Opinion: When terror is followed by unbridled joy

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief

I recently had the pleasure to be within earshot of the roar of the world's second largest whirlpool, the abyss of Corryvreckan in the Western Isles. By the age of seven, my head was full of romantic nonsense from Swallows and Amazons - I had to sail. None of my family knew their cranse iron from their bumkin, and you couldn't buy a boat on a shilling a week. After rehabilitation from childhood surgery, I found the local Sea Scouts. At 14, I sailed in one of the earliest Tall Ships Races. A year later, I was a paid sailing instructor - now unthinkable.

Voluntary organisations played a major part in enabling me to sail: not only the Scout Association, but the Sail Training Association, the London Sailing Project, the Ocean Youth Club (of blessed memory), the RORC, the Royal Yachting Association, the RNLI - thus far only as a donor, not a beneficiary - and many local clubs. For most of us, a voluntary body is the only way to afford to sail, because owning a boat is like supporting a charity - a hungry mouth that will always swallow more, however much money and time you pour into it.

For a time, I sailed for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Crews of people with MS sailed in a six-month relay around Britain, with a professional skipper and a volunteer mate. I learned more about MS in the close proximity of those weeks than in all the rest of my work, listening to things my fellow sailors had never told their doctors - or even their partners.

The Jubilee Sailing Trust has taken things to a new level with brilliant designs that enable people with the most severe disabilities to play a full part in sailing big vessels. Now Sail 4 Cancer, run by four young volunteers, has created opportunities for people affected by cancer to sail on the most glamorous yachts in Cowes Week.

Sailing holds no pleasure for many, but once you're hooked on the sea, you're really hooked. My formula is 75 per cent joy, 25 per cent abject terror. But the human mind is strange - after a night of shrieking wind and exploding waves, when you think, minute by minute, that you're going to drown in the darkness, the sun comes out. You forget the fear, torn fingers and bashed limbs and remember only the music of the wind and the poetry of the sea's motion. From the abyss of despair, everyday things can be the height of achievement, a salutary reminder when you work with terrible diseases. Joy and terror - an apt metaphor, perhaps.

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