Teacher Neil in round-the-world yacht race

Neil Kohler, from Cambridge, reports for Vision Express on his 12- month journey ahead of the Clipper challenge – which has set sail on its home leg. Neil has embarked upon the feat with a passion for achieving a personal goal, with no sailing experience and not even the ability to swim. Here’s his story…

- 3 minutes to read

After graduating university I started my career in banking and around ten years ago I changed careers to become a primary school teacher. In between, I bought a house, got married and had three wonderful children, whom I idolise.

One day, around three years ago, I passed a poster on the London Underground, advertising a yacht race that travelled around the world – The Clipper. Apparently anyone could take part and no experience of sailing was required. A small seed was planted. Given I can’t swim, had never set foot on a yacht and was sea sick travelling back from France it seemed to me a preposterous idea!

However, the more I thought about it the more I realised that perhaps when opportunities are presented to you, you can go either one of two ways. You can pass them by and always wonder ‘what if?’ Or you can seize the moment and throw yourself headlong into what, on the face of it, seemed an incredible thing to be involved with.

And so, I applied…

I had an interview and, incredibly, was accepted to be a part of the 2017-2018 Clipper Round The World Yacht Race crew.

The race sees twelve identical boats set sail from the UK on a year-long journey around the world. Each yacht is led by a full time professional skipper with the remaining crew, around 20 people per leg, being a mix of experienced sailors to absolute beginners. The yachts literally race around the world. Crew can sign up to take part in the entire trip or, like I did, a single leg. I signed up to take part in Leg 8 – the Atlantic Homecoming stint – sailing from New York to Liverpool via Londonderry.

My training began…

In October 2016 my training with The Clipper began. Each participant has to complete four week-long training sessions at sea, with each week’s training building on previous learning and, frankly, becoming tougher and tougher. I’ve had to learn how to tie a multitude of knots, how to grind a winch safely, tack, gybe and live life at 45 degrees. I now know how to hoist a sail, pack away a spinnaker the size of a tennis court and just about everything you need to know to survive a lengthy period of time at sea. Night sailing, navigation, evacuation, man over board drills, climbing masts and getting by on limited sleep- whilst soaking wet – has become a way of life for me.

Some of the boats are sponsored by Countries – there is a Great Britain boat for example – whilst others are sponsored by companies. Each year, Clipper, the organisation behind the race, gift a boat to a charity and crew are encouraged to raise funds for the chosen charity. For 2017-2018 the official charity partner is UNICEF.

Spreading the word…

Given that I’m a primary school teacher, sailing on the UNICEF boat seemed to me to be a fantastic way of raising my classes’ awareness of the work that UNICEF do around the world. It’s proven to be a wonderful opportunity to increase the childrens’ understanding of the work of the charity whilst also helping some to appreciate a little more the peaceful way of life we are lucky enough to have.

Help from Vision Express to ‘sea’ clearly…

One aspect of life at sea that I hadn’t considered was my sight and vision on the boat. As I wear varifocal glasses, I found myself constantly changing my everyday glasses to sunglasses to protect my vision from the glaring sunlight at sea. This quickly became an issue as I then had to change back to varifocals to tie knots or read instruments on the navigational equipment on the boat.

As an existing customer, I decided to pay my local Vision Express store a visit to see if they could help me out. I found a pair of Oakley deep water polarised varifocals with UV protection at the Cambridge branch. They were ideal for the job – and looked pretty cool, even if I say so myself!

After speaking further with the Vision Express team they were keen to hear about my day job as a primary school teacher. Protecting young children’s sight is a key commitment of Vision Express, so I was delighted to welcome a member of staff from the Cambridge branch to my school to run a session on eyecare with my class. The children learnt about different parts of the eye, how they could look after their sight better and how difficult it was living with an eye condition such as cataracts. It turns out that sorting smarties into different colours whilst wearing glasses designed to mimic cataracts is no easy task!

The journey begins…

Now I have my Oakley sunglasses, I’m ready for the challenge. Joining my crew mates in New York, we will be sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on the yacht Team Unicef – the big blue boat – as we hope to finish as high up in the race standings as possible.

We hope to arrive in Londonderry around three weeks later. I’ll then be taking part in a maritime festival in Londonderry before the relatively short final sprint on the race back to Liverpool, where it all began around a year ago. It will, for me at least, be the race of my life. Wish me luck!

You can follow Neil’s boat – Team Unicef – on the Race Viewer here: 
https://www.clipperroundtheworld.com/race/standings and learn more about the race here: https://www.clipperroundtheworld.com/