Hong Kong-born Meads sets sail on an adventure of a lifetime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 May, 2009, 12:00am

An average 18-year-old guy's idea of fun is normally a night out with the lads, but for Oscar Meads it's a day out in his boat, sailing by himself.

Life on the ocean waves will take on a whole new meaning for this young adult tomorrow when he sets off on a 4,827km solo race across the Atlantic.

Meads will be the youngest-ever competitor in the Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race and will spend 25-30 days alone in his boat, depending on the weather, in the journey from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Boston.

Until now, his longest solo trip has been 804km.

A student at Southampton's Solvent University where he is studying naval architecture, Meads was born at Matilda Hospital on The Peak and went to Bradbury School. He lived in Hong Kong for more than 10 years. His father, Laurence, ran a windsurfing company called Gaastra.

'It was in Hong Kong that I got my love of sailing,' Meads said. 'Dinghy sailing at Middle Island in Repulse Bay and generally just messing around in boats is what I'll always remember about living there.

'I had a fantastic time. It was always sunny and warm. Even if you weren't sailing you were messing around on the beach or going for a swim. I have some very happy memories of growing up there. My father was always a keen sailor in Hong Kong and he helped me along.'

Laurence Meads, though, is having some regrets about introducing his son to the sport. Little did he know that young Oscar's splashing around in a dinghy at Middle Island would result in him making a solo attempt at sailing the Atlantic at 18 years of age.

'It's nerve-racking to be the parent of a single-handed sailor of any age,' he said. 'But Oscar knows the fundamentals of sailing from way back when he was capsizing his boat at Middle Island as a youngster.

'The bottom line is you don't know how anyone is going to fare crossing the Atlantic, whether they are 18, 28 or 38 years old. You can only give him the skills and let him take it from there. It is worrying, but it's his passion and it's what he wants to do.'

His biggest worry for his son, no matter how skilled a sailor he may be, is the fear of him falling over the side. If that happens the boat is on auto-pilot so it'll just continue and there'll be no turning back. The batteries for the auto-pilot will eventually run out after 10 hours, at which point the boat will just go around in circles.

'That really is the worst-case scenario because we'll not know something is seriously wrong until the batteries run out,' Laurence Meads said.

'But there are clipping points all over the boat where he can clip his life harness on to so I'm always saying to him, 'Make sure and clip your life harness on at all times and wear your life jacket!'

'He's toughed out bad storms before so I know he has the experience to deal with it. But when you're back at home nice and warm, having a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and he's out in 40-knot winds, driving rain and 20-metre seas, it's pretty hard to relax.'

Once sailors get out of Plymouth they have to be totally self-reliant until they get to Newport. But there is a tracking system aboard each boat that sends back a signal every three hours of their satellite position to race organisers.

It's a safer set-up compared to 20 years ago, when sailors used to set off and not be heard of until they finally arrived in Newport.

When Prince Phillip fires the starting gun in Plymouth tomorrow, Oscar Meads will be on his own for at least 25 days. 'People always ask me how I'll deal with the loneliness,' he said. 'But in many ways you don't have time to get lonely. You've got to navigate, keep the boat moving and keep everything ticking over. I wouldn't say I'm a loner but, if you like, I get on with myself.'

What is a major concern, though, is living on a diet of canned food and pasta for a few weeks.

'The meals are definitely going to pretty boring, but it has to be done. It's no good being the youngest-ever entrant for the race, it will only mean something if I end up as the youngest-ever finisher,' he said.