How sailing set me free
IMAGINE, if you can, rounding Cape Horn as crew of a 100-year-old twin masted sailboat and just listen to the wall of sound that assails you.
The wind is howling, the sails are flapping, the waves are crashing, albatrosses are screeching overhead and hailstones are thundering on to the deck beneath your feet.
Now turn the volume down and imagine you’re doing it deaf. No sound.
It’s how Virginia Davis experienced her trip of a lifetime, manning heavy sails in freezing weather as the sea lifted then dropped her for 31 days on a voyage between New Zealand and the Falklands Islands.
The redoubtable Mrs Davis knows that being deaf has been a handicap but she hasn’t let it stop her sailing – even her Instagram carries the absurdly appropriate quote from Anais Nin: “I must be a mermaid, I have no fear of depth and a great fear of shallow living.”
How apt for the Belgium-born 56-year-old from Peppard, wife of Matthew, one half of estate agents Davis Tate, who is right now getting a boat ready to sail around Crete.
“I will be barefoot and with greasy hands, just like when I was 20, and it is the best feeling in the world,” she says.
Virginia became deaf in her left ear when she was four after a bout of meningitis and then lost all hearing as a teenager.
She says: “I retained quite good hearing in my right ear but when I was 16 I had a horse riding accident and a skull fracture and lost what hearing I had left.”
Those of us who take our hearing for granted can only wonder at the effect that would have on a teenage schoolgirl. Even if you could lip read, as Virginia did, how do you follow what the teacher is saying and take notes at the same time?
She explains: “I was able to carry on by copying the notes of the students sitting next to me.
“But I almost failed my English GCSE because the teacher insisted on me doing a dictation, for which I got a zero mark.” She even tried for a history degree but soon dropped out.
“I’d like to believe being deaf didn’t hold me back but it did,” she says. “I would probably have completed my degree if I had been hearing.
“Sitting in lectures and not hearing was very boring and I’m sure nowadays there is more support for deaf students.
“So although I try not to let my deafness hold me back, every now and then I do become frustrated when I can’t keep up with conversations.”
Sailing somehow set her free.
She discovered its appeal as an 18-year-old sailing in Brittany and then applied for a two-week sailing trip from Blyth to Norway with the Ocean Youth Club. Virginia says: “I loved it so much that I became a voluntary bosun, then a mate, on the club’s 72ft training ketches for a couple of years.
“I absolutely love sailing and all it entails. On boats I was always dreaming of taking on new responsibilities but in a noisy environment like a sailing boat deck with trainees aboard, safety came first and it took me longer to be a watch leader as I wouldn’t have heard instructions from the skipper.”
She spent eight years sailing before she met Matthew when she joined the crew of the Lord Nelson, a three-masted square rigger specially designed to allow disabled people to enjoy sea voyages.
Matthew was working as relief cook and she helped out in the galley from time to time.
He proposed to her up the mast of the Lord Nelson in Cherbourg on Trafalgar Day in 1992. They were married at Peppard church the following year and went on to have four children.
Virginia abandoned her beloved sailing to raise her family but a brush with cancer 11 years ago changed all that.
“The cancer diagnosis was a terrible shock but somehow it forced me to live for the day and got me back sailing,” she says.
“I decided I wanted to reconnect with the sea. I booked to sail from New Zealand to the Falkland Islands on the Tecla, a Dutch tall ship, and then I met the owners of The Grayhound lugger and sailed as deck hand then as cook on and off for two years, sailing cargos of beer, olive oil, wine and tea between Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany, Portugal and the Azores.
“Grayhound has been sold so now I mostly sail our little boat Tosher around Falmouth harbour in Cornwall.
“Matthew and I have also enjoyed adventures in Iceland and Greenland on the Tecla and we’re looking forward to crewing on her in Patagonia next March.” If that isn’t impressive enough, Virginia is also an enthusiastic photographer and when not away sailing is always looking for an image to capture.
Last month she was one of the Henley 8, a group of artists whose work was on display at the River & Rowing Museum for the Henley Arts Trail, with her photographs of wildlife taken in her garden during lockdown.
Virginia says: “I would like to get bolder and try to sell more of my photography.
“I would also like to get the balls to skipper our little gaff cutter but at the moment a deaf person can’t get a yachtmaster certificate because of the radio part of it.
“Maybe I’d like to change that but I’m not sure I’m confident enough to make final decisions on a boat.”
Don’t be surprised if she manages it, though. She has overcome much – even the difficulty of keeping in touch with her Belgian family when she first moved to Peppard because being deaf meant she couldn’t ring them up.
She says: “I’m in close contact with my brother and sisters and my mum and dad via social media and chat apps. “I’m really grateful for the internet as I used to have to communicate by fax in the early days of moving to England because I can’t use the phone.
“I’ve also been on damp, wet and cold trips. If you’re sailing with a great team it’s wonderful but if some people don’t get on it can quickly turn difficult as we are stuck in a small space, sometimes for weeks.
“It can also be hard work and on long trips with night watches for weeks, it becomes difficult to get some decent sleep.”