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Sailing the oceans of hope

When Greytown resident Ronnie Hopkinson told Midweek she used to work as a promotional adviser for cosmetics firm Estée Lauder, it was no surprise.

Elegant and glamorous, wearing lipstick to match the pale pink shade of her jacket, she describes herself as “having been born with my makeup on”.

But in 2015, Ronnie’s life was turned upside-down when she was diagnosed with primary-progressive multiple sclerosis [MS].

She described receiving the news as “devastating, absolutely devastating”.

“You don’t know what’s ahead of you and you don’t know how severe the symptoms are going to be.”

What Ronnie probably couldn’t have imagined, was that ahead of her were new lifelong friendships, renewed confidence and adventures on the high seas, thanks to the sailing charity Oceans of Hope.

Today, with three Oceans of Hope adventures under her lifebelt, Ronnie wants to encourage other people with MS to believe that “things are possible and some of them are life-changing”. MS is a disorder of the central nervous system and affects the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves.

Symptoms associated with the condition vary from person to person.

For Ronnie, they include fatigue, weakness down one side, pain “like a burn” throughout her body, issues with balance and sensations of intense cold.

One of the more insidious effects of MS is one “you can’t see”, Ronnie said. “The thing that happens to you when you have MS is you actually lose your confidence.”

It was perhaps not surprising that when her friend, Oceans of Hope veteran Ingrid Robertson, suggested she join a sailing adventure, Ronnie was apprehensive: “I thought, oh no, I can’t do that.”

But, gradually, “I just thought to myself, what have I got to lose? I’m going to do this”.

In 2021, Ronnie embarked on her first Oceans of Hope adventure aboard Sir Peter Blake’s Whitbread-winning yacht, Steinlager2, with 23 other people living with MS, for a five-day trip around the Bay of Islands.

As part of the adventure, the sailors were encouraged to “have a go and get your confidence back, possibly doing something that you used to do and thought you couldn’t anymore”, Ronnie explained.

“For me, my personal goal – having been a swimmer – was to stand up on the deck and dive into the water.”

She admits to being “absolutely petrified”, but with the support of her shipmates and the crew, she did it.

“When I was in the water, it was the most exhilarating feeling,” Ronnie said. “It was unbelievable to think, hey, I can still do this.”

Oceans of Hope was launched in the UK in 2016 to enable people with MS to experience the adventure of sailing.

Ronnie’s friend, Ingrid, became the charity’s ‘Admiral Down Under’, introducing sailing challenges for people with MS in New Zealand and Australia in 2021.

Ingrid described the yachting adventures as a way for people with MS to “get their magnificence back”, which can be lost when diagnosed with a chronic illness.

“You get put into the system, you get given medication and told to ‘go and look after yourself’. But that’s about keeping you stable. You don’t actually push yourself.”

Undertaking an Oceans of Hope challenge can have a powerfully positive impact, Ingrid said.

“I’ve watched people and you can see on their faces they think, ‘I won’t be able to operate the grinder [which trims the sails] or pull on some of the ropes’. And suddenly, it dawns on them: ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ And they do.

“They come to me and say, ‘I did it.’ I love watching the excitement when people challenge themselves.

“We do everything on board,” Ronnie explained. “We cook, we clean, we sail.” And while no sailing experience is required, “a good sense of humour” is advisable.

“[Oceans of Hope] pull out all the stops to make sure people [with MS] can sail.”

Being on a ship with “like-minded people, sharing the same condition” provides opportunities to share information and advice, Ronnie said.

“It was great to sit around and discuss different things affecting us and share coping mechanisms in our everyday life.”

Ronnie intends to “stay as mobile and as healthy as possible”.

She drives a manual car and will continue to do so for as long as possible, uses walking poles to help her get around town, and wears a “turbo boost 3000” foot brace to help counter the effects of a “dropped foot”.

“I don’t live my life in anticipation of being in a wheelchair.”

Her top wellness tips include getting plenty of rest, being around positive people, playing mah jong and practising her creative skills – she’s discovered a talent for watercolours and a joy in playing the ukelele.

For more information about Oceans of Hope, visit https://www.msnz.org.nz/oceansofhope challengenz/

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