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Quinton family standing on a boat

Posted 13 February 2017

In praise of early retirement: sailing out of choppy waters to fulfil a life's ambition

Retiring several years ahead of time allowed Steve and Ann to realise some long-held ambitions that might not have been possible if they had stayed in work. Then a brush with serious illness helped them to appreciate their newfound time even more. The couple talked to Tony Watts (@tonywattswriter) about why they left work early to switch watching the skies for sailing the seas.

These days, taking a flight to a European city or holiday spot is something we take for granted. Book in and check in online, turn up and fly, land and enjoy yourself.

Making that chain of events possible is a small army of people. Perhaps the most critical job that many tend to forget is that of the air traffic controller, sitting in front of a screen, quietly making sure we have a safe passage through the air and onto the runway.

It’s a job that Steve and Ann Quinton both did for well over 40 years before they retired – on the same day – several years ago.

‘People assume it’s a high-pressure career, but it never seemed that way to us,’ says Steve, who is now just six months shy of his 65th birthday. ‘It’s what we did – and we all worked as a team so you looked out for each other.

‘You work in two-hour blocks, then have half an hour off. I used to come off feeling fairly pumped.’

The shifts, both agree, can be gruelling. ‘You’re on a 10-day cycle, taking it in turns with other ‘watches’ to make sure the skies are kept safe 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,’ says Ann.

"We both walked away from our jobs and have never looked back"

‘Steve and I would work different shifts so we could look after our two children, which meant that we rarely spent all of Christmas Day together.’

‘We both walked away from our jobs and never looked back,’ interjects Steve. ‘We loved the people we worked with, and we've kept in touch with many of them. But we haven't missed the work. We’d done that.'

‘Both of us had problems adjusting to getting up and going to bed at the same time each day – but even that disappeared after six months.’

In common with other professions, air traffic controllers qualify for a company pension at 60, and many do leave work then.

‘To be honest,’ says Steve, ‘throughout your working life you always looked at that as the end point you were working towards. It’s a mind-set. But we made a decision for me to carry on working a year longer as I’m a year older than Ann and we wanted to retire together.'

"We made a decision for me to carry on working a year longer as I'm a year older than Ann"

‘This meant we could enjoy the experience of retiring together, but it also proved really important to our finances: in that year I was able to put enough away into a drawdown pension to ‘plug the gap’ in our annual income that will be filled next year by my State Pension.’

Both Steve and Ann had long been looking forward to retirement.

‘We had a big list of activities we wanted to pursue and ambitions to fulfil,’ says Ann. ‘First and foremost, we have a 34-foot sailing boat that I bought with an inheritance. We’d never been able to do more than short journeys before. Now, we could go for much longer trips and not worry about getting stuck in harbour with bad weather.’

First off, though, was a five-week campervan holiday across Europe with their two children, and an opportunity to enjoy cross-country skiing in Vermont. It was also a chance for Steve to make more use of his beloved 1,000cc Ducati motorbike, as well as train for and enter local cycling sportives in and around Somerset. Ann started to increase her running miles and enter local 5ks and 10ks, as well as taking up pilates.

"We had a big list of activities we wanted to pursue and ambitions to fulfil"

And then, out of the blue, Ann was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.

‘It was a real body blow,’ says Ann, ‘but we've had huge support from our friends and family. I’ve gone through the chemo and I’m now in remission.’

For the last 12 months, everything has been on hold, but with Ann’s health steadily improving, they have returned to ‘retirement’ with renewed purpose.

‘We feel a lot more confident now about making plans,’ says Ann. ‘But above all, it’s made us appreciate being retired.'

‘If I had had that diagnosis when we were working, it would have been really serious. We were able to deal with the crisis without worrying about work commitments, and I could focus on getting well, and attend appointments at the drop of the hat.’

‘It has also made us really appreciate what we have,’ adds Steve. ‘We shared three fabulous years before the diagnosis. Hopefully there will be many more.’

The couple feel that – despite the diagnosis - in many ways they've been lucky. ‘Imagine if we hadn't made full use of those years,’ says Steve.

Steve and Ann's parting words of advice

‘My advice to anyone now is to make the most of life,’ recommends Steve. ‘Yes, make the most of your retirement, but don't wait until then to fulfil your ambitions and live your dreams.’

‘Live every day as if it was your last,’ Ann adds. ‘One day you'll be right!’

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