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Teenager, 14, is the youngest person ever to sail solo around Britain

The teenager who can take a bow! While most her age are glued to their iPhones, 14-year-old Katie has just become the youngest person ever to sail solo around Britain. And the biggest challenge? Persuading Mum to let her do it

Most keen sailors develop sea legs. Katie McCabe seems to have come into the world with hers fully formed. 

When her parents returned home to Britain in 2008 after an epic three-year honeymoon on the high seas, they did so with a toddler who had learned to walk on a boat.

Hazel and David McCabe, both keen sailors, had started married life with a ‘crazy idea to cross the Atlantic’.

They’d upped sticks, sold their boat trip business in Devon, and took off in a converted trawler. They kept going, eventually completing a 14,000-mile odyssey.

Now Katie, who is still only 14, is at it too, at the tiller of her very own boat.

Atlantic swell: ‘After leaving Milford Marina, we were greeted by 3-metre seas. But we were sailing nicely’

When we speak, she is fresh from her own record-breaking adventure. A fortnight ago she became the youngest person to sail around Britain single-handedly, in her 26ft vessel, breaking the record previously held by Timothy Long from Aylesbury who made the voyage when he was 15.

Her 54-year-old father had to be close behind, in his bigger boat, for insurance purposes — ‘in case I crashed into a million-pound yacht’, she explains, breezily — but close in nautical terms still means a couple of miles away.

‘At night, in the pitch black, it did feel like I was VERY alone,’ she admits.

It’s an extraordinary achievement, even for seasoned sailors. The trip, which started in her home town on June 30, took almost two months (although two weeks of that were spent dockside, waiting for weather).

Along the way she encountered everything from schools of dolphins, ‘hypnotic to watch’, to puffins and seals — ‘who can scare the life out of you when they pop up’ — to massive tankers, ‘that make you feel very small indeed’.

Solo sailing is not for the faint-hearted. Katie knew she would need to spend between eight and 15 hours at sea a day.

A fortnight ago she became the youngest person to sail around Britain single-handedly, in her 26ft vessel

She charted her journey herself, although her father checked over her calculations at each leg. Mostly they moored up at harbours along the route in the evenings, but at several points had to sail through the night, an eerie and unnerving experience.

And though it was summer, it was a British summer so there were very difficult sea conditions to negotiate, particularly in Scotland where she faced three-metre waves, and had to cover a 170-mile stretch in one go.

‘The longest period at sea was 32 hours,’ she says, ‘by the end of that I was exhausted and there hadn’t been time to put my protective gear on. I got pretty wet.’

What an ordeal. And all during the summer holidays, when most teenagers cannot be dragged out of bed, or prised off their mobile phones.

Most people her age (any age, really) would be terrified, but Katie has taken it all in her stride. ‘She knows what she is doing,’ says Hazel, 49, ‘and she’s very determined. She’s seen it all through and we are very proud.’

Today, Katie has the air of someone who has found her place of contentment. And it’s not on land. ‘There’s nothing else like it,’ she says, recalling the cocoon of life at sea. ‘Out there you’re completely alone with your thoughts.’

Maybe her sense of adventure is in the genes. Katie was conceived in the Caribbean as her parents pootled around Barbados, Tobago, and the British Virgin Islands.

Hazel’s first maternity check-up was in Canada. There was a brief moment of worry when it seemed there might be complications with the birth, so they followed medical advice to return to the UK, where Katie was born.

Within two weeks, however, the whole family had flown back to the Caribbean. As ever with the McCabes and their extraordinary lifestyle, that trip slotted around the weather forecast.

‘We had to get back because we only had a small window before the start of the hurricane season,’ says Hazel matter-of-factly.

Katie does not remember her first storm, but her parents do. They were heading to Bermuda.

‘She was only five weeks old so that was quite scary. It was one of our worst storms,’ says Hazel. ‘Luckily a friend had come with us so I was spared the night watches and could look after Katie.’

Even when the family returned to Britain — for Katie and her little brother Reuben, now 11, to go to school — they did so with only one foot on land. While home is officially Topsham in Devon, every holiday has been spent at sea. They have gone off-grid twice since, for a year at a time, once sailing to Morocco and the Canary Islands, and once travelling to Spain and Portugal.

Solo night sail: ‘I had my first night sail on July 13. Alone in the pitch blackness… It can be dead calm but if there is a noise it startles you.’

The children have had stints being home-schooled, at sea, and once spent several months at school in Spain.

Until last year, even when they were in the UK, they lived on a boat, albeit one that was moored up for most of the year. Getting to school involved a dinghy ride.

Katie could hoist a sail herself before she left primary school, so her parents weren’t hugely surprised when she asked, aged 12, if she could get her own boat.

They agreed she could spend £800 of her own money on a battered wooden one that needed rebuilding, on the agreement she would do the work herself. She did. She asked for replacement engine parts for Christmas. Most teenage girls would not be thrilled at unwrapping a new alternator, but Katie was.

She replaced planks herself, weatherproofed and painted her boat, named Falanda, choosing a v; ivid turquoise.

Then came the challenge that made even her mother baulk. Katie, by now sleeping in her somewhat cramped vessel overnight, announced she wanted to sail around Britain. On her own.

‘There was a bit of a difference in opinion there,’ she admits, when I ask if her parents were immediately supportive. ‘Dad was all for it, but Mum wasn’t keen.’

Last year the family did a trip to the Scilly Isles to (quite literally) test the waters. While the rest of the family went in the bigger family boat, Katie sailed on her own. Even her more cautious mother was impressed by her skills. ‘I passed the Mum test,’ she says.

Now what? There will clearly be more adventures ahead. Katie has already done a follow-up jaunt to France, squeezed in before she returned to school.

This time her mum went, too (on Katie’s boat, not travelling behind). ‘Well, it wasn’t quite to France,’ she clarifies. ‘Because of Covid we couldn’t get into France but we had to go almost there, and turn and come back’.

The ultimate case of the adventure being in the journey, rather than the destination.

Katie raised more than £15,000 through her trip for Sea Shepherd UK. seashepherd.org.uk

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