His Majesty King Hussein I - the man who changed my life forever
In 1985 I was a humble stewardess on charter yachts working wherever they took me drifting from place to place. My teenage years had not been happy and sailing quite literally saved me when I left home at the age of 16 and back packed to Greece. Once there I got a job on my first boat and five years later after many adventures I found myself day working in Newport Rhode Island. This meant staying wherever I could and finding work on a daily basis; sanding, varnishing, painting, cleaning bilges. You name it, I did it! Anything to survive.
One morning I was awakened by the phone ringing in the house in which I was staying. Rolling over, I looked at the clock and saw it was 6am. I groaned before answering and putting the phone to my ear heard the familiar happy and very loud voice of my friend Whitey, skipper of a beautiful ketch called Excalibur. “Hey, I have a job for you but you have to be down at the dock in an hour.” I snuggled deeper under the covers. “I was going to take a day off mate” I said. “But, I need you” pleaded Whitey “I have a charter with someone very important, so important I’m not even allowed to know who they are. I need a stewardess. Please!” I knew I was going resistance was futile and Whitey gave me as many details as he could.
When we reached Martha’s Vineyard we had gone through every possible guess of who they could be, from Ted Kennedy to Bob Dylan! We tied up to the end of the dock and as we did so spotted a crowd of people which turned out to be Police, Coast Guards and some shady dudes in suits and dark glasses. As soon as we were settled they all marched down the dock towards us and I noticed they also had sniffer dogs with them. It was quite overwhelming but they were friendly and polite. They told us they were there to make sure the boat was safe and indicated that we should go and get some dinner whilst they worked. They also told us there would be a guard overnight and divers and helicopters in the morning.
Whitey and I looked at each other in amazement. Who the heck were our guests?! We showed the Officer in charge where everything was and beetled off to eat dinner at the nearest restaurant. Returning later that evening we turned in for the night with an armed guard on deck. It was, to say the least, surreal.
The next morning we were up early but, as it turned out, not as early as the divers who were already checking the hull under the water line. At 10am a Coast Guard cutter arrived and we spotted a helicopter in the air. Down the dock came a group of people with more Police. It looked like two couples and I have to admit to my everlasting shame that I had no idea who they were. I was a rebellious 21 year old who had been at sea for four years and hadn’t looked at the news or a newspaper in all that time. As they got closer Whitey breathed, “That’s King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan.” Obviously now I knew who they were but not much more than that. With them were the King’s brother Prince Hassan and Queen Noor’s sister.
We welcomed them on board and settled them on deck whilst the Officers helped us throw off the lines and we were off for our day sail. Almost from the first moment Prince Hassan was on the wheel wearing a captain’s hat. No-one else stood a chance. They were all in good spirits and the gorgeous weather helped us have a really great day. We knew we had to drop them off at Martha’s Vineyard at 4pm so we made the most of the time available.
I served lunch on deck at 1pm and everyone was relaxed and chatting. There was a real warmth to the group and they were not in the least dismissive like some guests can be. It turned out that they had been to the graduation ceremony of King Hussein’s son Prince Abdullah and this was a well-deserved day off before they returned to Jordan. After lunch, I took everything below and started washing up before repacking the hampers to be returned to Goat Island. As I washed dishes I sensed someone standing beside me and looking up realised it was King Hussein. He smiled his wonderful smile which little did I know then would become very familiar to me.
Then, without warning, he picked up a t-towel and started drying up. “You can’t do that!” I said “I can do anything I want. I am King!” he replied quick as a flash. We laughed and chatted away and he wanted to know everything about me. I was to discover through the following years of our friendship that the King was a ‘people collector’. He loved human beings of every class, colour, creed, religion and nationality. He was fascinated with my nomadic lifestyle and likened me to a Bedouin. Years later I was to learn the respect and affection in which King Hussein was held by the Bedouins and what a compliment that was.
