The Gillows are one of Thailand’s most beloved sailing families, but recently they had to deal with a great deal of adversity that brought this close-knit family even closer together. 

Patriarch Kevin Gillow suffered a severe stroke; amazingly, nine months later he was helming his beloved Poco in the 2015 Bay Regatta.


Kevin originally hails from a small town, called Luderitz, in Namiba. It was through a common interest in horse riding that he met his wife Robin when they both lived in a rural area near Durban, South Africa. They fell in love straight away and were married three months later. Their horses were the bridesmaids and the wedding guests sat on hay bales—they are still together 36 years later.

After the Gillows married, they were determined to raise a family outside of what was then apartheid South Africa, and chose to immigrate to Australia where daughter Mia was born in Perth.

Surprisingly, neither of Mia’s parents come from a sailing background, but Kevin had been sailing with friends and enjoyed being on the water and Robin had done a bit of sailing on friend’s dinghies as a teenager. Kevin is a printer by trade; Robin an artist. They both wanted to see the world and do things differently: they didn’t want to be part of the rat race. So the couple decided to spend all of their savings on a Sparkman & Stephens 30 hull and deck, they later named Poco. They sold their house and lived on the boat, in a friend’s backyard while Kevin continued working on her, adding the keel and doing the final fitting.

Poco was the first boat launched in Hillary’s Harbour in Perth. The family then lived on the boat in the marina until Mia was four. During that time, her parents took a navigation course and improved their knowledge of the sea to prepare for their upcoming journey.

Just after Mia’s fourth birthday, the family set sail for South Africa, stopping off at the Cocos Keeling islands, Rodrigues, Mauritius and Reunion along the way; the voyage took about 6 months. They had really bad weather coming into South Africa, Mia’s parents stuck her down below, but she remembers peering through a window in the duckboards fearful of her parent’s safety as they fought off the enormous waves that greeted their approach to South Africa.

The family spent a year in Durban, where Mia went to school - an experience she’d like to forget as the children were caned if they misbehaved. They then set off for Madagascar and Chagos. From the Chagos Islands they sailed to Kenya. The next three years were spent going back and forth between Kenya and the central Indian Ocean archipelago. On average they spent approximately six-eight months in each place at a time. Kevin found work as a boat captain in Kenya working for the father of one of Mia’s friends. Robin continued her freelance artwork and regularly received commissions for her paintings, while sailing between the anchorages. Painting, drawing and exhibiting are still pastimes she continues to this day.

Mia remembers her time in the Chagos Islands. “There were no shops on the islands, we had to fish every day and gather whatever edible fruit or nuts we found–it was long-term camping, we had to take everything with us, everything we’d need. (Btw, it was in the Chagos that the Gillows first met Joanne Cooney, the former editor of this magazine.)

Arriving in the Land of Smiles

Mia was about 9 years old when the family arrived in Thailand.

Heading into Phuket they were approached by a group of very hungry fishermen, who they originally mistook for pirates. They traded them spaghetti and biscuits (all they had left from their stay on the Chagos) for coconuts, which the fishermen heaved at the boat causing Kevin to scramble around trying to catch them before they could hit and damage Poco. Mia remembers arriving in Ao Chalong in the middle of the night surrounded by a flotilla of brightly-lit squid boats thinking the hills of Phuket were enormous mountains lurking in the background.

Rob Taylor, another longtime Phuket resident, well-known in the local sailing circles, came up to Poco the next morning and introduced himself, explaining where Immigration was and everything else that first-time yachties to Phuket needed to know.

The original plan was that Thailand would be a three-month stopover on the way back to Australia. But the cruising funds were getting low, and Kevin started finding work fixing fiberglass boats along with skippering the occasional charter.

They quickly realized they liked Phuket, so Kevin and Robin asked nine-year-old Mia if she would like to stay in Phuket and continue her home schooling, or return to Australia where she would go to a regular school. Mia recalls, “We did everything as a family. We talked about everything; everyone was always involved in the decisions.” Mia liked Phuket; she had made some friends, which hadn’t been easy as the family had spent so much time cruising. So the decision was made to stay, however, they couldn’t have guessed then, that they would still be in Phuket two decades later.

