In all honesty it was amazing that British sailor Michele Colenso, the owner of the magnificent cruising yacht Capriccio of Rhu, completed the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart.
Diagnosed with breast cancer mid way through a round the world cruise, Michele decided that she would enter the race, chemo and radiotherapy notwithstanding.
It would be a marvellous opportunity to publicise breast cancer awareness, she reasoned, and who will forget the sight of Capriccio storming up Sydney Harbour last Boxing day under a spinnaker bearing the outline of a really quite substantial pair and the message 'if you want to keep ‘em feel ‘em', a call for women under 50 to take breast cancer prevention into their own hands.
'Thirteen thousand women get breast cancer each year, a third of them under 50,' Michele explains, 'and preventative mammogram tests are unreliable for women younger than 50. So if you are under 50 you are on your own.'
Michele was sure she was up to the challenge, but now accepts that she completely underestimated how much her cancer treatment would take out of her, or indeed how much she still had to endure.
'I remember the start (of the race),' she recalls. 'It was just incredible going out of the harbour. I was so relieved we got out without hitting anything.' After the start, though, Michele had had it.
'I was so determined we were going to get to the starting line, and put so much into that, when we finally did start I just collapsed. I had absolutely no strength. I couldn’t man the winch. I thought I was being pathetic. I didn’t appreciate the effect of radio therapy. The length of time it takes to get over it. The tiredness that goes on for months.'
Confined to her bunk, by the second day of the race a desperately sick Michele was convinced that they had been at sea for days on end and that she and her crew were in mortal danger of dehydration. The crew asked her if she wanted to turn it in but 'I knew the weather was improving, so we might as well go on.'
Incredibly, despite further surgery this year, Michele is Hobart bound again this year.
'My strength is getting better, but I still don’t have much stamina. After the surgery in July I thought I would take it easy, but I did a charity gig in August and met other women who didn’t discover their cancer soon enough and are just hoping they will make it to Christmas. I thought if there is anything I can do, I’ve got to do it. We just have to keep getting the message through to young women.
'So I rang everyone up in England to see if they were up for it again, and here we are.'
The big boobed spinnakers are back on board, as is a somewhat wiser Michele Colenso. She knows now that she still has a long way to go before she comes out the other side of her bout with cancer. She lives life more intensely.
'There are definite changes in me. I appreciate every sunset, every dawn, the wind dropping at night, clouds, everything. I don’t need to travel thousands of miles to find pleasure, I can just sit on the end of a dock.'
Michele says that she would like to complete her circumnavigation, though she has taken Australian residency this year, and has plans to settle here. Really though, until she is well again she will not be making too many plans, she says.
'I hope we can continue cruising. We recently sailed up to Newcastle and back, my first time offshore since Hobart. The dolphins, the phosphorous sea at night, the shooting stars. It was only up to Newcastle but it was wonderful. I want to be able to carry on.'
Michele came to ocean sailing late in life. Born and raised away from the sea, 'I sailed dinghies a bit in the local gravel pit, 'with the exception of the odd seasick day her first offshore passage came after she had already purchased Capriccio of Rhu for her circumnavigation.
'When I was a little girl my grandfather was chairman of the Bristol Port Authority and he sailed to Australia twice. In fact he sailed on a liner but I didn’t know that. I just thought that when you got older that’s what you did. You sailed to Australia.
'I was in Spain with a friend who has done all sorts of adventurous things and we were talking about an adventurous way to get to Australia and she suggested sailing. 'But I can’t sail,' I said.
'’Don’t worry,’ she said, 'you’ll learn.'