The Return of Millie (Sailing Edition)

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Millie was somewhere out there in the English Channel, bobbing about in a sailboat. I scarcely slept a wink and awoke groggily, my first thought was to grab my phone and see if there was any word, but nothing. Walking into the kitchen, I opened my laptop. We were able to track the location of their boat via the AIS satellite tracking system. When we had gone to bed last night, she was still off the south coast of England having just passed the Isle of Wight. Now we saw she was about 40 miles west of the Channel Islands, obviously they were reverting to plan B and not stopping there, but heading straight down to Brittany.

Yesterday I had taken her to La Rochelle airport, despite having flown hundreds of times this was her first flight alone. In the car we discussed flying and boats, she’s 16 and was going to be spending 2 – 3 weeks sailing from the UK to France and then down the western coast back home to Rochefort on a 38′ boat with her godmother and a couple of their friends. Initially the plan was that she would have two or three days in the UK to get acquainted with the boat and boat rules, but as the British weather was awful and they had a brief weather window that night, they decided they had to take advantage of it. And so she literally landed, was met off the plane and taken to the boat, where everyone was running around in a last minute rush to get ready to leave. Within two hours she was in waterproofs and wellies, and heading back towards France, this time via the sea. She had said to me, “This is really going to test my metal: I hate flying, I hate vomiting and I’m scared of storms.”

I wasn’t worried for her safety, I knew she was in the most capable hands with three very accomplished sailors. I was worried that she was seasick, that it was rough, that she had spent a night feeling awful, green and hating every second of it. It was just a mother’s concern. Seeing just a mark that was her boat on the map, that was our daughter, out there amongst all the tankers and super yachts and varying other craft. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. Then we lost satellite tracking, and there was no new reported location all day. I had no idea where they were, and totally irrationally, I spent a day staring at the map willing for the location to change, pressing refresh again and again, wanting to know where they were, my nerves just a little bit frazzled. By 6pm the boat appeared again on the radar, they were a couple of hours from Brittany. An hour later my phone pinged, a message from Millie. She was having the time of her life, no seasickness, just loving it. Her first passage of the trip had been quite a baptism of fire, 26 hours of straight sailing across the English Channel.

After that first communication I relaxed. Millie was having the trip of a lifetime; this is her story. 

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It’s worth noting that, for some reason, I really hate flying. Not to mention that I’m an incredibly shy person and hate doing anything by myself. So, on the way across the channel in our tiny Flybe prop plane, it’s understandable that I was just a tad nervous. Sandy, my godmother, whom I couldn’t remember (having last seen her when I was three years old in Devon), married her husband Peter Bruce in 2011. Both are amazing sailors, and Peter has competed in just about every race there is! (And won most of them, too!) He’s also the author of several books about sailing, and was in the Royal Navy for many years.

So it wasn’t so much the sailing part that scared me. It was the spending-three-weeks-with-strangers part. In Southampton, I was met by Peter, and we drove the twenty minutes back to their house in Lymington. Somewhere in the New Forest, after sending only one text to my mother saying ‘In the car’, I lost signal on my phone and only got it again a day later. Goodness knows what she thought had happened!

Peter and I peeked into their house, but Sandy was out doing last-minute shopping for the trip, and so we went straight to their boat on the Lymington River. Owl, their boat, is a 38 foot Maxi 1100, Swedish built. I scrambled eagerly round the guard-rails and Peter gave me a short tour, giving me the two most important tasks to do before heading out to sea: check that the hatches were properly closed, and make sure that no cupboards or drawers were open. Well, I thought to myself, If that’s all I need to do then this’ll be easy! Peter and Sandy are laughing as they read this.

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Onboard, I was introduced to Brad, one of Peter’s longtime friends, also an incredible sailor, who would be making the trip with us as far as Concarneau. I’m sure that their friends were all horrified when they learnt that a sixteen year-old girl would be joining them!

I met Sandy a short time later, and less than four hours after getting to England, I was saying goodbye to it again, as we cast off the lines and motored out into the Solent. As Owl beat her wave through the water, waves crashed over the bow, and I was only too happy to find out that my waterproof coat and trousers (oilies) held up to that first test.