Mia ended up being home-schooled from the ages of 5-16; though she spent one year at the Phuket International School and her final year of high school at a boarding school in Australia where she learned how cruel kids can be. She had never previously experienced the backstabbing and general nastiness she encountered there.
The family lived on Poco until Mia’s 14th birthday, spending most of their time going back and forth between Koh Yao Noi, Phuket and Langkawi.
The first sailing race they competed in was held in the Laem Prao channel, before Yacht Haven Marina was built. It was a local race with about 10 boats, organized by Andy Dowden. “We sailed the length of the channel, around the island at its eastern end and back to what is now the marina,” says Mia. “We finished third, receiving an awful kitsch ceramic clock, which we didn’t know what to do with, but we were so happy to get a place in the event.”

Poco then raced in the inaugural Bay Regatta, which it won, earning Mia and Kevin first prize in their class in the form of a return trip and accommodation to Koh Samui, courtesy of regatta organizers Artasia. They continued to do the Bay Regatta every year on Poco for a number of years.

As Mia grew older, she started utilizing her sailing knowledge and offered her yachting services free in order to get as much sailing experience as possible. Her first paying job in the industry was delivering an X-Yacht from Phuket to Pattaya when she was 16.

The family acquired Minx, an X-yacht when Mia was in her early 20s, which they co-owned and raced with close friend, Mick Kealy and family. Mia regularly helmed Minx and raced her successfully, winning numerous regattas in the area. In 2010 Minx was sold and Mia and Kevin, once again started racing their beloved Poco.
Growing up, Mia wanted to be either an artist, musician or photographer; especially the latter. She got her first camera-a Pentax Instamatic when she was 4 as her mum realized quite early on that she had a good eye.

Mia’s photographic skills helped her earn high respect locally, especially in the field of regatta shoots. She went to the International College of Professional Photography in Melbourne, Australia, which is where she first met her husband Lance Horowitz (who, also born in Australia, also grew up on a boat).

Lance and Mia shared a house and studied photography together but were just good friends. It wasn’t until five years later, after they had both split from their then respective love interests that Lance phoned Mia while working as a tennis coach in England and declared his love for her. They were married in Phuket in 2012.

The Stroke

In May 2014 Mia’s life took a sharp turn. Kevin,suffered a stroke while Mia was at the Samui Regatta, sailing aboard Jessandra, Mia remembers a horrible feeling of foreboding before she left—Kevin had suffered from acid reflux a few days earlier (a warning sign for a possible stroke, she later learned).

At the end of day two of the regatta, she checked her phone and had a number of messages from her mom, Lance and others. Her father had the stroke while at home. He had been acting strangely, he didn’t recognize Mia’s mom, Robin. However, she quickly put two and two together, realized he’d had a stroke and called an ambulance. Unfortunately, it took about ninety minutes for the ambulance to get to the Gillow’s house at the southern end of the island to take Kevin to Bangkok Phuket hospital. Mia’s whole world collapsed around her. She thought she was going to lose her dad, with whom she’d always been very close.

Robin asked Kevin if he wanted Mia to come home: he indicated he didn’t want her to see him hooked up to tubes in the ICU. So Mia stayed in Samui, the Jessandra crew were very understanding, and she kept racing, calling her mom between races to get updates. Robin didn’t go into too much detail of how serious the situation was for fear of further upsetting Mia.
When the regatta finished, Mia rushed home and went right to the hospital from the tarmac. “It really hit me then how everything was going to change,” she says. “I hadn’t lost my father; thankfully, he was still alive. We were very lucky to still have him. But I would have to watch my father relearn to walk and talk—it was not easy; we had to stay strong for him and put on a brave face and be super supportive.”

Lance has been a rock and source of tremendous support for both Mia and Robin during this whole ordeal.