I told him of my life at sea and my plans to do the 1985/86 Whitbread Round the World Race as one of a small handful of women. Again, he was absorbed and I couldn’t help but wonder at how special this man was. We talked about his passion for Ham Radio and the people around the world he kept in touch with and my fascination with navigation which also touched a nerve as he explained his love of flying. An hour flew by and before I knew it Whitey was shouting for me to come and help take the sails down. Before we went on deck King Hussein handed me his phone number, telex number and address. “I would love to hear how the race goes and if you ever need anything please call me.” I couldn’t quite believe it but gave him my home number as well. I shoved the piece of paper he had given me in my pocket and we went on deck where the King helped me furl the mainsail whilst Prince Hassan took the headsail in.
We motored into the dock with accompanying helicopters and Coast Guard cutters. Waving the group off Whitey and looked at each other and smiled. We then threw the lines straight off and headed for Newport. It was the end of a day which I would never forget and the meeting of the most extraordinary man I have met; a man who was to change the course of my life forever. Our friendship would last a lifetime and King Hussein would persuade me that I could do things I had never dreamed of and be someone I could never had imagined.
A couple of weeks later I found a boat to help deliver across the Atlantic in order to get home. Jubilation was a racing yacht and the trip was a real taste of the deprivations of the Whitbread to come. We arrived in Lymington on 19th July 1985 and during an evening of much eating and drinking I found a pay phone and called my Mum to let her know I was home. After an initial catch up she informed me that a man had been calling saying his name was King Hussein of Jordan. I prayed she hadn’t said ‘I’m the Queen of Sheba’ and put the phone down but she assured me she hadn’t. In fact she sounded as if this was all perfectly normal. My Mum was an amazing woman. She said he wanted me to call him in London as soon as I got in and gave me the number.
Phoning a number and saying ‘hello can I speak to King Hussein’ was more than a little scary but that is what I did. When he came on the line he sounded genuinely happy and asked me to dinner the following evening at the Jordanian residence in Kensington Palace Gardens to which I agreed. The next day I got the train home to pick up my car which was an old green Vauxhall Viva with red doors which didn’t open. The only clean clothes I had at home were a pair of green and white striped trousers and an old Sealestial yachting t-shirt! And so later that day I set off from Reading to London in my clapped out old car wearing my clapped out old clothes.
I arrived at Kensington Palace Gardens at the required time of 6.30 and was let through the barriers when I gave my name. I drove slowly up that beautiful road with its magnificent mansions and found the one I was looking for. It had a huge Jordanian flag up outside and two immaculate armed Jordanian guards standing to attention just inside the huge gates. I wished at this point that my car doors worked but as they didn’t, I steeled myself to get out, wound down the window and climbed through. The guards did not bat an eyelid. I smiled and walked up to the gate. “I’m here to see King Hussein” I explained and after asking my name, they opened the gates and let me in.
Dinner was amazing and the company even better. We talked and talked as if we had known each other forever. In the years since his death I have met and spoken to other ‘normal’ people who met him and they all said the same thing. That incredible and genuine interest in what we all had to say along with his attentiveness made you feel special. It was a gift and one of the reasons he achieved so much good. During the evening, I told him it was Mum’s birthday and he insisted on calling her. The next day a huge bouquet of white roses arrived from him to her wishing her a Happy Birthday. He sent them every year until he died.
The King was flying to Washington the next day so it was an early evening but when I left I knew I had made a friend for life. What I did not know was how much influence this incredible man would have on my future.
In the lead up to the 85/86 race and during it, I kept in touch with the His Majesty via phone and letter. When I was on Atlantic Privateer we would telex each other. As soon as I had finished the race, he invited me to Jordan. I was flown out first class on a Royal Jordanian Airlines plane and when I arrived at the airport in Amman I was met at the plane doors and whisked through immigration and baggage collection to a chauffeured car which took me to my hotel. I felt like a film star!
I already had the idea of an all-female crew in the next Whitbread and was excited to see what the King thought. That afternoon I was taken to meet him at the Palace for tea. I really had to suspend my link with reality at this point. The Palace is inside the military base and as the car swept through the gates I entered another world. I had already fallen in love with Jordan and if the King was an example of the Jordanian people then I knew I would love them.
The car deposited me outside the doors to the Palace and I was shown into the King’s office where he was playing with two of his children, HRH Princess Haya who was 12 and HRH Prince Ali who was 11. What struck me was how beautiful they were and how disarmingly charming and polite.
