Skip to main content

From Cradle to Grave

A look at some remarkable sailors.

Start them early, and they’re more likely to become lifelong boaters. Here’s a look at some remarkable young sailors.

Thousands of people crammed the docks and into boats anchored just offshore to watch British teenager Michael Perham guide his Tide 28, Cheeky Monkey, into EnglishHarbor in Antigua Jan. 3. After 6-1/2 weeks at sea, the 14-year-old had completed a 3,500-mile passage from Gibraltar, becoming the youngest person to sail single-handed across the Atlantic.

Start them early, and they're more likely to become lifelong boaters. Here's a loook at some remarkable young and not-so-young sailors. Read the other stories in this package: The 71-year-old Blue Water Medalist   The 84-year-old with a new motorsailer   The 89-year-old designer   The 90-year-old tech wizard

“It was an amazing sight. People were everywhere as Michael pulled in,” says Perham’s father, Peter, who followed his son in an identical Tide 28, a trailerable offshore cruising boat with a retractable keel ( ). “There was a flotilla of little boats gathered, shooting off their horns. People were yelling and clapping from the docks. It was a huge sense of accomplishment for Michael. He was rather pleased.”

Michael Perham, of Potters Bar, England, began sailing when he was 6 years old and took sailing courses at the Royal Yachting Association. He logged thousands of miles before beginning his trans-Atlantic adventure. Growing up, the inspiration to take up sailing came from his father.

“Being a former Merchant Navy navigation officer, my dad has always inspired me,” Perham wrote in an e-mail to Soundings, the day before he set sail from Gibraltar last fall. “Also, Dame Ellen MacArthur. Her determination, sense of adventure and her pushing to the limits has inspired me, too.”

Perham had aspired to single-hand the Atlantic since 2003, when British teen Sebastian Clover at age 15 became the youngest person to accomplish the feat. Clover also was followed by his father, Ian, a sailing instructor at the UK Sailing Academy.

For Peter Perham, the decision to allow his teenage son to sail solo across the Atlantic was easy. “Michael is a bit of a natural. He has the ability of someone much older,” says Perham, who is 47. “As a parent, I don’t see why I should hold him back if I don’t have to. If he’s going to do it anyway, he might as well break a record while he’s at it.”

Today, sailors are pushing harder and faster than ever, and picking up the sport at increasingly younger ages. Uncompromising, some continue sailing and even kick off their dream adventures later in life. But it’s the young record-breakers and their envelope-pushing expeditions — from Perham and Clover to the mostly 20-something crew of ABN Amro II in the 2005-’06 Volvo Ocean Race — who are gaining international attention.

Perhaps this trend is due, in part, to the influence of young risk-taking athletes who compete annually in the popular X Games. Or maybe it’s because parents today are introducing their children to sailing through community programs as early as first grade, says sailing legend Gary Jobson.

“Not everyone is going to sail across the ocean or around the world,” Jobson says in an interview with Soundings. “But the more young people we get sailing, the more incredible things will be done.”

Most agree, start them young. And what these new sailors learn as children, they often continue for a lifetime (see accompanying stories).

Young record-breakers

In 1965 16-year-old Robin Lee Graham became one of the first young solo sailors to capture worldwide attention when he decided to follow in the footsteps of one of his idols, Joshua Slocum, and sail around the world alone. In July of that year Graham departed Los Angeles aboard a 24-foot Lapworth sloop named Dove. Five years, a new boat and many stopovers later, Graham cruised back between the breakwaters at Los AngelesHarbor and into the record books as the youngest person to sail solo around the world. National Geographic published a series of stories about the voyage, and Graham co-wrote the 1972 book “Dove,” which later was the subject of a film.

In the decades since, numerous young sailors have followed Graham’s lead, embarking on their own ambitious sailing adventures. One such young adventurer was Japanese teenager Subaru Takahashi. In July 1996, at age 14, Takahashi set off from TokyoBay aboard a 30-footer named Advantage, determined to become the youngest person to sail single-handed across the Pacific.

An inexperienced sailor who hadn’t sailed far from TokyoBay, Takahashi apparently ran into trouble less than a month out, when Advantage’s engine quit. Unable to read the English owner’s manual, the young sailor assumed he had lost all electrical power and stopped using his autopilot and ham radio. With no communication between him and his shore team, many in the Japanese media criticized his bid and assumed the teenager had drowned, reports say. To most people’s surprise, Advantage sailed under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with Takahashi at the helm after 55 days at sea, the youngest to sail across the Pacific.

Another young sailor to notch a place in the record books is Aussie Jesse Martin, who in 1999 became the youngest person to sail solo around the world, non-stop and unassisted. At age 17 Martin left Melbourne, Australia, aboard a 34-foot S&S sloop named Lionheart. He sailed south toward Tasmania, east through the South Pacific, rounded Cape Horn, pushed north up the Atlantic to the Azores, south around South Africa to the Indian Ocean, and back to Melbourne.

