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Lost and found: how sailing to Loch Ness healed me

Nell's gender dysphoria got in the way of her relationship with her father. On Trans Day of Visibility, she tells Now Then how learning to sail helped her to heal those wounds. 

Loch Ness in the morning
Nell Stockton

This story is about hiding, visibility, loss, estrangement and seeking forgiveness. It’s how I lost my Dad and ‘found’ him again.

From an early age I knew I was different, with no words to describe how I felt. Growing up in the 60s, I knew there was a deep disconnect between my physical body and who I was inside and realised it was connected to my gender. When I finally revealed who I was to my Mum, she told me that the writing had been on the wall but she hadn't been able to read it and had been afraid to try. Transgender people weren’t spoken about and though I was taken to child clinics there were no reference points for someone like me - no organisations like Mermaids and no support groups for parents. Mum quietly struggled as much as me.

I had another parent, my Dad, but when Mum told me that she thought he wouldn’t have accepted me it cut me to the quick. I don’t think my Dad was trying to ‘make a man of me’ but we spent a lot of time having adventures together. He instilled in me a love of the outdoors, we climbed hills and mountains and learned to sail together. He knew as little as I so we learned by trial and error and paid the price, ending up in the water or getting stranded at remote moorings at the end of long days on the Broads.

We went to Scotland in my teens and one fine day we climbed Ben Nevis. From the snow-covered summit, we could see down the Great Glen and the end of the Caledonian Canal. We made plans to sail a boat from Inverness through Loch Ness and down Neptune’s Staircase to the sea at Fort William.

Like many plans, it went unfulfilled. I grew up and, in an attempt to hide myself, got married and had a child. It didn’t end my growing suffering with gender dysphoria and I became increasingly isolated and frustrated. Some of that was directed at my Dad and we became distant, then estranged, which grew into a tragic, unbridgeable divide so deep he refused to see me even when he was dying.

Nell's parents
Nell Stockton

When I learned my father had terminal cancer it had a profound impact on me, bringing home my own mortality and how I was living a lie. I felt like gender dysphoria was a fire chasing me up a tree and I’d reached the top with nothing to do but perish or jump, not knowing where I would land. I knew that if I did jump it risked ending other relationships. I spent several dark months wondering what to do before a counsellor not only saved my life but helped me change it. It was too late for reconciliation with my Dad though and when I saw him next he was in the chapel of rest. It seemed too late.

Nell at the helm
Jermaine Hurst

Transition was like a rebirth. My Mum and brother and sister accepted the real me and I built more deep and valued friendships than I’d ever had before. Towards the end of my transition I was drawn back to sailing. New friends brought opportunities for yacht sailing at sea. I had found my element - somewhere I felt at one. I undertook training and this was followed by trips offshore and to France.

In 2021, the owner of a classic yacht called Lyra began to plan a trip to Norway but Covid made this impossible. Plan B was to sail up the East Coast through the Caledonian Canal and eventually back home to southern England. I signed up eagerly. After leaving Essex in May, we were in Inverness by June and began the trip through the canal with owner Miles, wife Joanne, daughter Rosie and two other women crew, Alexia and Dom.

I was on the helm when we reached Loch Ness and a gentle afternoon breeze took us down the loch. As the spectacular Highlands came into view I remembered the plan my Dad and I had made. At first I felt immensely sad that we never made this trip and then I had a feeling that I was not alone but that he had in some way joined me. I wept, overcome with emotion and then felt a sense of peace and acceptance. Somehow, inexplicably, I felt my Dad’s spirit had found and joined me on this wonderful yacht and beautiful place.

Later, after our evening meal, as we lay anchored in Urquart Bay, I told the others of the plans we’d had and we toasted our absent friends.

My experiences have taught me not only about the importance of visibility but also the need for support to help today’s trans children and their parents and siblings. I’ve been honoured to talk with and speak alongside trans young people at Sheffield charity SAYiT, and similar support groups in West Yorkshire and I support the work of Mermaids, the national charity for trans and gender non-conforming children and young people.

Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to speak with them, I always close with this message: ‘No matter how difficult your journey may seem, it will get better, so never let go of hope.’

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