A cry from below wakened me from my dreams of smooth, swift sailing down the coast. Of course, I hadn’t closed the forward hatch properly, and now seawater was pouring into the cabin where I was to sleep!

We ate supper on deck, and I fell asleep comfortably in the port bunk with a lee cloth to keep me from rolling out.

The next morning, in the middle of the English Channel, I woke up and went on deck to witness a kind of surreality. The first rays of dawn were creeping over the horizon, and a glassy swell was speckled with gold from the rising sun. The air was silent, and all around us were huge ships, gliding silently by. It’s one of those visions you never forget.

We spent the day sitting in the cockpit talking and watched the log tick down the miles to France. That afternoon, the sunny weather left and was replaced by strong winds and rain. I was slightly terrified, and spent several hours napping peacefully down below! When I woke up we were only a few miles from Lezardruie marina, and we motored peacefully past jagged rocks with brightly painted lighthouses on top of them. The landscape was completely different from the Charente-Maritime, and my eyes struggled to take in everything at once–the gaping rocks, water rushing over and against them, rolling green hills in the distance, and tiny white Brittany farmhouses with slate roofs perched on top of scraggly cliffs.

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We ate supper that night on a calm mooring upriver. The next morning, we were there to witness the boats from a singlehanded cross-Channel race called Le Figaro coming in, and watched in laughter as the winner stood on his boat with a huge bottle of champagne!

Our next port of call was the town of Morlaix, miles up a tidal river. We spent the morning narrowly avoiding going aground and made it to the lock just in time. Morlaix was situated in a valley, filled with crowded houses and shops, and the entire town was dominated by the huge Roman-style aqueduct running from one hilltop to the other. It was certainly impressive, but the roads were dirty and most of the boats derelict and forgotten.

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We sailed to Roscoff, where we spent one night waiting out bad weather, and then woke up at 4 a.m. to go further south to L’Aber Wrach. As we headed out of the Île de Batz channel under a velvety, starred sky, we met a large green swell hitting us nose-on, and the swell stayed for the rest of the day. That’s when I got another one of those ‘snapshot’ memories. I was sitting on deck, with Sandy, Brad, and Peter, and emerald-coloured waves  rose all around us. A yellow coloured buoy floated past us, and we were close enough to see the seaweed dragging off it.

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In L’Aber Wrach, we met two of Peter and Sandy’s friends, and then went to Brest for a day. We visited the Océanopolis aquarium, where we saw seals, penguins, dolphins, otters, stingrays, turtles, and every other type of sea creature imaginable!

From L’Aber Wrach we sailed to Bénodet, a long, foggy trip where cold grey water sat silently, rain drizzled down, and we spent most of the day becalmed with flapping sails. We went through the Raz de Sein channel, notorious for big waves and strong winds, in flat seas and a light breeze! The Point de Pennmarch, the cape separating north and southern Brittany, actually was a turning point ! The weather, having been dismal and grey for the past week, suddenly turned sunny and warm. I foolishly packed my oilies away thinking that I wouldn’t need them again.

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We spent almost three days in Concarneau, where we also said goodbye to Brad. So far we’d visited quite a few towns and marinas, but Concarneau was the first place that I really loved. The port was surrounded by pretty houses with flower boxes in their windows, and the ancient stone walls were every photographer’s dream. La Ville Close, the old town sitting inside the fort on an island in the harbour, was filled with tiny shops and quaint restaurants tucked down miniature alleys and cobbled lanes.

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From Concarneau we sailed to Belle-Île. Sandy and I spent the morning of that trip on deck with the huge, bright pink asymmetrical up, flying through gentle, deep blue waves. Belle-Île is a very small island, less than ten miles long, and from afar it looked as if someone had thrown a ball of crumpled rock into the sea and then neatly sliced the top off. Towering, broken cliffs sheltered sparkling green bays, and we glided into our anchorage for the night with smiles and light hearts. Peter and I blew up the dinghy and rowed ashore, then climbed a thorny, steep path to the top of the cliffs. One of my biggest regrets in life would have to be not having taken my camera with me! The wind whistled through the grasses and wildflowers, and the horizon stretched out before us, and unbroken line shaded only by clouds.

