‘We didn’t know what we were facing’

Audrey and Tony in Turkey
Audrey and Tony in Turkey
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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In open sea off Somalia in the dead of night, Tony and Audrey Walter knew they were in trouble.

A gang of pirates had started to follow their 40ft boat. Just about picking them up on the radar, the couple continued on their way until the morning when the threatening vessel then started to circle them. Men with machine guns stood on deck, eyeing them closely.

Audrey and Tony's yacht Cayuco

Audrey and Tony's yacht Cayuco

For the couple from Hayling Island, it was one of the most terrifying experiences of their lives.

Luckily, they managed to sail away from the danger – but only thanks to careful planning and co-ordination with four other boats.

Tony and Audrey were on a two-year voyage around the world in their boat Cayuco – and now they’ve put their experiences into a book called A Leap Of Faith.

It had been 68-year-old Tony’s dream to sail around the world since he was a boy and he read Joshua Slocum’s Alone Around The World, published in 1899.

He says: ‘I learned to sail when I was 13 or 14 and I just knew I always wanted to do it.

‘Audrey didn’t really sail until she met me in 1970.

‘She was more or less born and bred in Portsmouth and I don’t think she wanted to spend all day on a small boat on an angle and then go ashore in the evening and be wet.’

But Audrey, now 58, soon gave in and the pair became keen sailors, regularly going away for holidays afloat together.

It was in 2002 while on a trip to Greece that the couple bought their boat, a Salar 40, which had originally been built in 1971.

They spent the next two years sailing it back home and three years after that fixing it up to make it seaworthy for their epic global voyage.

In 2007, they were ready. Tony says: ‘We probably would have taken longer but it was just before both our sons’ wives gave birth. Audrey said we could do it, but we couldn’t be gone longer than two years because she didn’t want to miss the children growing up.’

The boat suffered serious damage in the crossing. There had been various amounts of equipment that broke and lots of trouble through bad weather. The cost to repair it in a port in Antigua was crippling – the whole journey had become a financial problem.

Tony says: ‘It came to the point where if we turned left we went back to England and if we turned right we carried on. But we turned right.

‘We told our sons Wednesday night that we were coming back, but by Thursday morning we were carrying on with it.’

Over the next two years, Audrey and Tony took off on an adventure that many of us could only dream of and sailed to places including the Canary Islands, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Fiji, Australia, Singapore, the Maldives, Egypt and Crete.

Audrey says: ‘My favourite place was the Great Barrier Reef and I loved Thailand, which is where we spent Christmas in 2008.

‘It was all just so fascinating and a totally different culture.’

Tony adds: ‘I loved the Galapagos Islands, which were amazing.’

But their bubble had nearly burst when they were near Somalia in Africa, notoriously one of the most dangerous areas of ocean due to pirates.

Tony says: ‘When we set off two years before there wasn’t much of a pirate problem, but by this time it had escalated a lot. But we had to go through.

‘The alternative was another 6,000 miles down south and another 6,000 miles across because we had to follow the trade winds.’

He adds: ‘We had already done 20,000 odd miles by then.’

They spoke to people on other boats who were thinking of going through these waters and they decided to group together, spread about a quarter-of-a-mile apart.

Tony says: ‘In the night we saw the pirate boats on the radar following us and we carried on, knowing there was a possibility we might be attacked.

‘In the early morning they closed in on us. You know there’s a problem when you see men carrying AK47 machine guns.’

The incident was covered in The News at the time, and the couple say it was one of the scariest moments of their lives.

Audrey says: ‘It was one of those times where we had to work as a team. I think if we didn’t it would have been a lot different.’

Tony adds: ‘It was very scary. You can handle breakages, because at least you’re in charge of the situation. But with this we didn’t know what we were facing.

‘None of us were armed and we really couldn’t have done very much.’

Luckily, they managed to get through unscathed, but it was a close shave.

They never forgot the experience – and when they got home they told everyone about what happened.

Audrey says: ‘We told all the funny stories and the scary bits and the things that went wrong.

It was then that people suggested to us that we should write a book all about our experiences.

‘Both of us had compiled diaries and Tony had kept a log book.’

It was through looking back over their experiences that they slowly started to put together what would become A Leap of Faith. They chose the title because Audrey felt the whole journey was a step into the unknown.

Tony says: ‘We never did it to make money and we don’t really have any publishing experience. We just wanted to put all our thoughts down.’

He adds: ‘It’s amazing really because it’s so gratifying to see it in print.’

Even though they experienced some pretty tough, and sometimes terrifying, times, Audrey and Tony are already planning a sail to the Mediterranean next summer.

It seems they have been well and truly bitten by the travelling bug.

Audrey says: ‘It’s surprisingly common for people to start doing silly things like this at our age. We’ve grown up and had our children, so we decided that if we didn’t do it now, then we would never be able to.’

· Tony and Audrey will be signing copies of A Leap of Faith during the Southampton Boat Show on September 22-23.