Blanket coverage: Captain Kevin Oprey presents Mylène Paquette with the Cunard blanket (Picture: Dave Monk)
Queen Mary 2 Captain Kevin Oprey completed a mission today to deliver a blanket to lone transatlantic rower Mylène Paquette… albeit a little late.
The Cunard gift, which was too big to include in an emergency package sent to 35-year-old Mylène in a dramatic mid-ocean encounter, was handed over in the more serene surroundings of the QM2’s Commodore Bar while the ship was docked in Southampton.
It was the first time Capt Oprey and Mylène had met face to face – in their previous encounter in September they were separated by heaving waves as the 151,000-tonne ship floated out supplies including a replacement satellite phone and sea anchor to the French Canadian’s 7.3-metre-long vessel after she capsized in a storm.
Equipped with her new gear – as well as a few treats such as chocolate and pastries – Mylène completed her 130-day, 4,500km (2,800-mile) voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Lorient, France, on November 12.
Handing over the souvenir this morning, Capt Oprey told Mylène: ‘I know we didn’t get this to you. In the great tradition of Cunard Line – of making sure we complete a task – I would like to present you with this blanket.’
A delighted Mylène thanked him for the ‘very nice gesture’ but assured the captain she had found some dry clothes after the capsize to keep her warm.
She told me about her rendezvous with the ship 83 days into her voyage: ‘It was amazing to see the QM2,’ she said. ‘The captain and crew were so kind, really gentlemanly over the VHF radio. They assured me they wouldn’t leave until I had the things I needed. They were so generous with their time. I was really nervous to approach the ship, it was so big and impressive, like a big wall in the water. The passengers were cheering me and shouting “bravo”, it was wonderful to hear them, the most emotional day of my life. The presence that I felt was so big that I rowed away elated but I felt a little alone afterwards.’
Capt Oprey said on the night after QM2 helped Mylène, he looked out of his cabin window. ‘It was completely dark outside, I was thinking, “How could she cope with that?” How brave someone is to do that. This girl was out there in a tiny boat and big seas.
‘If your car breaks down in a dark country lane, you are concerned. Now put yourself 1,000 miles from land in a small cockpit on your own. That takes some character to do that.
‘I’m delighted to meet her. We saw her in the Atlantic and had a conversation but we didn’t make any real contact. To see and talk to her and understand what she’s been through is just amazing, it’s quite an experience.’
Despite Capt Oprey’s concerns, Mylène said she generally enjoyed being at sea – and found it scarier being on a balcony on QM2 high above the waves. ‘I know my boat,’ she explained. ‘It’s like my base and around me it’s not dark because the reflection of the moon is a little bit of light. It’s not that scary.’
She admitted she was seasick the first three or four days of her voyage. ‘It’s given me a real sense of humour because I was creating these happy memories in my boat because it was really tough. The weather wasn’t with me for a long period of time. I went nine days without moving that much. I was saying to myself I’m never going to reach France. It was very difficult just to keep a good attitude. It taught me a lot of stuff about myself and I really appreciate my contact with the wildlife. It was amazing to be so close to animals.’
Meeting a family of pilot whales close to France ‘wasn’t that scary’. ‘My boat is 7.3m but I could see clearly that one whale was a bit bigger. It came next to me and splashed my boat with water. I didn’t know whether to be happy or scared! It was amazing to see that big eye looking at me – not at my boat, not at my cabin, but right at me.’
Describing herself as a ‘social’ person, she said she did not feel lonely as she battled the Atlantic. ‘I was talking to my base, with people over Facebook and Twitter and so many people calling me. But sometimes when I was crying and feeling not great I would have liked someone to hold me.’
Oddly, Mylène undertook the transatlantic crossing partly because she is scared of swimming and hates being in the water. She said: ‘I really don’t like it, it’s like vertigo, I don’t know why, but even in the pool I don’t like to be alone.
‘The first time I had to clear barnacles off the boat I was crying out, I couldn’t go in the water. I spent 45 minutes just trying to do it.’
But with the help of a psychologist based in Britain, she managed to overcome her fear.
During her voyage she weathered ten storms, battled 11-metre waves, crossed the paths of 30 freighters and suffered burns, blisters, back pains, asthma – and even mild concussion. She lost or broke many pieces of equipment.
Finally, she arrived in France to be greeted by friends and family. She said: ‘It was like for the first time in five years I knew I could say that doing this had been a good decision’.
Her 38-year-old sister Evelyne told me: ‘We were so worried about her and so happy to see her achieve her dream.’
Before meeting the captain today, Mylène and Evelyne spent a few days on board QM2 enjoying some of the comforts of life aboard a transatlantic liner. Mylène told me: ‘The ship is really incredible and comfortable. We had a great time. A lot of the crew knew about me and were talking about seeing me in my boat, it was wonderful.’
She asked Capt Oprey about my exclusive story that he too intends to cross the Atlantic single-handed – but in a yacht. He enjoys sailing his own seven-tonne, 37ft boat from Southampton. He confirmed: ‘Yes, I really would like to sail the Atlantic – not row it.’
Mylène joked: ‘If you need someone to sail with you…’
Her next challenge is to join a French team racing round Britain in a Class 40 yacht and she is planning on writing a book. But she told me: ‘One day I’m going to say, “Where are my oars?” again.’
Having been on board QM2 when the ship went to Mylène’s aid, I have followed her story closely so it was great for me to meet her face to face too.
I leave you with a brief quotation from a letter which Mylène wrote to the ocean as she made her crossing
‘Promise me you will take care of all the sailors of this planet who cross your waters. As for me, I promise to always be loyal, to speak well of you and wax poetical about your beauty, your discipline, your colours, and above all, the creatures who inhabit your waters. I’ll tell that that you are strong but fragile, proud but modest and gracious, even if you are vicious sometimes, I will always honour you. I’ll tell them that I have forgiven you for every quarrel. I will beg my friends, all humankind, to take care of you, for all of us on this Earth.’
She adds: ‘I give you my word that we’ll find each other again.’
See an ITV Meridian video report of the meeting here