Living to sail, sailing to live

Global Yacht Racing – Kioni
Emma Pontin is just thrilled to be in Hobart at the end of her first Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, even though her yacht, Global Yacht Racing – Kioni may have parked at Cape Raoul for five hours this morning, pushing her finishing time out to 4pm this afternoon and her handicap ranking further south than she would like.

'This is a fabulous race. The weather patterns are just amazing, the wind swings around everywhere. It does challenge you a lot.

'We had a great crew on board, lots of laughs, frustrating at times but that’s racing isn’t it?'

Emma has another reason to be delighted to be in Hobart. Twelve months ago she didn’t believe she would be alive now.

In November 2006 she was in Gibraltar, preparing for the 2,700 mile ARC trans-Atlantic race. It is a race she had done many times, but this time was to be special. She would be crewing on a yacht skippered by the man she is soon to marry, Richard Falk. But it all fell apart when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She would have to rush back to England for surgery. To lift her spirits Falk told her that if she wanted to she could skipper the boat in the 2007 ARC.

Emma, who did not believe that she would still be alive in a year’s time nevertheless agreed. 'To be honest I really wasn’t desperate to do the (2006) race. It was only because Richard had come all the way from Australia for it. I had already crossed the Atlantic 13 times,' she says, 'but when it was taken away from me, skippering that boat in the 2007 ARC became the only thing I wanted to do. It became my holy grail.'

Over the next three months Emma underwent a mastectomy followed by intensive chemo and radio therapy, all the while focused on that November deadline. It was what kept her going, she says. Incredibly she was back on the water in February. 'I did two one week training sails, then chemo and a week of boredom in London while the chemo worked, and on the Monday I was back at work on the boat.

'I think it was because my mindset for a long time was that if I sat still I was going to die.'

Emma admits that it was a long time before she realised how lucky she was in the way her body reacted to the chemo therapy. 'It didn’t make me sick. It was only when I saw how badly it affected other women in the cancer ward, what the chemo did to them, that I realised how lucky I was.'

Emma made that deadline. In November she skippered a Global Yacht Racing boat in the 2007 ARC and straight after that she flew to Australia, to join Falk on the Beneteau 47.7 Global Yacht Racing – Kioni in the 2007 Rolex Sydney Hobart.

And she has even more adventures in mind. 'I need a challenge. I want to do a double handed circumnavigation the wrong way round. I much prefer up-wind to down-wind sailing and a friend of mine who has had cancer as well wants to do it too.

'And I’d like to go round the world along the Tropic of Cancer. A different mode of transport in each country and sail between them. I tried to do that eight years ago but I failed to get sponsorship because people were saying ‘why?’ but I think I can go back now and say ‘this is why’.

'Life has become very precious, and a part of me says whoa, you’ve just fought for your life, don’t put yourself in silly situations. But the other half says go for it, because what happens if this cancer comes back to bite me in the bottom in a year’s time?

'The two weeks after my mastectomy while I waited for the results were hell I wrote my everything-to-do-before-I-die list. When they told me that they had got all the cancer I looked at the list and thought do I file it, or do I start doing it?'

And having ticked of the Rolex Sydney Hobart from her to do list, is that it?

'I’d like to do the Hobart again, but not on a cruiser-racer like Kioni. I’d prefer something faster like a Volvo 70, something designed for straight racing because I’m competitive and I’d like to have a real go at blasting it.'