Suffolk leukaemia survivor Olly Rofix’s round-Britain sailing challenge for bone marrow charity Anthony Nolan
A few years ago he was at death’s door. Now, Olly Rofix is beginning a single-handed voyage round Britain – hoping to give other patients the chance of life. Mind you, pursuing the dream comes at a cost, as he tells Steven Russell
YES, chuckles Olly Rofix, his family reckons he’s barking mad. “I can understand it from their point of view. I nearly died once, and here I am going to go off and try to kill myself again!” Five years ago his life was hanging in the balance after he developed an extremely rare form of leukaemia. He was only the third person in the world to be officially diagnosed with it – which he thought was “pretty cool, until they told me the other two were dead . . .”
What saved him was a bone marrow transplant in March, 2006 – three days after his 21st birthday. Eight weeks of isolation followed at Addenbrooke’s, and then for many months he had to return to the Cambridge hospital each day.
Olly’s health has improved immeasurably in the past couple of years, but his stamina will never be what it was. Deep tiredness comes suddenly, radiotherapy has scorched his lungs, it can take a month to get over a common cold, and chilly weather triggers painful cramps.
But he’s not complaining.
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During the dark hours, and certainly since, he’s been buoyed by a dream. Literally.
Just before the transplant he bought a ropy, old, unseaworthy, 18ft boat in need of some TLC. The thought of renovating it, and then sailing it around Suffolk during the summer – down to Pin Mill for a pint and up to Aldeburgh for seaside fish and chips – was something to cling to.
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The Jolly Olly is now in fine fettle and today has sailed out of St Katharine Docks, near the Tower of London, to begin a seven- or eight-month round-Britain voyage.
The timing is perfect: Olly celebrated his 26th birthday last Thursday and Sunday marked the fifth anniversary of his bone marrow transplant.
The nautical adventure – taking the anti-clockwise passage up to Scotland and then down Britain’s west coast – is designed to raise awareness of, and funds for, the charity Anthony Nolan. Olly plans to stop at harbours and marinas en route to chat to people and, with luck, attract the eye of the local media. He’d love to recruit 1,000 new potential donors to the Anthony Nolan register as he sails around Britain.
Matthew Hall, the Wisbech man who saved Olly’s life, was found through the charity, which seeks to match patients with potential donors. For Olly – whose family home is a small farm near Woodbridge – there were only two possibilities among the nine-million on the register. So he truly beat the odds.
The young man was a fit Port of Felixstowe engineering apprentice when he fell ill in the summer of 2005 with suspected glandular fever. The news later was much worse.
The port, he says, was brilliant when he grew desperately poorly halfway through his course. “When I was diagnosed, they said ‘Don’t worry about money; just go away, get better and come back.’”
Once he was back on his feet, Olly indeed returned and completed his apprenticeship.
Then in 2009, with two of his young friends dead or dying, “That’s when I thought ‘I want to go off and do something fun and try to inspire others.’” The dream was born.
Olly went to the Southampton Boat Show that autumn and told his story to as many companies as would listen. Happily, there was interest – enough encouragement, in fact, to go back to Suffolk, quit his job and throw himself at the challenge full-time.
“I knew I couldn’t do it as a weekend and evening project because I’d get too tired.”
Getting the boat . . . well, properly shipshape . . . and chasing potential sponsors took more than 12 months, and Olly admits he was guilty of wearing rose-coloured spectacles early on.
“I rarely left home for just over a year; I even worked on Christmas Day. I couldn’t just jump into the car and drive to Ipswich to meet up with friends. Everything like that just stops, because I haven’t got the money to do it. That side of things I didn’t quite think about when I started!”
His dream also left him in something of a cleft stick. Wanting to build a vessel with a professional sheen – and thus maximise the chances of attracting more backing – he pushed the boat out. (Sorry about another unintentional metaphor).
Olly ploughed his savings into his beloved Essex-built Valiant craft: a cool �15-20,000. He borrowed money on top, and now owes just under �10,000.
“In hindsight I should have kept that money and just gone out and bought another boat, because it’s not worth anything like that. It’s so old! (She was built in the 1970s.) But it’s the story behind it that was driving me.”
Unfortunately, securing hard-cash sponsorship has proved a struggle. Even in recent times he’s been tapping the computer keyboard almost every day – including weekends – trying to get more backing. The recession is obviously a major handicap. Olly suspects it also hasn’t helped that some firms might have been let down in the past by people who promised much and failed to deliver.
He can understand it. “I was totally fresh out of the box – some young guy from Suffolk, rebuilding a boat in a garden shed. No-one knew anything about me. I just have this story. Trying to get this point across – that I was going to do it, come rain or shine – was hard work.”
Since the London International Boat Show in the middle of January –Jolly Olly was on display – home for man and boat has been swanky St Katharine Docks.
