She joined the sea cadets at 13 and after a season with Girls for Sail — the UK’s only all-girls sailing school — completed three major transatlantic and a number of Caribbean 600 races.

Keen to smash the sport’s elite reputation she added: “It is no longer OK for us to have a sailing ‘clique’ — we need to open our doors and our arms and welcome people in if we want our sport to survive, grow and prosper.

“Sailing is a levelling place — a place in which where you come from, what your background is, and other constraints that bind us in normal society are left on shore.”

Financial considerations are always an issue with sailing, said Henderson, who is encouraging public investment in the worthwhile and life-affirming cause.

Describing her trip with Thunberg as a career highlight, she also sees sailing as an opportunity to “grow in the face of the climate emergency. It is a carbon neutral form of travel. Why are we not harnessing that?”

The sailing prodigy offered support to Thunberg when the youngster was mocked by American president Donald Trump after her address to a UN summit on climate change.

“I cannot believe what people were prepared to say to a 16-year-old. She is a very strong young woman driven by this intense passion. You cannot deny that she is making a mind-blowing, earth-shattering change to international public opinion.”

Henderson explained the importance of preparation for the CTS crew: “Once you are on the boat your muscle degeneration — especially in your legs — is rapid and almost unavoidable.” Healthy eating and “building all-round core strength and high-intensity endurance” were vital.

CTS-founder Declan Cox was thrown through a plate glass window by his step-father when he was three. His resilience after struggling through the care system and ending up on the streets at 15 impressed the yachtswoman.

“Think how easy it would have been to resort to anger, bitterness and resentment at the system,” she said. “To now be creating something so full of hope and positivity — something so constructive — is truly remarkable.

“They [Cox and Amelia Ralphs] care so much about helping kids in care and giving them opportunities. You can tell this every time you speak to them.”

Cox said: “Nikki is an inspirational role model and incredibly experienced sailor. We hope that her ambassadorship will have a major influence, inspiring and encouraging our young people and staff to engage with mentoring, as well as demonstrating obtainable goals and broadening their perspectives.

“From my own experience, I know that young people in care don’t often have positive role models. We aim to build a structure of mentors, role models and ambassadors as a key element of the project.”

The Sunday Times - Sunday 9 August 2020

Jean West

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