Interview: Michael Perham

A solo Atlantic crossing in a small yacht is the dream of many an adventurous yachtsman, and beyond the capability of most. Michael Perham was only 14 when he sailed his boat from Gibraltar to Antigua, arriving in January this year. Humbling, isn’t it? And, next October, a year before he can sit his driving test, he plans to knock his record as the youngest-ever transatlantic yachtsman into a cocked hat by becoming the youngest person to sail around the world non-stop, all on his own.

It’s an extraordinary ambition for a teenager, but Michael has no doubts he can achieve it and beat the current record, set six years ago by an 18-year-old Ellen MacArthur. ‘She’s almost a foot smaller than me,’ he says all 5ft 8in of him a little defensively. ‘It takes slightly longer to inch up the sails [than an adult], but you can do it.’ He’s already building up his athletic frame with visits to the gym four times a week. He expects the voyage to take five months. ‘I imagine that I will be homesick being away from home for that long, but the Atlantic trip took almost two months, so double that and you’ve gone round the world hopefully. I’m not put off by the challenge of the seas. I embrace challenge.’

On his round-the-world adventure, he will at least have the comfort of knowing that his father Peter (a yacht builder and ex-Merchant Navy officer) is shadowing him in a 72ft yacht identical to his own, although storms and immense ocean waves are bound to keep him out of sight for long periods. The pair hope to stay in touch via radio, passing quieter hours with games of noughts and crosses or battleships across the airwaves. ‘It’s a great father-son relationship. He calls on me, and I call on him. It’s entirely two-way. We both know the boats inside out, and he’ll ask me for an opinion on a problem,’ says Michael, matter-of-factly.

Hearing him talk, you have to pinch yourself repeatedly to remember his age, but, outside of sailing, his interests are the same as any boy of his age bike-jumping and drumming. (In his Atlantic blog, his entries were as cool as a veteran mariner as he recorded ferocious squalls or gruelling hourly watches, but, occasionally, the voice of a child slipped out: ‘It’s absolutely amazing at night because the waves we make have sparkly bits which are really beautiful… I’m really, really happy and so grateful to Mum and Fiona for allowing me on this trip.’)

Now, he has to focus on studies at what he calls a ‘very average State school’ near his home in landlocked Potters Bar, although he can’t remember off the top of his head precisely which GCSEs he will sit. And there’s fundraising to work on. Michael hopes to buy two of the yachts used in Chay Blyth’s Global Challenge round-the-world series for about £400,000 each. ‘Then there’s management and PR costs, equipment costs, and modifying a boat built for a crew of 18 for one person. The list just goes on.’

His plans depend on sponsorship, but his own money-making scheme involves auctioning his transatlantic boat Cheeky Monkey at the Whyte & Mackay Earls Court Boat Show, hoping to raise about £35,000. ‘She’s done 5,000 miles, more than most 28-footers. But she’s in excellent condition and only a year old,’ he says, proudly.

So how can a boy of 15 take on such a perilous adventure with blithe confidence? Having nerves of steel helps. ‘You have these towering seas, but when you’re ”in the box”, you don’t get scared because there’s no one to get scared with. I got pretty stressed once when my steering broke, and I steered by hand night and day with a couple of hours’ sleep. It’s not very fun, but you just go on and do it, and you try and enjoy yourself. My parents brought us up to enjoy life.’ The rest he puts down to an adventurous gene. ‘In my opinion, if you’ve got that drive, and got that willpower, you just go for it.’ Quite where his drive will take him after he’s conquered the world’s oceans is anyone’s guess.

The Whyte & Mackay Earls Court Boat Show runs from December 1 to 9. The auction will be held at 5pm on December 6.

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