Round the World Clipper sailor and Derry teacher Michelle McCann had just left Rio on her way to Cape Town when her daughter Maeve gave birth to her youngest child, Aoibheann.
It wasn’t until she came ashore Foyle Marina in Derry last weekend that she first met the beautiful baby girl she had longed to see for many months.
Speaking after holding her granddaughter for the first time, Michelle, who lives Greencastle, said: “It was brilliant to see her beautiful wee face, even though I was all wet and it can’t have been as pleasant for her.”
It had been a day for firsts. Michelle freely admitted that the Derry~Londonderry crew’s homecoming welcome was beyond anything they had expected and that all the crews were overwhelmed by how warmly they were received from Greencastle right up the Foyle to the city.
In Shrove - where Michelle lives - friends, relatives and neighbours gathered together overnight to see the boat cross the finish line off Inishowen Head in the early hours of Sunday morning and lit a bonfire to celebrate. “It was the first thing I saw on land from the boat and it was fantastic,” she said.
Local boats - including her son Barry’s jointly owned vessel - had already gone out to greet the yacht as it crossed the line and a small flotilla assembled as they approached Greencastle.
Michelle has strong family connections to the Foyle Pilots so when the pilot boat came out to greet them - with her family friend and neighbour, Con O’Donnell, as duty pilot - it was an emotional moment for her.
The Clipper Derry boat passed by Greencastle village with the flotilla at 8am to a noisy and cheerful - if rain-soaked - crowd who waved from the shore. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were hundreds of people there, it looked like the whole village was out.”
That was where she saw the first of many ‘Welcome Michelle’ banners, with the next one right in the middle of the channel at Redcastle.
Then on to Derry where there was a huge ‘Welcome Michelle’ emblazoned on a sign at the riverbank at Thornhill College - from where she has taken a career break as a maths teacher in order to take part in the world’s longest ocean race. The flotilla grew as the crew neared the Derry quays and as she said that passing under Foyle Bridge “beat even the Golden Gate Bridge and the bridges of New York because it was so beautiful”.
Coming into the city Michelle and the crew - which included fellow locals, Derry father and daughter team John and Jodie Harkin, Harbour Commissioner Roy Devine, and Derry City Council bursary winner Padraig McConway - were greeted by a rapturous crowd. “It was incredible; we were literally gasping with amazement at the crowds all along the quays and particularly at the Marina, and the cheers and shouts and clapping. We had just had such a gruelling Atlantic crossing, so it was just what we needed. We were just as excited and in high spirits to get this unbelievable welcome,”
“It was the best day of my life. I will never forget it and I felt a tremendous pride in the city and in the whole Inishowen area because of warmth of their welcome,” said Michelle. She added that she and the crew skippered by Isle of White native Mark Light, had a fantastic response from the people in Derry and Greencastle throughout the week.
Before setting off Michelle’s aim was to realise the “retirement plan” of her and her late husband, former Derry port pilot and ship’s captain, Dan McCann, who died more than three years ago.
Foyle Port is the port sponsor of Clipper Round the World 11-12 and Harbour Master Bill McCann is a nephew of Michelle’s. He said everyone at the port and at Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners was proud of Michelle and her courage in taking on such a huge voyage. Michelle has had a busy week working on the boat, taking part in Clipper events and spending time with family and friends in Derry and Shrove, as she prepares for the final two races in the Clipper Round the World Race.
The yachts leave Derry on Saturday at around 2pm and head to Greencastle where Race 14 officially starts at 5.30pm.