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Belle-Île is neighboured by several smaller siblings, two of these being the tiny isles of Houat and Hoedic. They’re only miles apart, and both have small villages of whitewashed houses and campsites. We anchored off of Hoedic, and Sandy and I made the grave mistake of going swimming! The water was ‘refreshing’ at best, and while Sandy had a full-body wetsuit, I was left in a bikini and rash top, freezing and worrying about the many jellyfish we’d seen that day! Hoedic was equally as beautiful as its larger sibling, and ancient menhirs stood next to English forts.

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After Hoedic we sailed to Nantes, spending the day at a slight angle with cloudy skies and mud-coloured water sluicing past the hull. Peter gallantly took up the task of standing and motoring the three hours upriver, past flat marshes and the occasional container ship.

I have to mention, though, that the Nantes river struck me as being a place the the time-space continuum seemed slightly off. We passed a fully-built French manor house sitting at an angle in the middle of the river, water lapping at the windows, and further up cruised by a tiny marina, where a sailboat was sitting six feet out of the water on top of a wall, drooping over the stones as if it had melted!

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Nantes was particularly fascinating. On one side of the river, smart houses sat in neat rows, the tram line passing in front of them. On the other side of the river, an artsy district known as the Île was filled with sculptures, graffiti, lights, and floating restaurants! That was also the night of the Euro 2016 final, and long after the match was over we could hear hooting and cries from late-night revellers.

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At the mouth of the Nantes river, we went to Pornichet, where we picked up two more of Sandy and Peter’s friends; David and Jacky. From there we went to the Île d’Yeu, another island (Honestly, I had no idea any of them existed before my voyage!), and spent the day bumping over rocky paths and coastal roads in a rented Mini-Moke style car. It had no seatbelt, no doors, and was bright red. It was also made for four people. We crammed five in.

On the island, we visited an 11th century fort still standing today, where it juts proudly out into the sea, unperturbed by stormy waters or invaders. We spent a very happy couple of hours traipsing through fern-filled valleys and scrambling up rocks to get to it, and I promptly filled my SD card with as many pictures as possible! From the fort, we went to a tiny port on the other side of the island, and ate moules frites overlooking a bay filled with bright fishing boats. After lunch, we wondered along the seawall and climbed the steps to the top of a rocky hill, testing our sense of danger by standing on rocks with twenty foot falls to treacherous waters below!

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We spent one of our last days sailing to the Île de Ré, slipping back into familiar lands for myself. In the harbour there, everyone seemed to have had the same idea, and the marina was filled with boats tied up to each other in an effort by the harbourmaster to cram in as many fee-paying boats as possible. The skies were azure and sunny, and the town as bustling with tourists and a food market. We went shopping for a few food items and came back with bags of fresh baguettes and vegetables. Mama, dada, Hetty and Gigi drove out to meet us and we all had lunch on board, dining on fresh pink langoustines and gulping down cool glasses of Orangina. I took the girls on a trip around the marina in the tiny dinghy, only just puttering out of the way as the ferry rushed to dock. Daddy stood on the breakwater, a tiny figure with a camera, as we waved and motored past him, for the final leg of the journey home to Rochefort.

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After a week of very gentle sailing in slightly scorching sun, it was a relief to have a strong breeze and a slightly cooler temperature, and Owl sped past other boats and sparkling waves, heeling over strongly and with a fresh 20 knots behind us! At one point, we recorded 9.6 knots as our speed, surfing down waves. We had a minor moment of panic when the dinghy, lashed to the stern, broke free and swung wildly around, but it was a fantastic last sail. I remember looking behind us and seeing the strangest waves. The water was a very light, muddy green colour, and the waves were short, packed together and rising like knives. The water looked like broken glass.

We spent the night on a mooring at Soubise (I proudly showed them around the small town!), and then motored to Rochefort and the lock there. Daddy came to meet us soon after we had docked, and with uncertain feet I stepped off Owl for the final time, my adventure behind me.

Of course, none of this story would exist if not for Peter and Sandy, and it would be impossible to ever thank them enough for agreeing to have me along. Somehow, they put up with me, and I learnt more than I ever thought was possible. The trip will stay in my mind forever.

