At the age of 16, David Summerville sailed his first Laser. Thirty-seven years later, he remains devoted to the single-handed dinghy and plans to use his well-honed skills to traverse the Irish Sea.
In the next few months, Summerville and fellow sailor Steve Cockerill will sail the 115 nautical miles between Dublin, Ireland, and Southport, England, to raise money for mental health awareness and sailing support services. Sailing on Lasers, their journey will take between 12 and 15 hours to complete, depending on conditions.
When asked why he would sail such a physically taxing dinghy across open water, Summerville replies, “It’s a very popular boat, and it’s a boat that the average layperson can relate to.”
Summerville, 53, also believes he is physically prepared to complete the journey. He has been biking and lifting weights every day to build upper body strength and sailing three to four times a week to keep his muscles familiar with his boat.
“Physically, I think I’m up to it, but it’s going to be really tough to focus,” he says. “You have to be focused on every wave, because it’s very easy to break the rig on the waves.”
The Lasers Summerville and Cockerill will be using are older boats donated by a local sailing club. Summerville has completely refurbished them to withstand the choppiness of the Irish Sea, reinforcing the mast and bolting the high-load fittings.
“They’re still Lasers. If we went to a championship and they were measured, they would be classified as a Laser,” he says.
In terms of safety, a 36-foot catamaran will follow the pair, filming their journey and offering support. The two will also be equipped with life jackets, safety lines and Yellow Brick trackers.
The journey sounds like an intrepid one, but for Summerville, it’s been a long time coming. Originally from Wakefield, England, Summerville began sailing when he was 10 years old, after his father and a couple of his friends decided to buy a boat together and share it among their families.
“I was the only one who really took an interest,” Summerville recalls. “That’s where it started.”
Though he learned to sail on Marine Lake, near Southport, Merseyside, his favorite place to sail was Abersoch, on the West Coast of Wales and part of the Irish Sea. Here, he found the seed of an idea that he just could not shake years later.
“I used to think about the possibility of sailing across the Irish Sea. Because once I was introduced to waves, particularly the type of waves we get in the Irish Sea, I realized that was the type of sailing I enjoy,” Summerville recalls.
After graduating from University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering, Summerville worked in the oil and gas industry. His job required him to work and live around the world, in places like Angola, Nigeria, Denmark, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Though he never pursued sailing as a career, Summerville continued to find opportunities to sail, becoming involved in various sailing campaigns and doing boat repairs in the Middle East.
Then, five years ago, his childhood sailing dream was revived. He sold a boat to an Irishman and learned the two shared a dream to cross the Irish Sea. They became fast friends when they discovered they had something else in common: a past affected by mental health diseases. Cockerill had lost two companions to mental illness, and Summerville had nearly lost his own life to bipolar disorder. Together, they founded the Rooster Sailing Irish Sea Challenge with a combined mission of crossing the sea and supporting mental health. They settled on two beneficiaries: Mind, and the John Merricks Sailing Trust. So far, they have raised around £2000 and have a final goal of £50,000.
Both of the beneficiaries struck a chord with Summerville. Mind is dedicated to improving how people perceive and treat mental illness by providing help lines, offering legal advice, educating the public on mental conditions and lobbying on behalf of people with mental illness. After overcoming his own battle with bipolar disorder, Summerville believes in the importance of educating others who may be suffering.
The John Merricks Sailing Trust was founded in memory of John Merricks, whom Summerville calls “one of the best sailors this country has ever produced.” The organization helps young individuals achieve their sailing goals by providing financial assistance.
“Tragically [Merricks] lost his life, and it happened to be at a time when I hit total rock bottom,” says Summerville. “When I read what had happened to him, I realized there was a guy—arguably the best sailor we’d ever had—and he was gone. I had lost everything—my property, my family, my career—but I still had my life. So I decided to start living and getting on with making things right once again.”
Now that Summerville and Cockerill have all of the pieces in place—the boats, the safety precautions, the support crew, the route and the charities—it’s time to wait. The two are looking for the perfect weather and tidal conditions between now and September 10 of this year.
“We’ll know about three or four days beforehand when the meteorological conditions are looking spot on,” says Summerville. “And then we’ll put the plan into action.” The plan requires shipping the catamaran to Dublin, and taking a ferry with the Lasers and the rest of the support team.
If the Irish Sea Challenge proves to be successful, Summerville has plans to expand with two additional challenges. “The first will be based on the River Nile in Egypt and will hopefully be utilized to assist the tourism industry within the country, which has been impacted significantly by the revolution of 2011. The second will be based between Europe and America.”
Photos courtesy of David Summerville