AFTER she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, Camilla Veale had no idea how her life would be affected and how soon she might have to give up some of the activities that gave her greatest satisfaction.
A sport and adrenalin junkie, Camilla, then 37, had always been frantically busy – working as a successful management trainer and pursuing many physical challenges.
But she found over the first months after diagnosis that the weakness in her right leg and foot meant skiing, tennis, squash and hillwalking in the Dales were beyond her.
“Looking back, I think I was too cautious with myself to begin with, and assumed that the progressive form of MS I had meant I’d never do anything exciting again,” she says.
“I knew I’d have to choose different kinds of holiday, with no hills or steep steps to climb. But after a while I got more of my old sense of adventure back.”
Even so, back then Camilla might well have laughed hysterically at the idea that she would attain high-level sailing qualifications and take part in ocean voyages. Recently she was one of a crew of people with MS who sailed a 67-foot yacht on a 1,000-nautical mile leg of a world circumnavigation.
Camilla flew to Panama City in Central America and sailed from there to the Galapagos Islands. Although she spends some of the time in a wheelchair these days – but still works for a housing diversity network and runs her own life coaching and disability awareness business – she needs neither stick nor wheelchair when sailing.
“Because of the compact layout of boats, there’s always something to hold onto. Work like wynching is a really good upper body workout, too.” Fatigue can be a problem but duties can be planned around time to rest.
Another crew of people with MS took over for the next leg of the year-long Oceans of Hope (OOH) project, which aims to show that people with this chronic illness can still achieve dreams and succeed in challenges.
In all, 100 will join the challenge in getting the boat safely around the world, each of them paying for their own food and travel costs to and from embarkation and disembarkation points.
Camilla, now 54 and from Leeds, had a go at sailing during a holiday in Egypt not long after her diagnosis, and felt she had found something that suited her – an activity in which she her MS didn’t seem to make any difference.
“Funnily enough, a while before, sitting at St James’s Hospital waiting for my diagnosis, I’d picked up a magazine and read about a woman with symptoms similar to mine who’d taken part in an amazing sounding sailing challenge.
“I’d sailed in a junk as a child when our family lived in Hong Kong, and later did a bit of dinghy sailing, but I was no expert. After trying it again on holiday, I was pretty quickly hooked, and looked into how I could learn more.”
Two years after her diagnosis, Camilla signed up to sail one leg of an annual 3,000-mile MS sailing challenge around the British Isles, on a 46-foot yacht with experienced sailors in charge, but crewed by people with multiple sclerosis. The thrill of that experience was life-changing.
“We did a zig-zag across the Channel and I got my Competent Crew qualification. It gave me such confidence that I could still do exciting things,” says Camilla. “I also met others with MS who were getting on with their lives. We all paid our berths on the journey and also raised money for MS research.”
Camilla joined a sailing club, gained more certificates for sailing in coastal waters, and, true to her dynamic and ambitious nature, was determined to gain her skipper’s qualification. This involved training in the theory of navigation at Askham Bryan College, near York, and one week’s practical training on a boat.
“Part of my thinking about being a skipper is that the skipper has to do less physical hard work and is more responsible for planning the route and getting the boat there, which is a better position to be in if the MS progresses and your physical abilities decline.”
Since then, Camilla has clocked up thousands more miles, some of it on ‘blue water’ or ocean sailing, including a six-day, 1,500-mile crossing of the Coral Sea in the South Pacific, between Papua New Guinea and Cairns in Australia. These trips also allow time to explore on dry land before travelling home.
Aside from actual sailing duties, work on board includes cooking, washing and cleaning. Everyone also has to take their turn at a four-hour night watch.
“I’ve gained in confidence through sailing and have seen it happen to others,” says Camilla. She describes how one 68-year-old crew member with MS blossomed on her first trip. “She had never done any kind of physical challenge but her daughter talked her into it.
“As she progressed, the skipper put her at the helm in a with tankers passing on either side. She was fine, and said: ‘I thought I’d only be doing the cooking!’ It was wonderful.”
In between further-flung adventures, Camilla has sailed with a club in Worcestershire and in Scotland. She also does Pilates, yoga and swimming to maintain strength and flexibility.
She has taken up new interests like photography and singing in a choir.
“I think my life before was too manic. Now I have more time to think and listen to people. In some ways my life is better, and sailing has made me feel stronger,” says Camilla.
“It’s made me realise I can still live life to the full.
“Life doesn’t stop because you have MS.”