October 2015


Meet ... Emily Rowe, sailor and adventurer

After awaking from a two-week coma, avid sailor Emily Rowe (32) found she was unable to speak and needed intense physiotherapy.

We often talk about the spirit of adventure at Sail Training International - but what does it really mean? For Emily, it seems that adventure comes from wanting to do great things.  The Masthead spoke to her about her life, the illness that gave her tough challenges to overcome and the voyage she went on to re-ignite her love for sailing.

Young-EmilyGrowing up in Romsey, Hampshire, Emily went on her first sailing voyage when she was 16 after being awarded a week long trip in a competition at her school.  “I first sailed on Tall Ships thanks to my 6th form college - Peter Symonds.  We sailed in the Baltic in 2001.  After that I went back to do the Tall Ships Races a few times in the following years on Ocean Scout, Offshore Scout, Discovery and the Dutch barque Europa.”

As well as her adventures on the high seas, Emily took part in other activities that were piqueing her taste for exploration.  “I played in a lot of orchestras when I was a child, I played the violin. We went on tour quite a bit.  So I went around Germany, Austria and Hungary when I was 12 and I did a month tour of South Africa when I was 14.”  As well as all of this, Emily achieved gold in the Duke of Edinburgh award, which involves camping, hiking and other outdoor activities.  She went on to be an instructor for Duke of Edinburgh and undertook summer Mountain Leader training.

As she grew up, Emily saw adventure as second nature and undertook a globe-trotting career of philanthropy.  But her career took her places that put a stop to her sailing.  “Sailing is something I love but hasn't been a priority.  I've worked in so many landlocked, poor and 'in violent' conflict countries I had to sacrifice it really for 10 years.”

Her job was fulfilling enough to make up for it.  “I did my undergrad degree in Disaster Management and a masters in Statebuilding and Development.  The work I did was mostly with NGOs (non-government organisations) including Cord, Tearfund and Medair."   Working with these organisations allowed Emily to work on projects that built communities, offering help and support to very poor areas.


Then disaster struck in South Sudan.

“I just remember things being fine, not feeling ill when I was in South Sudan. Just going about my work normally.  I don't remember feeling ill but I do remember parking outside the (expat) health centre.  After that I only know what happened from what others have told me.

“I had a malaria test which came back negative.  I'm told I went home (I don't remember) and became more ill.  I was taken back to the health centre and they retested and found that I was positive for malaria.  I quickly deteriorated. I was put into an induced coma and medi-vacced (flown on a small private plane) to Kenya.  I was in an induced coma for a week and in a non-induced coma for another week.

Emily-in-hospital“I was in intensive care in Kenya for a couple weeks.  My Dad came out with a friend of mine who was sent and paid for by my church.  I have no memory of seeing my Dad in Kenya.  I don't remember being in intensive care or waking up from the coma.  The malaria had damaged some neurons and pathways in my brain affecting my short term memory.

“I often forget things like appointments, whether or not I've replied to an email or whether someone has responded to me.  Some of my long term memory is still good though, like I can remember friends' phone numbers from 17 years ago!”


Despite this extremely difficult time in her life, Emily has taken an incredibly positive view of events.

“I have no complaints.  In fact the opposite.  Although it's been, and still is, very hard I'm grateful for it happening.  I'm sorry for the stress it caused my loved ones but for me I can see that lots of good has come out of it.  I was just thinking how wonderful my life has been, God has been so gracious to me.  At the perfect time, I left my comfortable life to live and work very long hours far away in underdeveloped and violent conflict-affected countries.  I'd reached a high level in my field of expertise.  Something would have had to change if I was to get married and start a family.  God made the decision for me, he brought me home, just at the right time. I am so grateful.”

 Making a difference

Emily’s desire for a family won’t change her aims to work towards a better world though.

“I don't believe it's true that one can't have a high level of impact for good in the world and have a family as well.  I want to make a positive impact and help bring love and justice to thousands around the world but I'll do it based in the UK.  I want a 'normal' day to day life, to be a mum in the future and take them to and from school and make dinner etc.  I don't need to be in war zones or countries suffering endemic poverty to make a difference.  My purpose in life hasn't changed but I know now that my identity is not in my job, it's in me, who I am.”


Returning to sailing

Before her illness, Emily had last sailed in 2007.  She decided it was time to take to the seas again with Jubilee Sailing Trust (JST).  Their organisation has two sail training vessels that are equipped to allow people with varying disabilities to crew them.  Not letting her disabilities stop her from doing something she loved, Emily signed up to sail from Bermuda to Southampton on Lord Nelson. 

“I heard about the trip from a friend whose granddad did a voyage.  I'd heard about the JST before - it's a great organisation - but had never thought about doing a voyage.  Before my illness I was usually quite competent at leading and teaching others.  I was fit and strong, and able to help out.  Now I'm weaker and can't speak very well.

"I needed a lot of help, whereas before I'd be the one to help others.  I used to have lots of endurance and was a quick thinker; now I'm a slow thinker and I don't have much endurance.  Thankfully people were very willing to help me but also didn't patronise me which would have been hard.

“I love being at sea. I love being in open spaces and the rougher weather the better."

"I did the same as everyone else on watch.  I did mess duty, sail handling and helming, although I'm not that keen on being at the helm unless I'm doing well; I don't like it when I go off course - I'm a bit of a perfectionist.”

The future

Despite everything that's happened to her, Emily is still committed to working towards a better world for those in the harshest circumstances.  She also lives an extremely active life with gym visits, horse riding and much, much more.

The term spirit of adventure can often seem like a phrase to mean simply having a good time in a far off land.  But for people like Emily it means going through life looking for the best experiences, no matter what happens to you.

Inspiration: Despite all her challenges Emily has stayed very active.  These pictures are all since coming out of her coma!



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