The afternoon was spent catching up on the Whitbread and it was hard to believe that this man was attempting to drive through a peace process for the Middle East. He must have had so much on his mind and yet you would have thought he had all the time in the world and not a worry. As we chatted I dropped my idea of an all-female crew into the conversation and he didn’t miss a beat. “You must do this!” he said and proceeded to reel off a convincing list of why. By the time he finished with me I believed I could conquer the world and do anything I set my heart on. I literally floated out of the Palace that evening and back to my hotel. I called Mum and said “I’m going to do it.” To which my mother replied “Yes I rather thought you would.”
Over the coming months of putting together what would be the Maiden project there would be many negative comments and articles but King Hussein was always at the end of a phone with advice and encouragement. There were many dark days of doubt over the years of struggle and I was still an irresponsible and angry 23 year old with rebellion issues. It was not until after the King’s death that I truly realised how much of an influence he had been on my life. My Mum would call him when she was worried about me and he would always have time to talk to her. I often imagine their conversations in between Yitzhak Rabin and Ronald Reagan and it makes me smile. She adored him and I know he was not only my rock but also hers.
King Hussein helped with funding as we worked hard to raise the sponsorship and when we bought an old wreck called Prestige and turned her into Maiden his support was crucial. We raced the refitted Maiden in the 1988 Route of Discovery Race from Cadiz to Santo Domingo and won overall, beating all the other eleven Whitbread boats who were also using the race as a warm up to the race. With such an amazing result in the face of our critics we truly believed that we now find sponsorship. We had proved that women could race and win. But no. Nothing happened and we were rebuffed time and time again. I was at breaking point and had no idea how we were to get to the start-line.
This was the only time I ever saw the King truly frustrated. He couldn’t understand why I was not being supported. He kept us going for a while until it became obvious that British sponsorship was not going to materialise. I was summoned to Amman with Howard Gibbons, Maiden’s Project Manager. We flew to Jordan on what was by now a well-worn route for me. It was entertaining watching Howard’s expression as were whisked through the airport though! We were taken to the hotel and went to our rooms to unpack and freshen up. I had been told to go straight downstairs where I was met and taken to the Palace. Howard headed for the pool.
I arrived at the Palace and the King was waiting for me. Firstly he congratulated me on our epic result in the Route of Discovery then he asked where Howard was. I hadn’t realised he wanted to see both of us and the King dispatched someone to go and get him while we had tea. Howard’s account of being picked up always makes me smile. He was by the pool when suddenly a shadow fell over him. He looked up to see a man in suit and dark glasses. “You need to come with me Sir” said the man. Howard was more than a little startled and wondered what he had done wrong. He dutifully got dressed and an hour later he was walking into the Palace to join us.
King Hussein had never met Howard but was clearly delighted to meet the man who had stood by me and got me this far despite my many failings. Howard for his part was delighted to meet the man I so admired and of whom I spoke so often. They greeted each other like long lost friends and were deep in conversation within seconds. The three of us sat and chatted and King Hussein told us as we sat open-mouthed, that Royal Jordanian Airlines was to be our sponsor. I am not often speechless but this was one of this was one of those times. Howard and I were more than a little excited obviously and the King just smiled, enjoying our happiness. When the excitement finally died down the King announced he was taking us on a tour of Amman.
We trooped out to a waiting car, but instead of driving outside the gates we were taken to an airfield. Howard and I looked at each other. We were ushered out and found ourselves standing in front of a Royal Jordanian Airforce helicopter. The King was heading off to a hangar whilst we were helped aboard the helicopter. Not being a huge fan of heights I was not entirely sure how I felt about this turn of events. Howard, on the other hand, was like a small boy. The King re-emerged from the hangar with a flying suit on and walking next to another pilot. As he got into the cockpit he turned to us “The only way to see Jordan” he said grinning from ear to ear.
The next two hours of my life were to be amongst the most amazing ever. After Howard and I put on our headphones, we watched the young co-pilot and the King go through the pre-flight checks and then we were lifting into the air. My stomach lurched. But, as we soared over Amman all worries slipped away. The King gave a running commentary about points of interest below us and in a short while we were over the desert and heading for the Dead Sea. Jordan is so beautiful and the terrain changes so quickly. We flew over Bedouin camps and camels and as we soared through the Jordan Rift Valley, the mountains came into view.