 

 

 

 

103 thoughts on “The Return of Millie (Sailing Edition)

    • Hi Brooke, so pleased to have her back, but so happy she had such a good time. After that initial 26 hours, she messaged or texted pretty much every day and I felt as if I was travelling along with her, with her excitement. Hope you are having a great summer too Susan x

    • Millie – you might like the book Night Sky by Clare Francis. Mainly set in Brittany it mentions lots of the places you visited. It’s set in the 2nd WW and is really exciting.

      • Thank you so much Moy, I have looked it up on Amazon and bought it! I can’t wait for it to arrive now so I can start reading, I love anything set in the past. thank you again for thinking of me. Millie xx

  • What a wonderful trip! My 15 yr old son is on his high school sailing team (in Connecticut) and I’ll show him your story – he would have loved to have been there! Thanks for sharing.

  • What great experience and memories for a life time of the open sea. You drew a beautiful picture in your writing just like your mother very talented young lady.

    • It’s certainly an experience I’ll never ever forget! Thanks for much for saying that! I have a lot to live up to! 😂 I do hope to do more writing though, it’s something that I enjoy so much! Xxx Millie

    • Writing is her passion! I knew she was fine and I knew she was safe, I was just worried that she was seasick! Once I knew that she wasn’t and that she had loved that first 26 hour trip I totally relaxed. It was most odd though, her being away for three weeks! Susan x

    • I was really nervous but of course if we all stayed inside nothing exciting would ever happen! Honestly it was the trip of a lifetime! Knowing mama, I was laughing and imagining all of the panic at home! Thanks for reading xxx Millie

  • Lovely travel story, Millie. What a great experience. As an introvert, and not necessarily great sailor (though I live only a half mile from the Chesapeake Bay–and not far from Annapolis–a huge sailing port), I certainly appreciate your trepidations. Congratulations for facing your fears and earning wonderful memories as a reward.

    • Thanks! I’ll never forget it! Chesapeake bay? Lucky! I suppose it’s an excellent example of taking risks and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone! Xx Millie

    • Thanks so much!!! Maybe not a trooper, just someone who was brave for once (usually being shy and doing everything with other people!) xxx Millie

  • Millie, you write beautifully. Sharing your emotions and providing a very vivid detailed experience of your adventure. Peter and Sandy gave you a wonderful chance to spread your wings and fly. You are not a fledgling anymore. Well done.

    Very happy to hear everyone made it home safely.

    • Thank you so much! I’m so glad that you enjoyed reading my story! I certainly learnt so many valuable lessons on my trip. I can never thank Peter and Sandy enough!! Xx Millie

  • What a fantastic opportunity, I think you were so brave, I couldn’t have done that at 16, well done to you and Sandy and Peter

    • Oh haha I’m usually very shy so it was a big hurdle to overcome going on a boat with three strangers! Obviously it all completely paid off… I can’t believe it happened! Cxx Millie

  • Thank you Millie for writing about this, I really enjoyed reading about your adventures, you write very well

  • Well done….a fantastic report. Your future could/should be as a travel writer.

    Susan…each of your children are truly remarkable.

    Ali

    • Thanks so much Ali, they certainly all have very much their own personalities! I am loving watching them develop and spread their wings and both Roddy and I encourage them wholeheartedly to go out and seek adventure, and to push themselves out of their comfort zones a little, life is for the taking but you have to be prepared to go out and get it, well that’s my opinion and what we are teaching them! Susan x

    • Thanks so much! I wouldn’t mind a career in writing! I write a lot of fiction and stories, too. I suppose you could say I’m quite a bookworm… Xxx Millie

  • A wondrous voyage to independence and confidence! Your descriptions of the varied seascapes really took me there. I especially liked the “surreality.”

