Marc Astley meets record-breaking teenager Katie McCabe who achieved the ultimate coastal adventure at a very tender age.
By the age of 14, Katie McCabe had seen more of the British coastline than most of us will experience in a lifetime because in 2021 the talented teenager became the youngest person ever to sail solo around Britain.
Katie made 36 stops on her 1,600 nautical mile anticlockwise voyage and experienced the best, and the worst, of times from a pod of “glowing torpedoes” (dolphins) following her boat for almost ten hours in the Bristol Channel to long, miserable spells sailing in soaking wet clothes and feeling “very, very alone”.
The adventurous schoolgirl, who lives near Exeter in Devon, was at the helm of her 26-foot wooden vessel, Falanda, for between eight and 15 hours a day for seven-and-a-half weeks.
Following close behind her was her boat builder dad Dave, who was required to be within a five-mile range of his daughter for insurance reasons.
But as comforting as that was, Katie very much had to go it alone, whatever the weather. One particularly gruelling stint between Port Ellen in East Scotland and Conwy in North Wales took her more than 32-and-a-half hours.
The conditions were so bad she didn’t have time to change into her waterproofs and ended up covering 172 miles before eventually heading below deck soaking wet, cold and exhausted through the physical effort and lack of sleep.
Katie, now 16, recalls how after arriving in port she looked in the mirror and was shocked to see a large red mark in the middle of her forehead.
“It was from where I had been frequently nodding off and bashing into the edge of the cockpit,” she laughs.
Katie began sailing before she was born. Her mum, Hazel, became pregnant during a four-year honeymoon on a converted 50-foot fishing trawler cruising around the Caribbean.
She and Dave flew back to Devon for the birth of their daughter only to resume their adventure a fortnight later. Their new arrival spent the first year of her life at sea and had crossed the Atlantic by the time she was 16 months.
“Despite the challenges a rolling boat presents, Katie learned to walk on that particular leg of the journey,” Hazel recalls.
Unsurprisingly, sailing is in the blood. Dave would row up and down the River Exe in Topsham, where he lived, from the age of ten. He bought an abandoned wreck that had been written off when he was 16, renovated it and launched a local ferry service.
Dave and Hazel also lived on the boat and would take it to the French canals during the winter for their holiday. Some years later they were able to sell the business, which partly funded the global adventure they were enjoying when Katie was born.
Even when the family returned to the UK they chose a life afloat making their home on a boat moored on the same river Dave traversed with his passengers years earlier.
However, that meant a dinghy ride to dry land for Katie and her brother Reuben, 12, every day, in all weathers as part of the school commute.
“It just felt normal to us,” she says.
Eventually, practicalities won the day and the family moved into a bricks and mortar house.
Katie adds: “It took us a long time to get used to it but having a proper loo that flushed was a real treat.”
It was love at first sight when Katie, then just 12, spotted Falanda, a 26-foot wooden sailing boat lying abandoned by the river in Fowey, Cornwall.
The boat had been out of the water for ten years and was awash with mouldy water. But that didn’t deter the ambitious teenager. She paid £800 for the sorry looking vessel which had to be towed behind her dad’s 50-foot converted trawler all the way back to Topsham – a 90-mile journey which took around 15 hours.
Katie spent the winter of 2019 renovating Falanda and learning a few new skills along the way. She enjoyed the experience so much that she now has ambitions to build her own boat one day.
In a race against time, Katie managed to get her new pride and joy afloat two days before the first lockdown and spent a few more weeks putting the final touches to what would soon become her home for seven-and-a-half weeks.
Although the round Britain trip was a booby prize.
“I had wanted to sail across the Atlantic but mum said ‘no’,” she explains ruefully.
Katie reels off a ship’s log full of anecdotes during our compelling conversation.
Her many highlights during the epic trip included sailing into the Solent where she joined 1,100 boats taking part in the Round The Island Race; crossing the Firth of Forth where she was escorted by a pod of minke whales and seabirds and enjoying a ringside seat at the British Fireworks Championships after landing in Plymouth.
However, there were also some not so fond memories including navigating the busy Thames estuary in thick fog and heavy rain and being invaded by a swarm of hoverflies out at sea.
And as time and tide wait for no one, there were some very early starts with the most unsociable being a 2am launch from the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club.
Meal times were basic affairs too with pasta or a Pot Noodle prepared on a single-ring stove on board being her main means of sustenance.
When she eventually landed back at her home port, Katie had beaten the original record set by 15-year-old Timothy Long from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire who spent 11 weeks at sea. Touchingly, he was on the quayside to welcome her home.
A 20-strong flotilla of boats and a large crowd also excitedly greeted the teenager as she sailed into the estuary which was once her home.
She says: “I had been hoping to sneak into the Exe quietly, without anyone really noticing, so to have so many people out to see me was amazing, but crazy and a bit overwhelming!”
Katie has enjoyed a number of high seas adventures since her record-breaking trip – all of which have been family affairs.
Before returning to school in September 2021 she managed to fit in a ‘quick’ 30-hour round trip to the French coast and back with her mum (they were unable to land due to Covid restrictions) and more recently she beat her dad in a race at the Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta, where she came best in class.
“He was not happy about that. It was great,” she laughs.
Last July Katie sailed across to Camaret-sur-Mer in north western France, again with her Dad, and then on to Douarnenez for a classic boat festival where things took an unexpected turn.
She explains: “A guy took a fancy to Dad’s boat and offered to buy it and he agreed there and then. However, that meant we had to unload all of his gear onto Falanda and he travelled back with me.”
Due to some inclement weather and a lack of wind, the trip took 36 hours in total and tested the father/daughter relationship to the limit.
“We realised we were better on separate boats. It just didn’t work,” reveals Katie.
After hugging the coastline on her UK record-breaking challenge, there will be nothing but water in sight if her next ambition is realised…finally crossing the Atlantic.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what Katie does next!
AIMING FOR THE BIG ONE
Katie has her heart set on Mini Transat 2025 – a solo yacht race which typically starts in France and ends in the Caribbean.
Her round Britain voyage was very much run on a shoestring but a £800 vessel from the back of a boatyard won’t fit the bill this time.
A boat fit for purpose would cost in the region of 40k upwards, so she will need a lot more help this time.
Ultimately, Katie would need a big financial sponsor to get me to the start line. However, with some of the first qualifying races beginning next year, time is running out and she is hoping to cobble together enough money to buy a ‘cheap’ lower-performance boat (£15-20k). To help her fulfil her dreams visit: tinyurl.com/2hbt9e3b