There are not many teenagers who would happily jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, but Paul Stickney was eager to be up before the sun on this occasion.
When he woke on Saturday morning he knew there was an adventure waiting for him – thanks to sailing legend Dame Ellen MacArthur.
The round-the-world yachtswoman runs a trust giving children recovering from cancer the chance to enjoy the memorable experience of learning how to sail.
And there couldn’t be a better way to take to the water than doing it as part of the prestigious Round the Island Race.
For 13-year-old Paul, it was a well-earned treat after a challenging couple of years.
The teenager, from Gosport, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August 2009 and went on to have chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
His hair fell out and he had to spend weeks at a time in hospital, as doctors removed a tumour from the base of his neck and attempted to make sure that the cancer didn’t spread.
The diagnosis had come like a bolt out of the blue, taking Paul and his family by surprise.
But lining up with the other boats on the start line on Saturday gave him a chance to put all that behind him and concentrate on having fun – despite the early start.
‘We had to get up really early, it was about 4.45am, but we were all really excited,’ says Paul as he looks back on his action-packed weekend.
‘Just getting onto the boat was good because it was really early and there were all the other boats in the mist. It was really special.’
Paul was on one of six Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust boats due to start the epic race from Cowes on Saturday morning.
In total, the trust invited 30 youngsters to join them for the famous race, which sees boats of all different types and sizes speed around the Isle of Wight’s challenging stretch of coastline.
Tricky conditions put even the most experienced sea-dogs under pressure – with wind speeds of up to 28 knots and huge swells to contend with. And all six of Ellen’s boats retired due to the dangerous nature of the weather conditions.
Paul and those on board his boat kept going for around three hours before they had to turn back.
But despite the disappointment he felt at not being able to finish, Paul says he wouldn’t have missed the chance to take part.
‘It went really well, we didn’t quite finish but it was a lot of fun,’ says the Bay House School pupil.
‘It was a bit rougher than we were expecting and a couple of people were feeling sick, including me.
‘Ellen was on a different boat but we can say we beat her because she retired before us and that was a great feeling.
‘At the end of the day we didn’t finish, but it was still a great experience and an achievement just to be in the race.’
Proud mum Dawn adds: ‘Paul said that seeing all those boats at that time of the morning through the mist was such a beautiful sight and I think those memories will last him for a lifetime.
‘I’m in awe of what people like Ellen and the rest of the trust do because it makes such a difference.’
Ever since Paul was diagnosed with cancer, his ability to take it all in his stride has impressed Dawn and husband Mike.
They say Paul never complained about the months of treatment he went through, or losing his hair, and that he never lost sight of the fact that there were children in the ward who were sicker than him.
‘He had been complaining about having a low-grade fever and that was how it was diagnosed,’ remembers Dawn.
‘I took him to the doctor and fortunately they followed it up with blood tests. He was the picture of health but they took it seriously and sent us to Queen Alexandra Hospital.’
From there Paul was transferred to Southampton General Hospital and became a patient in its children’s cancer unit, the Piam Brown Ward.
‘It’s the kind of place you’ve never heard of until you’re thrown in at the deep end,’ says Dawn.
‘But they were lovely. A lot of parents spend their nights there and I did that. You feel like you half live there by the end.’
Fortunately, the treatment worked and Paul is now in recovery. He still has regular blood tests to make sure he’s healthy but his hair has grown back.
Paul – the youngest of seven children – says: ‘I was mainly ill over the summer holidays but I did have to miss a few days of school at the beginning of term. When I was in hospital I missed spending time with my brothers but they travelled to visit me.
‘I didn’t know anything about the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust but I think the hospital told them about me.
‘I went sailing with them last summer as well and we had to pull all these ropes really hard.
‘It was a new experience and I thought it was really good. I liked the fact that we were all helping each other and the people who were teaching us were all really nice. Ellen’s a really nice lady and I liked being out on the water.
‘It was a really good experience and it made up for what had happened. I’d like to do more sailing now because it seems like a lot of fun. It’s really expensive but if I had the opportunity to do it again I would take it.’
Dawn jokes that he enjoyed the experience so much he’ll be the next Sir Francis Chichester. For her and the rest of the family, the trust’s work has given Paul something really special to remember.
‘I think it’s wonderful that Ellen MacArthur involves herself so much,’ adds Dawn.
‘Paul loved meeting her and we have been so blessed. Even though it has been difficult, if you go to the Piam Brown Ward you see children so much worse off and I think Paul realises that.’