The King kept up a running commentary of Biblical history and then we were over the Dead Sea and flying so low over it I felt as if I could reach out my hand and touch the glistening waters. It was completely terrifying! As we skimmed over the water the King turned to me and shouted “This is the only time I ever want to see you below sea level!” and then he laughed. We all did although I am not sure the co-pilot knew why he was laughing. After some more sight-seeing over the desert and he River Jordan we headed for Amman, landing in a hospital car park – as you do. The King told us his mother was ill and he was visiting her. The co-pilot took us back to the base and instructed us be back the next morning with our luggage.
We were driven back to the hotel. The evening was spent at dinner recounting the day’s extraordinary events. The next morning, we were packed and ready at the designated time and on our way back to the air force base where a flight crew of four was waiting for us in an even bigger helicopter. “His Majesty has instructed us to take you to see Petra and then on to Aqaba where you will stay at the Royal Palace for two days’ rest.” One of the young men told us. Our luggage was loaded and we were once again airborne. Once again I marvelled at the beauty of Jordan and when we reached the mountains of Petra I just couldn’t believe how magnificent they are. The pink and gold rocks rose out of the desert and then plunged into sheer ravines of breath-taking resplendence.
We landed in the car park of a hotel where small and agile Arabian horses were waiting for us. The helicopter crew said they would wait for us but we persuaded them to come with us. So, there we were, three RJA Pilots, a sailor and a Project Manager riding our horses down towards the entrance to the ravine. This was in the days long before it was a major tourist spot and there were few buildings and even fewer people. It was also before the floor of the ravine had been concreted over for the ease of tourists and we found ourselves riding in silence through the sand of the gulley with the sheer walls of the rocks either side. It is hard to describe the magnificence of Petra; I had seen pictures but nothing prepares you for the jaw dropping sight of reaching the bottom and coming out into the clearing with the Treasury rising in front of you. The silence was only broken by the snorting of the horses and the chink of their bridles. Dismounting we spent a few hours (not nearly long enough) wondering through the ruins.
When we had to return to the helicopter we galloped full pelt back up the ravine and as I had just seen Indian Jones and Last Crusade, I pretended I was Harrison Ford – obviously! The next stop was Aqaba where we spent two lazy days being completely spoiled. When I signed the visitors book, I looked at the names before mine – Harrison Ford and Sean Connery .......... of course ..........
Before we left Amman a few days later, the King had introduced us to Ali Ghandour who was CEO of Royal Jordanian Airlines and we had agreed a sponsorship deal and that Maiden would be painted in the distinctive livery of the RJA planes. The next few months Maiden spent out of the water being refitted for the Whitbread and painted a deep beautiful grey with red and gold lines, which would become her trademark and ours. When we relaunched her she just looked stunning and we had an announcement in Cowes complete with Bedouin dancers.
HM King Hussein and Queen Noor visited us at the Southampton Boat Show just before the start of the Whitbread. The King gave me a Bible covered in mother of pearl in a beautiful mother of pearl casket and told me he knew we could do it. The race is now in the history books with our two leg wins and coming second overall, the best result for a British boat since 1977 and unbeaten.
The King and I remained friends until his death and he supported me in every project I took on. But it was not until I started writing my second book that I really understood what we had achieved and it wasn’t until the King died and my mother spoke about him that I truly grasped the importance of what this extraordinary man had done for me and the advancement of women sailors. He had been so much more than a friend and supporter. He had been my rock. But more than that, he had helped my mother to steady me when I wobbled or when my immature anger and frustration threatened the Maiden project. He had also been there for her. Between King Hussein, my Mum and Howard, somehow they had guided a rebellious, impulsive, ragamuffin and turned her into a strong confident young woman who took on outdated beliefs – and won.
If I had not met HM King Hussein I of Jordan and if he had not stepped in, Maiden would not have happened. It is as simple as that. His vision for his country and for the world was limitless. His treatment of his fellow beings was legendary and his belief in what we can all do, was unquestioning. I often think of the King and I wish my daughter could have met him. He was and will always be one of the most remarkable human beings to ever walk this planet and I miss him so much, as do so many.
“With faith, honour and courage, anything is possible”
HM King Hussein I