The Press and Journal (Inverness, Highlands, and Islands)
Back from the dead: Tales of adventure on the high seas
She was sailing singlehanded to the Azores, blissfully unaware of two big stories flying around the world – and that she was at the centre of one of them.
The Duke and Duchess of York were having their honeymoon aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia at her destination with the world’s media present – something that would have put experienced young Highland yachtswoman Anne Miller neither up nor down.
But when to her disbelief and amazement she found out a massive search was on for her, and her family had been told she was lost at sea, presumed dead, a phone call home seemed the right thing to do.
Communications weren’t so good in 1986, so Anne had to rush to a cafe and dial long-distance to Achiltibuie.
When her father answered and she told him who she was, he said: “But you’re dead!”
It turned out Anne had reached the family in the middle of her own wake.
The world’s media, staking out the neighbouring island for glimpses of Andrew and Fergie, got wind of Anne’s presence and, before long, she was making front pages all over the world.
Anne’s seafaring story begins in her childhood when pottering around the west coast at Scourie, Badachro, Handa and Badcall Bay during the holidays in a wee boat was a family tradition. But her love of the sea could be said to be in her DNA.
She’s the greatgranddaughter of Alexander MacKay, the much-respected and legendary harbourmaster of Wick.
As a young man in 1877, Alexander was shipwrecked with the crew of SV Bencleugh on MacQuarie Island more than 2,000 miles from Australia.
He was given a gold signet ring by the company afterwards, something Anne’s father wore and treasured all his life.
On leaving school – Dingwall Academy – Anne, whose late mum was a vet, decided she wanted to work with horses, so she taught horse-riding in Edinburgh for a while.
But salt in the veins can’t easily be kept down.
Anne got a job teaching riding just north of Toronto, but when she arrived in -27 degrees, she decided to hitch to California and sail to Australia to be a jillaroo on a sheep station.
She didn’t make it as far as Australia, but this was to be her first big sailing adventure, during which she learned the skills which would stand her in good stead when she went solo a few years later. She said: “I set off with a retired, oneeyed oceanographer from the Scrips Institute in San Diego.
“We went down the west coast through Mexico, down to Acapulco, where I jumped ship.”
Anne worked for a while on other’s people’s boats before deciding to head home.
She had been away for about four years.
After a while back with her father in Achiltibuie, Anne decided life was a bit boring and she needed to buy a boat and go singlehanded exploring.
She had grown up reading the tales of the great explorers of the 60s and 70s, Francis Chichester, Chay Blyth and Naomi James – the first woman to have sailed single-handed around the world via Cape Horn and the second woman to have ever sailed solo around the world.
Anne said: “I’d built up the skills, I’d sailed across the Atlantic on a fully-crewed boat, learned how to navigate and spent a lot of time with people who had done similar things.”
She tracked down a suitable boat, a sloop named Rupert, and over 10 months refurbished it in Inverness.
She said: “I sized things up to turn it from being a nice family cruising boat to something you could cross oceans in.
“I took the petrol engine out and put in a diesel one, gave it bigger pumps.”
Then she headed down the Caledonian Canal with her father to finish off the refurb in Oban for the next month.
“I then took a great big gulp, pointed the nose down the Sound of Kerrera and vaguely in the direction of Antigua, right into the ocean because I found that
less scary than dealing with the Irish Sea.”
Almost a fortnight into the trip, Rupert got “a bit beaten up” by hurricane strength winds in the Bay of Biscay.
Anne had to limp in to northern Spain to fix the damage, and then headed south from A Coruna, ending up in Lisbon by Christmas.
From there she headed to Madeira where she stayed for six months.
Nothing fazes a 25-yearold with salt in her veins.
Running low on cash, she took a job as second officer navigating a massive bulk carrier of grain between Madeira and Lisbon.
She had met the captain of the boat in a bar in Madeira. His navigator had disappeared in a cloud of alcohol.
Anne said: “I said I knew how to use a sextant, and I was hired. All the deckhands used to call me ‘Sir’, they didn’t have a female pronoun to use.”
What about Anne’s safety out at sea in such a maledominated environment?
She said: “The captain had a daughter my age and he was like a Rottweiler protecting me.”
And speaking of her safety in general as a lone voyager, Anne added: “I’ve travelled on my own all my life and I’ve never had any problem with molestation.
“I’ve only ever met with kindness from strangers.”
Anne’s next move was to travel on to the Canaries waiting for the hurricane season to finish.
In November 1985 she headed off on her next leg, getting to Antigua for Christmas.
She stayed there for about six months then she headed out to Bermuda in July 1986 and from there began her return to Scotland.
Then came her most terrifying ordeal. In a ferocious North Atlantic storm, Rupert rolled over and filled with water.
Anne said: “I nearly killed myself and decided not to sail on to Scotland but to limp to the Azores.
“At the same time this happened to me there was a yacht just north of me in a two-handed race, two guys sailing from England to New York.
“Sadly they got washed overboard and their boat was found drifting abandoned. What with Chinese whispers, it was assumed it was my yacht.
“The New York coastguard got in touch with Bermuda coastguard who looked down the list of yachts that had left, and thought, ‘girl on her own, that must be her’, and they phoned the Falmouth coastguard, who phoned Oban coastguard who phoned my father telling him: ‘Your daughter’s dead.’”
Meanwhile Anne was oblivious, sailing on to the Azores.
“I got to the Azores two or three weeks later and everyone kept telling me, ‘you’re that lost boat’, while I was thinking, ‘I’m not lost.’ ”
Eventually, when the world’s media caught up with her once Britannia had left bearing the honeymooning Andrew and Fergie, the reality of the situation finally dawned on Anne.
“I phoned home to my dad at the croft in Achiltibuie, and said: ‘Hi Dad, it’s Anne.’
“He went: ‘Who?’
“I said, ‘Your daughter,’ and he said, ‘Oh, but you’re dead.’
“All the family were there, holding a wake for me.
“I didn’t really appreciate what I put the family through until I had children of my own.”
Anne eventually headed home, landing at Campbeltown.
She was instantly whisked off to London to do an appearance on the new TV-am having borrowed some smart clothes from a local shop.
Anne went on to write up her story in the book Out of the Blue.
She worked as a sailing instructor, got married and had children, putting her solo adventuring days behind her.
This October it will be 35 years since Anne set foot back in Scotland after her two-year adventure.
Anne is the first Scottish woman to have crossed the Atlantic single-handed both ways, and the first woman in the world to have sailed the Atlantic from west to east singlehanded. No doubt her similarly courageous greatgrandfather would be very proud of her.