Mary Duffy and the Hansa World Championships

Mary Duffy and the Hansa World Championships

Congratulations to Mary Duffy, just back from the Hansa World Sailing Championships


Mary Duffy has just arrived back from representing Ireland at the Hansa World Sailing Championships. Although the Championships are open to all sailors, the Hansa 303 and the Liberty are both well-known classes for sailors with disabilities. The Championships were held in Palermo, Italy, and saw 181 sailors from 24 countries compete. Having only started sailing relatively recently in 2018, Mary finished 14th in her fleet at the World Championships.


Mary is an artist, and a very competitive member of Bray Sailing Club. She wrote the following article about what the event meant to her.

Description image of Mary Duffy and the Hansa World Championships

“You all have somebody. I have nobody”, a journey of a thousand days


As I approached the start line for the final race, another boat nudged close to the rear of my starboard and I prepared to shout out in style. But my warning was strangulated as I realised that the potential infringer was Vera Voorbach, the soon to be crowned Liberty World Champion. Overawed that I was half a boat length ahead, I wiggled to make room. And in that moment, I realised I must have improved my starts.


It has been a long and eventful 1,000-day journey to that line in Palermo last week.


I began sailing solo in the summer of 2018. In order to learn to sail, I had to buy a boat and work out how to adapt it with foot steering. Without knowing how to sail, this was quite the challenge. When the 8 year old boat was ready, I went to Rutland Sailing School in UK and did a six-day course. At the end of the course, I entered my first race in Rutland’s famous annual Multiclass Regatta. It was quite the introduction to the world of racing.  I’ve never looked back.


Being a disabled sailor is not easy. Being a sailor without arms, resisting the temptation of servo controls, is really, really, difficult. As far as I know, there is nobody in the whole wide world sailing the way I do. I had to reinvent the wheel. I did a really good job, but while my adaptions are beautiful, they really could do with a little refinement to level the playing field.


My main issue is sheeting in. Can you imagine trying to sheet in using your toes? Probably not. So, imagine instead you are sheeting in using only two fingers of one hand. Using only your index finger and the next one, (no thumbs), pull in that sheet using short rapid movements. For me, it feels a bit like milking a cow. It has none of the elegance of the wide, strong, hand-over-hand methods that most other people use. My imperfect method cost me a reasonable position in the final race of the world championships, not once, but twice.


As I rounded the leeward mark with the finishing line in sight, the mainsheet slipped from my toes and the mainsail fluttered away in the strong breeze. I sheeted in again, only to lose it to the wind once more. I wasn’t particularly worried as my amiable companion for most of the race, Chris Atkins, passed me by. But as I approached the line, almost everybody else did too, the last one within an inch of the finish.


To be honest, I never expected to be a good position in the first place. Before I left, I was intimidated by the closeout time on the races and felt there was no way I could come in within 10 minutes of the winner and feared that, at best, my races would be declared DNF (did not finish), and, at worst, DNS (did not start).


The whole trip was hugely emotional for me. The wailing started after the PCR test. As I left the building, I caught sight of the Regatta village. I saw all the teams from different countries busy getting ready for the championships. And I felt inexplicably bereft. In a rush of emotion, I was again three years old standing at the end of the hospital bed, bawling my eyes out as my family prepared to leave me for the night. I had been admitted earlier that day with a head injury and an internal bleed on my brain.


As they left me there, my father would recall later that I could be heard wailing down the corridor, “You all have somebody. . . and . . . and . . . I have nobody”.


As I looked at the 39-strong Dutch support team building a structure to protect their sailors from the sun, the feeling of being on my own in this endeavour was overwhelming. It was caused in part by the imminent departure of Oisin Dingle (aka in Palermo as “Ocean”). I knew he would be leaving us shortly to return to Ireland.  Oisin, from Bray Sailing Club, attended the Para World Sailing Development Programme as my coach. I still had my long-time partner Denis (known always as “Beloved”) Buckley and we were expecting that our nephew, Tadhg Buckley (aka in Palermo as “Tiger”), would be flying out shortly (to replace Oisin).


So, I was never alone. I always had the best of people supporting me.  But in that moment, walking along the Marina, I was overtaken by huge feelings of loss.  The feelings stayed with me for days and is with me still,  I was liable to weep every time I saw the support some other sailors had . . . the huge vans, the RIBs, the tents with enough spare parts to open a mid-sized chandlery.


In my preparation, I had never considered the emotional toll that participating in an event like this. In my ordinary life, I am independent and self-sufficient.  For the most part, I move through my world with elegance and efficiency. However, as soon as I leave this environment, I become relatively helpless and very dependent on people around me, and that is very challenging, especially when combined with the demands of racing.


I reckoned I have reasonable awareness of my vulnerabilities and so I put a big effort into finding the perfect apartment that would give me the highest level of independence I could manage away from home. 


In this task I failed spectacularly. While the location of the apartment was fantastic, there was no way I could open either of the two external the doors, use the lift (which was tiny and looked like it was built in the 1920s), or use many of the facilities. None of us could even figure out how to run a tap in the bath (the bath I needed so badly to wash my feet). However, the location turned out to be a real winner as the “Regatta Village” consisted of tents and portaloos that was challenging to the best of us.


As I bawled my way from pillar to post, from pontoon to portaloo and back, I appreciated what a privilege it was to participate in this event. I knew that the huge emotion, feeling bereft and unsupported, were memories from a distant past.


Because, truly, madly, deeply, I have been hugely supported in this event and I am grateful for all the opportunities that have been provided to me by Ciaran Murphy and Rory Fitzpatrick of Irish Sailing, Jack Hannon, the Hansa Crew and all at Bray Sailing Club.  It was my experience on lumpy seas in late August that provided the best preparation for my apocalyptic experience in the rain and 29-mile-an-hour gusts in Palermo. I’m particularly grateful to BSC’s Adam Walsh (long-time member of Hansa Crew) who always encourages me to take on challenging conditions.


None of it could have happened without the enthusiastic, committed trio who accompanied me on this wild sailing adventure.


Yes, I still struggle with overwhelm, but fundamentally it was a privilege to be reminded that I am no longer the helpless little girl who felt so bereft and all alone.


I no longer have nobody.

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