    • Thanks so much! Honestly the sea was never the same from one hour to the next. I’m sure it would be possible to write an entire book just detailing all of the different seascapes. Most of them were completely indescribable! Xx Millie

  • Hello Millie! Thank you so much for sharing your story (which I lapped up) and the beautiful pictures. I am not brilliant at sailing but I very much enjoy it and your words really brought your trip to my home today. As for you, mummy, well I still cluck over my brood and the eldest chick is 29 and married ….. it’s my job!! Loved this so much. All of it xx

    • Of course we all cluck, we have to, I worry just as much of the 20 year old as I do for the 9 year old, they still need just as much love and care, just in a slightly different way. But I also know how important it is for them to go off on their own, to spread their wings and to experience life, I would never hold them back, no matter how much I might miss them! Xxx

      • Funnily enough my husband and I were watching a party of probably 9 year old girls in the market yesterday. About 15 of them here for a vacation possibly with school or a club of some sort. The teachers/leaders told them to go off and explore within the confines of the market and it was a joy watching the interactions within each group of 4 or 5. I said to my husband that this is the thing you never see as a parent – that secret life your child has away from you as they grow day by day into the adult that we finally release all the while knowing that in our heart they are just as bound to us as they were when we laid eyes on them for the first time and inhaled that magical newborn scent and touched the softest skin we will ever touch and felt responsible and helpless all at once. xxx

    • Hi Osyth! It’s great that you enjoyed reading about my trip! I honestly could spend weeks writing about everything! Sailing is so much fun, I agree! Thanks for reading xxx Millie

  • Thank you to Susan and Millie for sharing this wonderful adventure with us!! Millie, you were truly brave!! I am in awe of your willingness to undertake such a voyage under those circumstances but I am so happy that you seemed to enjoy every bit of it! You are truly blessed to have the godmother that you do, as you know.

    Also, your writing was terrific! Please continue to share your adventures with us and best wishes to the whole family for the rest of your summer!

    • Hi Anne! I’m so glad that you enjoyed reading about my trip! I think it’s really important that people get out and take opportunities even if it puts them outside of their comfort zone… It was a million times better than I ever thought it would be! My godmother is honestly one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, it’s amazing how close we became!

      I do plan to write more! Hopefully I keep having wonderful adventures that are worth sharing! Thanks for so much reading xxx Millie

    • Hi Erin! So glad that you liked my post! And I’m not sure, but I certainly love doing it! We’ll have to see where all of this takes me! Xxx Millie

  • Thank you Susan, your blog in general it my all time favorite, whenever a new post shows in my mail I am always so excited and I reread them all again and again

    • Thank you so much Lisa, I thought it would be rather fun for Millie to share her experience, it was all about France after all. I am so happy you are enjoying the blog and so pleased to have you following along and commenting, thank you. Susan x

  • I admire you greatly, I think I would have been sick the entire way haha! I am so glad you took so many photos so we can really see what you saw, although your writing alone paints a beautiful picture!

    • Haha thanks so much! Honestly I sort of just pointed my camera at pretty things and snapped… Even the most amateur photograph couldn’t go wrong with those stunning scenes! Xx Millie

  • Millie, I’m so glad you got to have such an amazing adventure! Your mom and dad are happy to have you back, I know. Susan, there is another talented writer in the family. Well done, Millie!
    Xoxo,
    Nancy

  • Enjoyed very much reading your daughters account of her sailing trip she has a gift for writing like her mother.

    • Thank you so much Avril, so happy you enjoyed reading Millie’s story about her great adventure. I know I am her mother, so I am naturally biased, but I do think she writes rather well, I always love reading her stories which is why I was keen for her to share this. Susan x

    • Hi Catherine, the drops didn’t worry me too much having grown up on an Island, I sort of take them for granted! But I did truthfully nearly wear a whole on the trackpad pressing refresh, it’s as if by staring at it I could will the arrow, that was their boat, to move, but it stubbornly remained in the same place! Hope you are having a good winter (sounds strange!) Susan x

  • You had a very wet, cool start to summer and we have had a weird winter. Today, it got to 25 degrees. It feels like the summer that you are having! I remember going camping with friends when I was a few years younger than Millie. We stopped in The Grampians, where there was a very high, and narrow, rocky outcrop called ‘The Nerve Test’. The test, of course, was to see if you could walk to the end with hundred foot drops on either side. It gives me jitters, now, thinking about what we walked along so casually, without a second thought. I am glad my own mother did not know what I was doing when I did it. On second thoughts, that sentiment continued long into my adolescent years!

