Seafaring doctor repays debt
of gratitude to cancer charity

Dr Andy Furley has crossed the Atlantic for Yorkshire Cancer Research. He tells Catherine Scott about his very personal reasons for taking part.

Dr Andy Furley with team members Professor Markus Affolter and Professor Gerhard Christofori

Andy Furley has more reasons than most to be indebted to Yorkshire Cancer Research.

The University of Sheffield researcher is funded by the charity to look into childhood brain tumours .

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But, probably more pertinently, the father of four has had personal experience of the difference the charity makes.

“In 2006, at the age of 48, I was diagnosed with a ‘significant’ prostate tumour.

“It was thanks to my wife really as she made me go to the doctor. We got it early and two fantastic surgeons at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital got it out in a radical prostatectomy,” explains Andy.

“Yorkshire Cancer Research funds one of the surgeons who operated on me and also research into prostate cancer.”

Four years later and Andy was one again being treated for cancer, this time a melanoma (skin cancer).

He is thankful for the vigilance of his wife, Marysia, who spotted the early warning signs of both cancers and encouraged him to see his doctor.

“The diagnostics, the pathology and the drugs are made possible and continually enhanced by research which, in turn, is supported by funding agencies and charities like Yorkshire Cancer Research. Research in which, I suppose ironically, I am also involved.

“I am at least twice indebted to the charity. They have a proud 90-year history of funding cancer research, of course aimed at cancer in Yorkshire, but which through its impact on the international research community also furthers diagnosis and treatment of all types of cancer throughout the world.”

It was for this reason that the keen sailor decided to raise money for Yorkshire Cancer Research when a friend convinced him to sail the Atlantic.

“I learnt to sail with my dad and brother when I was about seven. We learnt in dinghies in Falmouth and Chichester Harbours,” says Andy, 56.

His father later bought a sea-going sailing boat and they spent lots of time sailing together, once to Spain via the Biscay.

However, Andy’s sailing activities dwindled during his PhD and stopped when he moved to New York to begin a post-doc appointment at Columbia University. He met Konrad Basler, a fellow sailor and post-doc researcher, during his time at Columbia, but it wasn’t until 2008, when both friends were living in Europe that they rekindled their love of the sport and began sailing together as often as they could.

“It was strange that someone who loves the sea so much should end up living in Sheffield which is so far from the sea,” laughs Andy. “I was lucky that I could go on these ‘boys’ trips to get my fix.

“A fantasy of sailing the Atlantic was a common topic of conversation. When Koni invited me to attend a three-day ocean cruising seminar it became clear that he was serious, and so the venture was born.”

Andy decided to use the challenge as an opportunity to raise money for Yorkshire Cancer Research.

Andy’s passion for the cause no doubt helped him in the most challenging moments of his journey across the Atlantic. The team was tested to the limit when they encountered torrential rain, thunder and lightning during a giant squall.

“I had time to ask myself if I was frightened. I don’t think I was because there was nothing to be done except to keep your head and try to steer your way out of the chaos,” he says,

The majority of the journey was characterised by routine, but routine in which each team member was completely reliant on the others to do their share of the duties, building a strong camaraderie.

“The longest I had been away at sea before was three days, this was 17 and that is tough mentally, especially when you are away with people that you don’t know all that well,

“It could seem monotonous and it definitely became a little surreal. Your world becomes quite small, with the horizon only eight miles away, and after a while we began to joke that we felt like we were in the Truman Show, that we weren’t really going anywhere and someone was just moving the scenery around us. However, I don’t recall boredom because we were constantly busy with something.”

Catching dorado fish, encountering other vessels and seeing a variety of sea life including dolphins and storm petrels were among Andy’s highlights of the journey.

But it wasn’t until the end of the adventure, that he enjoyed his most exciting and unexpected experience.

“As we passed between St Lucia and Martinique we hit a small squall and found the water bursting as a pod of whales surfaced and blew all around us – the most wonderful welcome to the Caribbean we could have hoped for,” recalls Andy who has raised £5,000 from the adventure.

“We were then welcomed into Rodney Bay with bowls of fresh fruit, welcoming hugs, calypso music and rum punch – brilliant. The food had been a bit of a challenge on board, so it was lovely to have some fantastic food when we got ashore.”

Despite the 17-day adventure Andy and his fellow sailors are far from having got seafaring out of their system. Watch this space.

To support Andy visit