He spent last summer on the Solent, building up strength and stamina, but is he anxious about sailing the coast alone? Well, he says “it’s about picking the weather just right, and picking the tide just right, and doing nothing stupid!”
The boat is “bloody tiny! It’s like trying to sit inside a washing-machine.”
Olly can’t stand up in it – even sitting down means being hunched over – and he has to perch on the loo while using the cooker.
“But it’s got everything in there. If you’ve got a big boat, it ploughs through the waves, whereas mine is like a little cork – it bobs around on top. Although it’s a bit uncomfortable, it feels safe.”
What about the physical challenge?
“The thing I fear is that since my treatment I get tired very quickly. I can sail for about six or seven hours, but whereas with a normal body it gets tired gradually, with me it’s like jumping off a cliff. It happens really quickly. I just fall asleep.
“That’s the only thing I’m a bit concerned about – getting tired after a 12- or 13-hour day and trying to get into some of the smaller ports. But, then, that’s part of the challenge!”
Damage to his lungs has “spoilt my general fitness levels, which aren’t brilliant. When I go for a run, not only do I get tired really quickly, my lungs start to pack up. It’s a bit of a vicious circle. But you learn how to deal with it and just plod on”.
Although it’s a single-handed voyage, Olly expects to welcome the odd passenger. Matt, the donor who came to the rescue, has asked to join for a leg. The pair met early in 2010 and get on like a house on fire. Matt’s a carpenter by trade and actually built the hatch cover for the boat. He also came down to help at the boat show. “You can talk to him as if you’ve known him for years,” says Olly. “He’s a practical person; he’s like me in that respect.”
Another temporary passenger might well be singer and guitarist Newton Faulkner, who has done a lot of work for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Olly had a friend called Hannah Sewell, who was also ill. They’d met at a Teenage Cancer Trust conference. Later, she’d come to Suffolk to help him finish off a car renovation project – a Citroen 2CV.
At that time, Olly was often playing a Newton Faulkner track called Gone in the Morning. “It used to drive her round the bend! But I used to sing it so much that she started to like it.”
By the middle of 2009, sadly, Hannah’s condition was terminal. When Newton visited teenage cancer patients at Addenbrooke’s, en route to a gig in Ipswich, Olly went along to meet him. He took a voice-recorder so he could capture the event and play it later for Hannah, then very poorly and blind because of the advance of her tumours.
Olly told the musician about his friend, “and randomly, out of all the tracks he could have chosen to play, he picked Gone in the Morning. I then found out, just before I was going to leave, that she’d died. When I looked back on the timer on the recorder, she’d died just as he’d started singing that song . . .”
And what might the future hold for Olly after he completes his circuit of Britain? “No idea!
“But definitely what I’m not going to do next year is not have a career! I need to get back into the swing of things and earn some money, and enjoy a bit of normality!”
Olly, by golly
Olly went to Woodbridge School
He’s loved sailing since he was a boy
He’s grateful for the support of many people, including dad Lee, mum Toni, girlfriend Theresa Page (who at the time of treatment was studying for A-levels and took a year out to be with Olly), brother Reece and friend Ben Walker
His dad and Ben spent eight weeks renovating the hull of the boat following Olly’s transplant
They filmed each day’s work and Lee would take it to Cambridge so his son could see the progress
Late July, 2005: Severe headache. Glandular fever diagnosed
September 9: Routine blood test. Within 10 hours is in hospital. Told he has Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
Learns he has a more aggressive form of the disease: Acute Myeloid Leukaemia
November, 2005: Develops pleurisy and pneumonia. Doctors say he is very lucky to survive
New tests show the leukaemia is in fact a very rare type. Olly is only the third person diagnosed with it
Bone marrow tests follow – and a search of the national and international donor registers, to try to find a suitable donor
February, 2006: The Anthony Nolan charity finds a potential UK donor
March: Total body irradiation twice a day for four days
Intensive chemotherapy for two days
Three days after his 21st birthday, a bag of donated bone marrow is connected to his drip – ‘certainly the best present I had!’
OLLY’S time at St Katharine Docks has had its surreal moments.
Earlier this month there was an unexpected (though very welcome) visit from David Suchet, well known for his portrayal of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot.
David came down to look at the boat and hear the story. He urged potential donors: “Stem cell donors save lives. Olly is the proof! Please come forward.”
Then, last week, an impressive ship with an imposing dragon’s head mast arrived.
The Matthew hosted a media junket to publicise the release of The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of The Dawn Treader on DVD and Blu-ray.
The vessel doesn’t actually appear in the film – King Caspian’s ship instead created by computer-generated wizardry – The Matthew does bear a striking resemblance to The Dawn Treader of CS Lewis’s tale.