    • I would hate that narrow walk, I am fine if I look straight ahead, but looking down is a big No No! Our eldest daughter is terrified of heights. When we used to walk along the high cliff paths in Provence, notorious for it’s narrow ledges, she used to scream at me, “Mama are you trying to kill your children!” We did have a very strange start to summer and a chilly spring and a very mild winter, the seasons are totally confused. Now I am happy to say we seem to have slipped into more of a typical summer climate, last week we topped 40C on two days and it remained resolutely hot all week, now we are back to the high 20’s and then rising to the 30’s again next week, perfect! 25C in winter is more than pleasant, I could live with that!!!

  • Oh what a lovely experience for Millie……and for me, reading it and feeling as though I was there too! Millie has a real gift for writing, and certainly also a wonderful way of seeing things. Thank you Susan, for sharing your adventurous and brave daughter with us! XX

  • Not your average 16-year-old, I think. Millie, your writing style, powers of observation, and photography are amazing. I feel you have a wonderful future ahead of you as you continue to see the world and share your experiences with others. That first book isn’t far away from publication!

    • Maybe not haha! Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I always love getting comments on my writing! Hopefully I’ll only get better! Maybe I’ll even publish a book someday. I write a lot of fiction, too. I don’t know, it’s just so great putting your own words on a page! Xxx Millie

  • Oh Millie….you have filled my heart! I,too, am a sailor who has sailed the Caribbean and Central America for the past 9 seasons with my husband on Blew Bayou-our 42 ft baby!!! Made me so happy to read your oh so professional words about your sailing adventures and even more happy that you’ve gotten to experience the thrill of the waves, wind and heeling!!! No one really understands until they do it and words rarely do the travel justice. But yours did!!
    Keep up the writing and photography for you are excelling in the art!
    Wish we sailed your waters…would love to have you aboard. I ALWAYS leave the hatches open😜

    • Oh it was my biggest mistake with the hatches haha! Your boat sounds amazing!!! I suppose it’s because I’ve read a lot of travel/sailing books so I have an idea of how to write them. I’m so glad that you enjoyed my article xxxx Millie

  • Wow – what a trip for a young lady! Well done Millie, and I hope they didn’t feed you too many mussels and chips. I love that part of France, been there several times and Concarneau is one of my all time favourite ports. Where to next? Is there a boat in the offing?

  • What a darling girl!!!! And you are such a brave mommy to let her go. It’s hard to let our children have wings (or flippers in her case). But it sounds like the most amazing trip for such a sweet young lady.

    She writes so well too. I was captivated the entire time!

  • Thank GOODNESS that all are safe and that much fun was had! What an adventure to say the least….to see the world from the point of view of the ocean blue, how can that not “change” a person’s perspective! Happy to know everyone is well. And, thank you for coming to visit my blog post! See you on IG!

  • Millie, so enjoyed your adventure, glad all went well and you learned and experienced much. Equally glad you arrived back home safe. A very adult adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  • Millie!! You are brilliant in too many ways to mention!! Sailor, writer, explorer, big sister, treasured daughter, photographic artist………….!!!!!!!!
    I cannot tell you how very much I enjoyed this amazing chronicle of your journey. You took us along with you and showed us the sights! It makes us all know that anything and everything is possible!!
    Thank you!!!!!!!!

    • Thank you so so so much!!! I’m so glad that you enjoyed reading! It was honestly such an unexpected and amazing opportunity–half of the time I was there thinking ‘this is all so surreal!’ Xxx Millie

  • Millie, what a wonderful story and so well written! Susan, you must be very proud. the trip will have given Millie such a boost to her confidence – perhaps she will remember the saying – ‘Feel the fear, but do it anyway!’ Thank you for sharing your trip of your life – so far!

    • I love that saying, I think it’s rather good to feel fear sometimes, I also totally believe in pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, we feel as if we have achieved so much afterwards. This was a huge adventure for her and yet so fantastic in every way, it is fantastic watching the children grow and spread their wings. Susan x

    • Thank you so much! I’ve never heard that saying, but something I always like to keep in mind is a quote that goes along these lines: ‘It is not being fearless that makes you brave, it is doing something despite your fear’

      Always something to keep in mind haha! Thanks for reading. Xxx Millie

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