Blue is the colour of hope
- Credit: Matt Austin
He’s known around the world for his exploits on the water, and Conrad Humphreys remains as passionate as ever that we should be protecting the greatest of natural resources, as he tells ALEXIS BOWATER
Sitting on a standup paddle board surfing a South Hams wave I am being taught by celebrated international yachtsman Conrad Humphreys to master this craft. I am not up yet and from this angle the view is of his back as he zooms off, carried by the wind - and determination - into the distance.
It is a sight that will be familiar to his competitors past, present and future. For Conrad is one of the few Brits to make it in the world of solo ocean racing and will go down in history as such. This lad from Exmouth has smashed records, pitted himself against the Southern Oceans in the Vendee Globe solo round the world race, and has a hard-fought reputation as a master of the seas.
That race isn’t just an epic battle of sportsman versus ocean, but of physical and psychological challenges one can only imagine.
Conrad was thrown his fair share there. Not only having to replace, single-handedly and underwater with only eight minutes of air, his own rudder, but hang on to his keel to the bitter end of the race back in France.
Onboard footage from the time shows a below-decks cobweb of rope and tangled webbing holding it on. My landlubber and inexperienced eye sees little in that shot but grit and determination, thick string lashings, anything on board that resembles a rope or is sticky: it’s possible that dental floss, spit and earwax are in there. But it works. And he makes it.
His was one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of the race, and Conrad is one of the most remarkable yachtsmen this county has ever produced.
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Now this lover of the sea has turned his considerable passion, focus and extraordinary inspirational abilities to raising awareness about the importance of it - and to saving it.
He’s unexpectedly quietly spoken, and measured, which makes his revelation that he has always had a precise five-year life plan, from the age of 11, easy to understand.
Meticulousness like that is essential if his project The Blue Mile is to succeed. Its aim: to raise awareness about the environment we are surrounded by, and to support the Marine Conservation Society.
It’s hard, here in the beauty of a deserted Devon estuary, to imagine sullied shorelines. But rubbish-strangled islands, plastic-poisoned sea species and a marine environment teetering on the brink of irreversible devastation are the reality for those who study, and care, about it.
For a man who has faced down the four-storey waves of the Southern Ocean with apparent sang-froid, this is a subject that genuinely rattles him.
“We can cherish this environment but within our lifetimes if we don’t it is going to be a very different place to perhaps what we want it to be,” he says. “For someone who is so very positive about things, it is not in my nature to say - but I think we have to adopt the right tactic…” he peters out a bit, looking pensive and sad.
“Really, are you that worried?” I ask.
“It’s very easy when we surround ourselves with this to think that there is nothing wrong, we surround ourselves in a bit of a cocoon down here. But I imagine it through the eyes of my daughters Katelyn or Isabel: they will see things that I would not want them to witness. I think they are going to get used to seeing places that we would consider absolutely untouched covered in litter, it’s almost inescapable now.
“That is terrifying to think of and to think that they will grow up seeing that and what this chuckaway generation was responsible for.”
If the key to the success of The Blue Mile is to engage more people in the marine environment, to save it, then Conrad Humphreys must be the perfect ambassador.
Athlete, round the world sailor, motivational speaker, photographer, diver, a man with a plan who talks the talk and walks the walk and who - whether he knows it or not - is a born educator, a passionate and inspirational teacher.
The Blue Mile will actually get people in the water, under the water, and on top of the water, immersed in the blue environment to help them understand it and perhaps encourage the watery evolution of the marine custodians of the future.
“There has got to be active engagement, active education. I think you need to be out smelling the roses to be able to understand what our environment is around us,” he explains. “I have this belief that water is incredibly good for you and once you overcome that fear of getting into cold water then it makes you feel tremendous and we can’t begin to appreciate our water environments unless we experience that. If you give people a good first experience on water then it will infect them and they will grow to love it.”
It’s a top-down, bottom-up approach that will hopefully open the eyes of thousands: extreme fun with an extremely serious message. His passion is infectious - hopefully viral. Our standup paddle board session ends and I’m proud to say I didn’t fall in. September’s race may be okay-ish after all. As we get out of the water I ask him if he thinks I will make it.
“Yes, you’ll do it,” he says with a smile.
And if Conrad Humphreys believes it, then so do I.
The Blue Mile will take place in Plymouth on 13 and 14 September. For more information visit: thebluemile.com