“At that age, my big reason for wanting to sail around the world was to get away from school,” says Martin, now 25, in an interview with Soundings. “But my parents saw that I was serious, that I was really planning it. They supported me. My mum said that she’d mortgage her house to pay for the boat.”

Supporting Martin wasn’t always easy for his parents. “In the preparation phase, I didn’t really get criticized to my face, but my parents did,” says Martin. “People were telling them that they were sending their son to his death. People were just waiting for something to go wrong.”

Of course Martin had his share of obstacles while under way. Not long after setting out he was forced to deploy his parachute anchor. It became tangled in the keel, and he had to cut it free. He had a close call in the South Atlantic when Lionheart collided with a whale. “I was moving at about 7 knots when I felt a bump, and suddenly the steering was knocked out,” Martin recalls. “I looked behind me, and there were two whales in my wake. I was lucky there was no damage. A bit shell-shocked, I kept going.”

By the time Martin returned to MelbourneOct. 31, 1999 — having turned 18 during his 10 months at sea — he had in many ways grown up, he says. “Sailing is a great sport, especially for personal development,” says Martin. “Doing the circumnavigation brought out skills in me that we all have but probably wouldn’t have come out until I was older. I was a more confident person. I mean, come on, I just sailed around the world. How many young adults did I know who could say that?”

Today Martin is part-owner of The Imajica Experience, a sail charter/adventure business in Whitfield, Australia

( “The earlier you can get kids into sailing, the better, I think,” Martin says. “Sailing teaches you about life, your emotions and how to deal with people. When I have kids, hopefully I will tell them to take on a challenge of their own. I’ll tell them to go for it.”

The youth movement

From organized sailing programs for kids to parents using their own boats to teach their children about reading the wind and trimming sails, advocates around the country are pushing to share the sport they love with as many children as are willing to learn.

“I love how community sailing has grown in the last few years,” says Nancy Richardson of San Pedro, Calif. Richardson, who started sailing as a child as a Mariner Girl Scout on the tall ship Yankee, this winter received US Sailing’s Timothea Larr Award, presented annually to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the advancement of sailor education and training in the United States. Over more than two decades in sailing, she’s been affiliated with groups like US Sailing, the American Sail Training Association, Girl Scouts of the USA and the Los Angeles Maritime Institute.

“Many clubs and groups are opening up more to the general community and especially to children who may not have the financial means to otherwise become involved,” says Richardson, who is 65. “Sometimes these programs are the only access people have to the water. We, as sailors and sail trainers, have a responsibility to be doing everything we can to bring the excitement of sailing to as many people and as many children ashore as we can.”

While many youth sailing programs have realized success over the years, what’s needed now is a more organized and coordinated approach that is more inclusive and exposes more children to the sport, says Jonathan Banks, executive director of Sail America ( ). “If we are not more proactive in getting kids into sailing, in the long term sailing participation will decline,” says Banks, who is 45, in an e-mail to Soundings.

In the meantime, Banks and Sail America — a Middletown, R.I.-based independent affiliate of the National Marine Manufacturers Association that promotes growth within the sailing industry — support a number of programs. Those programs include Discover Sailing (, Kids Aboard ( ) the Interscholastic Sailing Association ( ), and Captain Kids ( ).

Children should be introduced to sailing as young as age 6 or 7 and start racing, if they choose, by age 10, says Jobson. “In the early stages, the first two years, the emphasis should be on learning the fundamental skills and on just having fun,” says Jobson, who is 56. “Kids come out of their shells at different ages. We don’t need to push them into competitive sailing until they’re a little older. … The best way to get them excited is to hand them the tiller and let them steer.”

Children who learn to sail also acquire skills and values important to life ashore, says Kim Hapgood, a US Sailing instructor and program director of Sail Newport in Newport, R.I. “If you can learn to sail when you are 5 years old, you can still be sailing when you are 85 years old,” Hapgood, 43, says in an e-mail to Soundings. “Sailing teaches a variety of life skills: independence, teamwork, self-reliance, how to overcome adversity, appreciation for nature and our place within it, and the value of history. All of this transcends to everyday life.”

Young or old, learning to sail also helps teach people confidence, both in their lives and on the water. Although the opinions of industry professionals vary about taking “unnecessary” risks on the water, learning confidence helps enable young sailors like Michael Perham to break records and sail across oceans.

“When we approached the headmaster of Michael’s school asking for about five weeks off for the trip, he said to us that Michael would learn more at sea in that time than he would in the classroom,” says Perham’s father, Peter. “And it’s true. Michael has learned an enormous amount about himself and about life.”

The logical next step for Perham, now 15, is to sail around the world, his father says. “Michael says he’s up for it, so by June 2008 he may be off on another sailing adventure,” he says. “He’ll be 16 then, so if all goes well he’ll be setting a new record for a circumnavigation, too.”