My Norfolk Life: 'I swapped my job for an adult gap year'

David Smith, from Norwich, who has written a book titled Life is not a Dress Rehearsal. Picture: Dan

David Smith, from Norwich, with his book Life is not a Dress Rehearsal - Credit: Danielle Booden

After a 31-year career in a plastics factory David Smith was ready to retire – but had no idea he would soon embark on a series of adventures which would take him around the globe, helping some of the world’s poorest children.  

Without the daily routine of work his time was his own, and he was soon wondering how to fill it. 

“One day I wanted to teach my children how to drive and the next I wanted to hike to Everest base camp. The sky was the limit, but on a day-to-day basis, I found myself at a loss for things to do,” said David, now 66, of Bracondale, Norwich. “There’s only so much golf you can play!” 

He began volunteering in a local Oxfam shop and working there inspired him to research voluntary work much further afield. 

“I had soon found multiple companies where you could do almost anything, anywhere, whether your interest was teaching English to monks in Nepal or helping scientists to research dolphin behaviour in Mexico,” said David.  

David Smith, from Norwich, who has written a book titled Life is not a Dress Rehearsal. Picture: Dan

David Smith, from Norwich, with his book Life is not a Dress Rehearsal - Credit: Danielle Booden

Searching for something which would do as much good as possible he came across a Brazilian charity which helped children in the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro.  

He had never been to Brazil, never stayed in a hostel, never been a teacher, but was soon part of a school project helping protect desperately poor children from crime and violence. 

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For five weeks his home was a hostel and his workplace a windowless classroom next to a scrap yard.  

“In the corner there was a tiny and very basic kitchen area, next to which was an even tinier toilet, which was dirty and unpleasant,” he said. “It dawned on me that this is how I would be spending most of my days in Rio; stuffed into a 16 square foot box, trying to help kids whose lives were nothing like my own sleepy seaside upbringing.

“The idea was to keep kids off the streets and away from trouble as, with little money and opportunities, crime, violence, and poverty were an unfortunate inevitability for many local kids,” said David, who even took the children a little bit of home, giving them Norwich City kits donated by the club. 

David Smith with children in the favelas of Brazil 

David Smith with children in the favelas of Brazil - Credit: Supplied by David Smith

Gradually the initial bewilderment of being thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment gave way to a sense of purpose and David was delighted to feel he was making a difference. “It was immensely rewarding,” he said.  

Six months after completing his voluntary work placement he returned to Brazil with his then 18-year-old daughter, Georgia, to show her a little of what he had been doing, introduce her to some of the people he had met and travel through more of South America. He is now funding another volunteer to work in the Brazilian favela. 

David Smith joins the fun at Rio Carnival 

David Smith joins the fun at Rio Carnival - Credit: Supplied by David Smith

Back in Britain he settled into ‘a life of golf and Oxfam’ but it was not long before he was eager to travel again.  

All it took was spotting some information about the Clipper round-the-world yacht race. “It welcomed amateur and even newbie sailors, giving them the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail around the world with a professional skipper,” said David. “I was sold!”  

He signed up for a four-month adventure which would take him from Liverpool to Australia – and raise money for UNICEF too.  

The clipper fleet at Albert Dock, Liverpool

The clipper fleet at Albert Dock, Liverpool - Credit: Supplied by David Smith

“It proved to be one of the most difficult yet rewarding experiences of my life so far,” said David.   

Although he had done a lot of sailing on the Norfolk Broads this was across oceans, taking watches round the clock with sleep snatched in shifts. He describes being woken to take his turn through a storm and scrambling into still-wet clothes and heading out to the deck. “The noise was immense - a roar like the inside of a jet engine rising up all around me. ‘Clip on!’ was shouted by one of the starboard watch members and I secured myself on to the safety line before crawling to the back of the boat to the helming station...The key to helming in a storm is to turn into the wave at the very last second to minimise the slamming of the boat and then let go of the wheel so that it spins back and you can begin the manoeuvre again. But my shoulder already ached from previous watches and my fingers were quick and skittering, scared of getting trapped or snapped in the spokes of the steering wheel.” 

David Smith helping to hoist a foresail on a clipper

David Smith helping to hoist a foresail on a clipper - Credit: Supplied by David Smith

Although the storm felt relentless at the time there were plenty of peaceful and joyful times. The voyage took David back across the Atlantic to Uruguay and then over to Cape Town and on to Perth in Australia.   

He raised almost £10,000 for UNICEF and is now hoping to raise more for the charity after turning his adventures into a book.  

Life is not a Dress Rehearsal tells the stories of his voluntary work in Brazil, his return to South America with his daughter and sailing the Clipper race.  

The book is illustrated by Amber Conte, a student at Norwich University of the Arts. 

Half the proceeds will go to UNICEF. “It dovetails well with what I would like to help achieve in Brazil which is to give children a better life,” said David. 

David was born in Bungay and worked as a quantity surveyor before taking a job as manager in the print department of M&H Plastics of Beccles. During his 31-year career in the company, which makes plastic bottles, jars, tubs and tubes, he rose to become production director, taking early retirement, aged 58, eight years ago.  

Life is not a Dress Rehearsal by David Smith. Picture: Danielle Booden

Life is not a Dress Rehearsal by David Smith - Credit: Danielle Booden

His own children, now aged 21 and 24, are proud of his late-in-life adventures which continued with trips to India, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He had always enjoyed family holidays, particularly skiing and this summer wants to boat down the Canal du Midi in France and visit Cuba – where he would like to do some more volunteering. 

He is also volunteering closer to home, working with young people in care with the charity Change, Grow, Live. 

“The book is the story of these wonderful experiences and the unforgettable characters that I met on the way,” said David. “It is those first three experiences that remain the highlights of my retired life so far.” 

Life is not a dress rehearsal is available in hardback for £20, plus postage and packing, from David - email him at smithdavid4556@yahoo.co.uk