YCLA names athlete phenomenon Debra Searle as speaker

British-born adventurer, TV presenter, author and motivational speaker Debra Searle will address the Young Caymanian Leadership Awards, recounting her 3,300-mile, 111-day solo odyssey, rowing a homemade plywood boat from Spain to Barbados. 

The 40-year-old from Plymouth, Devon, will address the Oct. 17 gathering at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, as the organization awards one of five candidates the top prize for local leadership and outstanding achievement among Caymanians between 20 and 35 years old. 

The ceremony will also mark the 15th anniversary of the awards, which has in the past recognized such Caymanians as Collin Anglin, Garth Arch, Jonathan Tibbetts and 2014 winner Kadi Merren-Pentney. 

This year’s nominees are Taylor Burrowes, Robbie Cribb, Rebekah Jefferson, Kellie McGee and Stephen Watler. 

Past speakers have included Fox News presenter Steve Doocy and U.S. presidential candidate and former governor Mike Huckabee. 

Ms. Searle will tell the Saturday-night ballroom gathering that she and husband Andrew Veal in 2002 entered the Ward Evans Atlantic Rowing Challenge, a 3,000-mile double-handed rowing race from Spain’s Tenerife to Barbados after building their own 23-foot boat from a kit. 

After only a few days at sea, however, Mr. Veal was crippled by thalassophobia, a fear of open water, and had to be taken off the craft. Ms. Searle, a novice at the time, elected to continue. While the trip normally should have taken six weeks, she spent 3½ months at sea, alone, confronting 30-foot waves, sharks and force-8 squalls. 

“In her speech,” according to a statement from the YCLA, “Debra will reveal the strategies she used to succeed, inviting the audience to experience some of the heartbreaking lows and unbelievable highs that were part of her journey of a lifetime.” 

Searle’s story was featured in the film “Row Hard No Excuses,” aired on the U.S. Public Broadcasting System in 2010 and 2011. 

She has since gone on to participate in the Yukon River Race; sailed 7,000 miles between Buenos Aires and Wellington, New Zealand; kayak surfed in The Maldives; become a Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster; navigated “The Sisterhood” dragon boat to a world record for crossing the English Channel; completed the Mont Blanc Bike Race in the French Alps and another in the Pyrenees, and the 100-mile Dartmoor Classic. In 2010, she raced an Alfa Romeo in the Rallye Monte Carlo Historique. 

More recently, in 2014, Ms. Searle and a partner opened consultancy firm MIX Diversity Developers, which in April this year led the LeasePlan Women’s Arctic Challenge on a ski-trek across Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle. 

Ms. Searle reportedly has said that the attention she gained for her solo Atlantic row was “a product of a sexist agenda,” saying the story wouldn’t have “even made her local paper” had it been her husband who had continued alone and she who had been rescued. 

She now has a passion, she said, “for demolishing stereotypes.” 

Director of the Young Caymanian Leadership Foundation Chris Duggan said, “Debra Searle personifies many of the key attributes of a great leader, notably the determination to take on a challenge and succeed against all odds, to overcome fear and rise above every obstacle. 

“We are delighted she will join us as we celebrate the 15-year history of the YCLA program and shine a spotlight on our five amazing finalists for this year’s milestone award.” 


Debra Searle will be keynote speaker at the Young Caymanian Leadership Awards this year.

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