Londonderry sailor Darren Robb was diagnosed with neck cancer in 2011; three years later - with the cancer in remission - Darren’s about to embark on an epic sail around Ireland to raise funds and awareness for MacMillan Cancer Support.
Darren says he’s was inspired to make the voyage in memory of both his late brother Henry and the late John Stewart of Newbuildings, a young man, who passed away from cancer earlier this year.
Darren met John whilst he was undergoing radiotherapy at the City Hospital in Belfast.
“He’s a young guy who passed away there on February 9. Just this year. He was just 24 years of age, you know. Too young to die. He was a great inspiration to me. He was always smiling. Always smiling. Never ever would you hear him complaining.
“It’s just a shame because he never knew he was going to die. Right up to the very end he didn’t know he was going to die. It was really his passing, that I said to myself, ‘You know, I mightn’t be here next year to do this,’” he says.
Darren remembers the day he was diagnosed clearly. He’d eventually sought medical advice after suffering what he’d wrongly believed were innocuous symptoms.
“I’d a major tumour in my neck...there was a big grapefruit there stuck in my neck. Like most men I was reluctant to go forward. And that’s something I’d be stressing, maybe to people.
“If they see a lump, feel a lump, get it checked out straight away. It’s a very important thing to do. But in my case I left it to the last minute, and I was having problems breathing and swallowing and I had to go in the end.
“The surgeon told me: ‘We’ll be getting a slot for you straight away to go in for a procedure to get that tumour removed.’
“A couple of days later I was lying in Altnagelvin, seven and a half hours in surgery, and they removed the tumour. They were afraid it would spread to all my glands.”
Darren says the cancer was removed from his salivary gland along with several lymph nodes. But this was just the beginning of a long hard road to recovery.
“That was the easy part, the operation. Then it took me a considerable amount of time to get on my feet after that. I went in there like a lion and quite literally came out like a lamb. I had no strength for a long time,” he said.
Three years down the road and Darren reckons he’s now fit enough to take his 24 footer - the ‘Stoney B’ - right around the Irish coast.
Obscurely enough, the boat’s named after a Loughrea folk legend called Stoney Brennan, who was hanged in 1845 for stealing a turnip. That’s on account of the fond memories he has of time spent living in County Galway.
The 47-year-old says he came to sailing fairly late. Though it had long been an aspiration, it wasn’t until shortly before his diagnosis with cancer that he actually took to the waves.
“I’ve always wanted to sail. And I’d never done anything about it. When my younger brother passed away - Henry - he passed away when he was 33 years of age, just five years ago.
“And I said to myself, ‘Life’s too short.’”
Darren says a blood clot had blocked one of the main arteries of Henry’s heart.
“He died in my arms. July 17,” he says. “It’s a wake up call you see. You never think it’s going to happen to you. You really don’t. And when it does, it’s just like getting a slap with one of those steel balls they knock down the flats with, it really is.”
After the tragic loss of his brother, Darren finally took up sailing.
“So, I followed my dream, sailing, and I bought a wee boat and I haven’t looked back since. It’s totally changed my life. To be honest, it really has,” he explains.
Darren intends leaving Londonderry on the same day the Clipper fleet departs on June 29.
He’s already recruited a skeleton crew to accompany him and his beloved first mate and mascot, Tóibín (see picture) on the voyage.
“At the moment there’s four or five on board but we’ll be gathering up more as we go along,” he says.
Darren says any support, however, small will be welcomed with open arms.
He’s organising a boat jumble in Lough Swilly Yacht Club for April 27, from 10am to 3pm and he’s also inviting sponsors and making available advertising space on the ‘Stoney B.’
At this early stage he’s already raised over £500 for MacMillan via his www.justgiving.com/darrenrobbsailing webpage. You can text a donation to 70070 with the words SAIL64 £10 or your chosen amount.
This will help sustain what promises to be an epic trip.
“We’ll be heading clockwise around the island, stopping off at various points. Ballycastle, Bangor, Howth, Ballycotton, Kinsale, Dingle...
“There’s a big jump there between Bangor and Dublin, because there’s a point there where we’ll get a double tide, from Kilkeel down.
“We’ll get one tide to bring us to Bangor and Kilkeel and we’ll get it the whole way. If the conditions are right.
“You know, it’s about 720 miles. Just going around the coast,” explains Darren.
Depending on the weather conditions, Darren reckons the whole journey will take around three weeks.
“If the wind’s against you, you’ll be beating into the wind. You could be doing three or four times more just to make a bit of progress when you’re pointing your boat towards the wind, you know, it’s very slow.
“But if the wind’s behind you it’s a different scenario. It’s not very often that’s going to happen because the prevailing wind is south westerly, so we might get it coming up the west coast but I don’t want the north wind against me, coming up the west coast because that would make things very difficult, like the Spanish Armada.
“They lost a few up there, I think, 33 boats they lost. They were 150 ton on average. My wee boat’s only three ton.
“It wouldn’t stand much chance if the wind picked up. That’s why it’s going to be a slow journey up the west coast. I won’t be moving unless the conditions are really safe because I have to think about my crew.”
To help Darren make his voyage by donating, sponsoring or advertising on the ‘Stoney B’ visit www.sailforcancer.blogspot.co.uk or phone him directly on 07955519951.