Unfortunately, although there are a few very limited occupational and physiotherapy departments, there are hardly any speech therapists in Phuket. The Gillows had no choice other than to do much of the therapy at home. Mia kept a scrapbook documenting Kevin’s recovery, e.g. learning to walk again, learning to use his right hand again, learning to pick up small things, etc.

Acting on research results and advice from Mia, Robin quickly got him into a decompression chamber for an hour a day for 40 straight days – pumping pure oxygen into his system sped up the healing process. His speech and walking unaided started to improve immediately.

Mia says the 6 months immediately after the stroke were incredibly difficult as Kevin couldn’t walk, or talk, or in the early weeks, even go to the bathroom. He was stuck in bed, unable to do much, except swear a lot. Robin would sit with him for up to 6 hours every day going over mathematical equations, puzzle solving, reading, writing, doing speech exercises and additional physiotherapy and occupational therapy, etc. Kevin never really got too depressed; he stayed positive.

When Kevin had his stroke, Poco was on the hardstand for a refit: Mia expedited the repairs knowing that her dad would find getting back on the boat healing. Mia was scared he would fall into a negative frame of mind, thinking that he wouldn’t have independence, nor be able to lead a close-to-normal life again.

When the idea to sail in the 2015 Bay Regatta was born, not in a million years did Mia think that Kevin would be able to steer Poco the whole time. The notion however, literally kick-started his recovery - it can take many years for some stroke victims to be able to function at all, let alone walk after having a serious stroke. Kevin handled the whole sickness incredibly well, breaking down only twice, but he needed that goal—the Bay Regatta.

The 2015 Bay Regatta start date arrived. As soon as Kevin stepped aboard his beloved yacht with Mia he was relaxed and soon realized that he could still do things. “His confidence comes back when he’s on the boat,” Mia says.

The four-day regatta saw Poco taking line honors in every single race, Kevin was on the helm, Mia ran the boat, a father/daughter team. Their original aim was just to get around the course. “When they called us on stage to get our first-place trophy at the final prize-giving, my dad received such an amazing response,” Mia recalls. “Many people were tearing up. My best buddy was back!”

Last December, Kevin helmed another X-Yacht in the Phuket King’s Cup Regatta with his old friend, Mick Kealy as one of the crew. It was the first time he had sailed without Mia by his side since the stroke. This year’s Phang Nga Bay Regatta saw Mia and her Dad on the winner’s podium again; with a 2nd place win overall in their class for the renowned father/daughter team.

These days Kevin doesn’t write emails and he doesn’t answer the phone—he must watch his stress levels; he pops in to check on the jobs, and sees the work the Solidair staff is doing and catches up with friends. Solidair’s old customers stayed with the Gillows. (By the way; Solid Air was a song written by John Martyn & Poco was a Southern California country rock band. Kevin is also a musician at heart, and used to play the flute, saxophone, drums and percussion instruments very well.)

Today Kevin cycles between 25–50 km a day, goes sailing on Poco as often as he is able and bar his slight limp and slower speech is very much, back to being himself.
And as the Gillows found out, there is very little support for stroke victims in Phuket and that’s something they would like to change. (Mia and Lance are the X-Yachts representatives in Southeast Asia and they recently opened an X-Yachts showroom at the Ao Po Grand Marina.)

The Solidair Yacht Service Family

Kevin started his company Solidair Marine alone with an off-road bike for transport and a tool kit in a bag about 16 years ago. The now much larger, competently staffed company; based in the Boat Lagoon, focuses on fibre-glass repairs, paint work and refits.

Located directly opposite the Solidair Marine offices at the Boat Lagoon, Mia and Lance’s sister company, Solidair offers yacht services such as project management and maintenance, sail repair and storage and take care of boats when their owners are overseas. Mia is also the North Sails Phuket and Malaysia representative.
Both companies share an office at Ao Po Marina. Neither company has ever found the need to advertise; word of mouth in the yachting circles serves both companies well.


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