Kiwi sailor's ordeal: Stroke on the seas

The stroke left Mr Willis crippled down one side of his body and unable to communicate. Photo / Brian White
The stroke left Mr Willis crippled down one side of his body and unable to communicate. Photo / Brian White

A Northland man sailed solo for more than two weeks to get medical help after he suffered a stroke during a 4500 nautical mile voyage to the Caribbean.

Simon Willis, a well-known sail maker from Kerikeri, was sailing from Uruguay to the Caribbean in July last year when he suffered a stroke.

The stroke left him crippled down one side of his body and unable to communicate.

He was only a week into his journey when it happened.

Yachting New Zealand safety and technical officer Angus Willison detailed Mr Willis' "story of self-reliance" on the organisation's website.

"In this day and age of instant communication anywhere on the globe, and an underlying expectation that the 'cavalry' is just over the horizon when we go to sea, I thought that I should share a story of self-reliance that made me sit up and take note," he wrote.

Mr Willison said Mr Willis had been out of contact for more than two weeks.

Every few days a signal from a transponder on his yacht, the Sagitta, showed he was moving in the right direction so his wife Judy was not too concerned.

"There had been an unsuccessful search by the Brazilian Navy, however, Judy, Simon's wife, was insistent that he was okay and it was likely there were some communication issues on board," Mr Willison wrote.

"When Simon arrived in Granada he had an incredible story to tell. Simon had suffered a stroke a week into the voyage leaving him crippled down one side and unable to communicate.

"It took him 20 hours to figure out what had happened and initially he headed towards Brazil to seek medical help. He realised that in Brazil he would be hospitalised and it was likely the boat would disappear."

Mr Willison said Mr Willis took "many years" to build his vessel for the trip and losing it in Brazil "was an unthinkable eventuality".

"So, Simon tacked away, headed out to sea to give him more room, and continued towards Granada," Mr Willis recounted.

"Sailing was quite difficult with only half his body working and looking after himself was a huge challenge. However, Simon in his own words 'got on with it like any Kiwi yachtsman'. When he got to Granada horrified friends docked Sagitta and took Simon to hospital. The neurologist who saw him suggested that a month of extreme occupational therapy was probably the best thing he could have done and it was likely that he would make a full recovery."

When Mr Willison heard about Mr Wills' ordeal he contacted him to seek permission to nominate him for a sailing award.

Mr Willis declined at first but his wife and Mr Willison encouraged him to tell his story.

"When he was back in New Zealand in October we managed to have a telephone conversation," Mr Willison said.

"Simon's attitude was 'well, what else could I do and plenty of other people would have done the same thing'."

Mr Willison said Mr Willis was "one of New Zealand yachting's characters".

"Simon has done many thousands of miles both racing and cruising, including countless Coastal Classics, a solo Trans Tasman race, the Sydney to Hobart race, deliveries to and from the Pacific Islands and sailing for Connie van Rietschoten on the 1977 'Flyer' team that would eventually compete in the Whitbread race.

"He has built three boats and provided sensible advice to many sailors including myself over the years."

Mr Willis' solo journey last year started in Kerikeri. He sailed to the Chatham Islands then on to Chile where he spent six months cruising the Patagonia Canals.

"In June he headed out to the Falkland Islands and then on to Punta del Este. From Granada Judy and Simon plan on cruising the Caribbean Islands, north up the east coast of the United States and then I understand that there is some debate as to where to from there.

"Simon wants to head across to Ireland and Scotland, however, I understand that Judy thinks that she has done too many Atlantic crossings already," Mr Willison said.

- NZ Herald

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