King swaps saddle for Roaring Forties
Having lost its big five British three-day events, Badminton, Bramham, Gatcombe, Burghley and Blenheim this season, eventing finally returns at a national level at
Tweseldown today. If there is one athlete in this country whose spirit you could bottle and sell as a tonic for the times then you would be pushed to improve upon eventing’s Mary King, 59, who will be at Tweseldown with four horses.
As soon as King first sat on the local vicar’s pony at age six, she knew horses would be her life, and despite coming from a sporting but non-horsey background she spent three decades at the top of the tree. Apart from winning Badminton twice, Burghley and Kentucky, she was also world No 1 in 2011.
In what is essentially an individual sport she has been the ultimate team player, representing Britain at six Olympics. Along the way she overcame numerous adversities, including a broken neck.
But she has always conquered fear by translating it into thrill. Normally when you get to a certain age, have children or one too many falls it is fear which finishes you. But when others grimace, King still, invariably, smiles.
However, my admiration for her has risen to a new level, not only because I have seen the monoliths they jump at Badminton without a second thought, but because during the winter she sailed the Southern Ocean leg of the Clipper Round the World Race.
To navigate the Southern Ocean, over waves as big as houses, is not everyone’s storm in a cup of tea and, with an irrational fear of drowning, I cannot think of a worse way to spend 24 days.
The nearest most eventers come to any width of water is the Trout Hatchery at Burghley, but as the daughter of a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and with a sea view from her Devon home, King has always hankered after the ocean waves. Sailing round the world, one ocean at a time, has been on her bucket list.
Between leaving school and getting locked into horses she did a couple of voyages on the tall ship Sir Winston Churchill, but she put serious sailing on the back-burner until two years ago, when a friend asked her to help crew a sailing boat across the Atlantic.
The fact that eventers spend half the summer in the living quarters of a horsebox meant that she was halfway there when it came to hot bunking in damp beds in the Southern Ocean, as the waves crashed over her conveyance, Seattle.
With 22 people on a yacht (20 amateur crew, a skipper and first mate with 10 sleeping and 10 sailing in four-hour stints), she joined Seattle in South Africa.
Unable to sail below 45 degrees latitude because of icebergs it was bitterly cold, there was always snow in the air and the howling wind was a constant reminder of why that part of the world is called the Roaring Forties.
“These boats do not capsize, they bob around and right themselves if they do, so I found the whole thing very exciting,” she said. “I was never frightened. There was no point. Once you’re out there you’re committed. If something goes wrong it goes wrong. We had a freak wave which ripped out the lower helm [steering] station. I couldn’t believe water could do that.
“I think some people were quite scared and we could have lost the steering, which I hadn’t realised, so ignorance was bliss to an extent, but I like a bit of excitement.
“But it was also quite nice to reach Australia. We hadn’t washed for 24 days, you sleep at tremendous angles and it was so nice to lie in a clean dry bed with everything still!”
The experience has not put King off. “I still want to do the Pacific but I’d like to stop off at the odd island and take my time,” she said. “At the end of the day, though,
I still prefer the four-legged variety to white horses.”
‘I want to do the Pacific but, at the end of the day, I still prefer the fourlegged variety to white horses’
Farewell: Mary King departs Cape Town for Fremantle in the Clipper Round the World Race and (below) at her home in Devon