ELEVEN months, 40,000 miles, 16 ports, 11 countries and six continents later, they returned to the place where it all began.
Ten Hampshire sailors were among those who took part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, widely regarded as the mother of all sailing challenges.
Waiting for them were family and friends eager to be reunited with their loved ones after so long apart.
Most of those leaving London’s St Katherine Docks in September were virtual novices.
Those taking part paid up to £43,000 each to complete the entire journey, while others spent between £6,000 and £8,000 just to take part in a single leg of the race.
But arriving back to a hero’s welcome 46 weeks later – and a planet behind them – they joined an elite club of seasoned sailors. Not only is the event the ultimate in ocean racing, it uniquely offers amateur sailors the chance to sail the world, while learning on the job.
And what a welcome home they had.
Having set off from the Netherlands on Thursday, the 12-strong fleet finally crossed the finishing line at the mouth of the Thames early on Saturday mor-ning.
Under a blazing hot sun, they formed up for a ‘parade of sail’, sailing up the capital’s river, passing by landmarks such as the Thames Barrier and the O2 Arena before reaching perhaps the grandest entrances of all – Tower Bridge.
Here the three winning teams concluded the race with a triumphant sail under the iconic bridge, into the Pool of London and then back to join the other yachts berthing in the historic docks. All the while thousands of spectators lined the banks of the Thames and the quaysides of the marina, where a carnival atmosphere was taking hold.
Here families and friends were draping banners of sailor’s names or calling out to sailors aboard the arriving yachts.
Clipper Race founder and chairman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, famed as the first man to sail solo, nonstop round the world in 1968, said: “The crews have crossed all the world’s oceans, “They have suffered the frustrations of the calms, the apprehension of the largest waves to be seen anywhere on the planet, experienced the vagaries of the weather systems, seen ports and scenery that they never expected and met people from very different cultures.
“Perhaps most of all, shared all these adventures with a group of people who were stran-gers just over a year ago but who will now remain friends for life.
“They’ve widened their horizons and have memories to cherish that can only be won through real hands-on participation.”
Among those arriving yesterday were Jacob Carter, 21, from Fareham, Edward Collison, 19, from Wickham, Charles Slater, 40, from Southampton, Matthew Wade, 20, from Totton, Steve Mabey, 47, Dave Richards, 64, from Southampton, Chris Dickson, 55, from Winchester, Kate Hepworth, 41, from Southampton and Charlie Pickering, 59, from Southampton.
Many people his age look forward to taking things easy.
But not non-stop Dave Richards from Southampton, who is clearly experiencing a second wind in his sails.
As just days after retiring from his job as an engineering director, he packed his bags, and boarded a boat to sail round the world.
He admits finding it physically demanding at times, but says age is no barrier.
Everyone is given roles aboard the boat to suit their capabilities, he says.
Not that the spritely 64-year-old grandad needs any special treatment, for speaking on the quayside he is already hatching a plan to tackle the mountains of Kilimanjaro.
On reflection, dismissing the pesky 100-foot waves, he says the biggest peril he encountered was a near strike with an iceberg off the Newfoundland coast. But all that was in the back of his mind on Saturday, as he prepared to be reunited with his wife Gill and two daughters Stephanie and Emma.
BRONZED and sporting a hearty seafarer’s beard, 21-year-old Jacob Carter from Farehan has now sailed four of the seven seas.
And he is a world champion sailor to boot.
For his team Great Britain took second place on the podium following the world’s longest, toughest race the sailing circuit has to offer.
On arriving back, he told the Daily Echo: “I am just so happy to have done so well and so happy to be back.”
Not surprising really since Mother Nature flung everything at him.
Among the perils he encountered was nothing less than a tornado making a beeline for his yacht.
The waterspout appeared from nowhere while his yacht was sailing through the Tropics, nearly tipping it over.
Now, despite being fast tracked to the top of his game, Jacob said he would like to spend more time on dry land, studying at university or finding a job.
But in the immediate short term he said he craves time with his family in Hampshire – and enjoying of course a well-earned beer.
FOR Ed Collison, the youngest crew member ever to sign up for the whole round the world journey, breaking his foot was the least of his worries.
Far worse was having to leave a leg of the race while his injury healed.
The 19-year-old slipped in a marina while his boat was tied up in Jamaica, breaking his foot in two places, meaning he had to wave goodbye to his crew.
He told the Daily Echo: “I waved the boats off – it was the most devastating thing I have ever done.
“But I was determined to get back and prove myself.”
Fortunately his injury improved and he was able to rejoin the fleet in Londonderry having just missed 24 days’ sailing.
Despite his tender years, his ability saw him appointed watch leader, which meant he took responsibility for much older crewmates.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the teenager is now bent on riding the waves again – this time rowing a boat.
Armed with oars, he and another hope to set out on a seaborne fundraiser for a disabled children’s charity.
Waiting eagerly for him in the crowd was his mum Sally, 50, and his sister Alice.
THE hardest thing for dad Steve Mabey was being an ocean apart from his family.
So the best bit of the journey was being reunited with them on the quayside.
In floods of tears he embraced them one by one, each of them wearing vests saying “Welcome Home Steve”.
The pain of separation hit him hard, especially after learning his dad Michael was suffering an illness.
“It has been really tough. He is here today and I am really looking forward to seeing him,” he said.
Although having only set sail in a diesel boat before, the 47-year-old from Southampton became inspired to take part when his home city hosted the race during 2011 and 2012.
On the quayside of St Katherine’s Dock, having embraced his dad, son George, a 22-year-old university graduate from Bitterne, Southampton, said: “It’s brilliant, it has been 11 long months – we’ve got a bit of catching up to do.”
Steve’s mum, Pauline, 77, from Maybush, added: “I am elated and tearful.
“At various times we were worried, other times we were excited.
“But we knew he would come back and do us proud.”
KATE Hepworth is adamant about one thing – she won’t be sailing around the world any time soon.
But the former novice turned veteran sailor has caught the sailing bug for life – although in future she’ll be casting out on her own terms and at a more leisurely pace.
A complete sailing novice, she opted to go all the way.
However, she admits at times asking herself what she had got herself into.
She said: “It was the toughest experience in my life. A lot of the ocean crossings are near death experiences – we had hurricanes and 20-metre waves as big as houses.”
At one point, off the coast of China, relentless battering waves nearly forced her to pack it in.
But with support from her crew mates, the determined 41-year-old proved she was not a quitter and her newly discovered inner grit saw her through the whole hog.
Now she is glad she stuck it out. She added: “It was just the most amazing experience.”