When music executive John Preston died in 2017, his wife Roz thought she’d never sail again. But tomorrow she sets sail across the Atlantic in the yacht they built together and named after the Eurythmics hit by the band he worked with. 


“John’s death was very sudden and unexpected,” says Roz Preston, a former special advisor to Tony Blair. “The first time someone asked me what I’d do with the boat, I couldn’t even think about it, I just fell apart.” 

Roz and John had left Sweet Dreams in La Rochelle, intending to cruise around the Spanish rias, when John suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. They’d sailed her across the North Sea and spent three seasons in the Baltic, before deciding to head south to the Med. The idea of continuing the dream without John was unthinkable. Until Roz read his will… 

“There was a hand-written amendment saying his ashes should be laid to rest in Acairseid Mhor, the anchorage on the island Rona,” said Roz. “That could only be done by boat, and of course, that meant sailing Sweet Dreams.”

Roz on her homebuilt Bill Dixon yacht Sweet Dreams ahead of her transatlantic crossing. Photo: Ali Wood

After retiring from high-profile careers – John as chairman of BMG Records UK & Ireland, and Roz co-running the office of Cherie Blair – the couple enrolled on a course at Lyme Regis Boat Building Academy. They spent seven years building their dream boat, so when Roz read John’s will, she smiled.

“Acairseid Mhor was my idea. He got his revenge!” says Roz. “It was supposed to be him in his dotage scattering my ashes, but that’s not how it panned out.” 

Former music executive John Preston loved to sail

The remote island of Rona, in the Hebrides, was part of their old cruising ground, where they’d spent many happy years.

In the company of friends, Roz set off to the anchorage to honour John’s wishes. With her onboard Sweet Dreams was Ed Phillips, one of the team of former students who had helped build the boat.

As they sailed back from Rona, they discussed Sweet Dreams’s future. By the time Roz reached Oban she knew she had to keep the boat. By the time she arrived at Kip, she’d agreed to cross the Atlantic. 

The bluewater dream

Sweet Dreams had always been built with bluewater voyaging in mind. It was during the mid-90s that Roz and John had the idea to build their own yacht. 

“We decided that the Moody 35 we were sailing wasn’t pretty enough. We looked around but couldn’t find what we wanted, but then we saw an article about a boatbuilding school in Lowestoft,” says Roz. “We were in high-pressure jobs and getting tired of the London treadmill, so we thought, ‘let’s make a change. Let’s build our own boat’.”

They approached the designer of their Moody 35, Bill Dixon, who also did private commissions. 

“There were a number of boats we really liked,” says Roz. “We liked the Tradewind 35, but we wanted something bigger, like Bill Dixon’s Nordseil 55. We were after a modern classic that we could build ourselves without too much trouble.”

She adds that the ‘without too much trouble’ bit couldn’t be further from the truth!

Sweet dreams is made of cedar, mahogany and fibreglass with teak decks. Photo: Ali Wood

In the end, they chose a boatbuilding school in ‘far nicer’ Lyme Regis, Dorset, where they did a year’s training under chief instructor Dick Phillips. 

After the boatbuilding course Roz and John rented a 90ft barn in nearby Charmouth and got to work on Sweet Dreams, making everything by hand, except the keel, which was made in Dartmouth. 

Roz and John Preston took seven years to build Sweet Dreams

The hull was constructed using western yellow cedar, cove and bead, on laminated sapely frames. Vacuumed on top there are three layers of Khaya mahogany veneer – in wide strips – followed by a layer of fibreglass for impact resistance. The hull was coated in ivory Awlgrip, and the topsides made of varnished teak – a material also used for the interior, along with douglas fir and oak, all glued with West System epoxy. 

Adapting to ‘retirement’

“My friends described our project as ‘taking early retirement’, but if this is retirement, I said, I’d rather still be working,” says Roz. “It was very, very hard.”

Roz had loved the ‘rollercoaster ride’ of being part of the opposition with New Labour. Then when Blair came into power, running Cherie’s office came with a whole new set of challenges.

“Cherie was targeted very deliberately by the right wing media who were out to destroy her,” says Roz. “It was awful, but there were aspects of the role that were very exciting. Had I been in policy making I’d have found it even harder to leave.”

After eight years, Roz was ‘pretty tired’, and glad not to have been there ‘when Iraq became an issue’.

“I enjoyed having my own opinions and not having to toe the line,” she says. “On a personal level I was very fond of the Blairs and knew I would miss them.” 

Roz and John soon adapted to their hectic boatbuilding ‘retirement’. Roz credits her ‘ability to always look on the downside,’ to working in politics, but says it was a useful skill for boatbuilding.

 “I drove everyone nuts, always looking at the worst-case scenario, but it’s got to be right!”.

No more travelling

John, on the other hand, never looked back. He’d worked for RCA Records, which later became BMG, for 13 years. During this time, he employed Simon Cowell and worked with artists such as Eurythmics, M People and Take That. He also chaired the Rock the Vote campaign in the run-up to the 1997 general election, encouraging  young people to register to vote. 

Already John was travelling a lot, and the next step would have meant travel for three weeks out of every four. 

“It was hard work for him too,” recalls Roz. “He realised he didn’t have the stomach for any more travel and by 1998 we had put everything in place to make the change. I was just back from Japan, he was back from the States. We came together in the house and thought, ‘we don’t have to do this anymore’. It was a big moment.”

After moving to Dorset, John worked part-time in the music industry and part time on Sweet Dreams, whilst Roz worked full time for a few years until her mother became ill. 

“We thought it would take two or three years to build Sweet Dreams, but were soon disabused of that crazy notion,” says Roz. “It was fun but it was very challenging at times. Had it been left to me, the boat would never have been finished.” 

The build took longer than expected, in part, because ‘life intervened’. Sadly, the couple lost a grandmother and two parents.

“We built Sweet Dreams as an ocean cruiser,” says Roz. “The plan was to go round the world, but my mother lost her husband and her health deteriorated. I could see that from 2003 onwards there was an absolute collision course between her state of health and our getting the boat launched.” 

Fortunately, Roz and John had lots of help from other students at Lyme Regis Boatbuilding Academy, including Ed Phillips, who skippers Sweet Dreams for Roz now. 

Ed had been a student the year before the Prestons, and it wasn’t unusual for students to work on each others’ and former students’ boats. 

“We needed serious muscle to laminate the stem,” recalls Roz. “It was a massive lamination and we had to get the glue on fast enough to clamp it in its final shape before the glue went off. There were four people running up and down the shed, slapping on epoxy!” 

Never giving up

There were times when Roz would have thrown the towel in, but John was determined, despite his lack of practical skills. Roz, being a dressmaker, was more experienced at using her hands and working from plans.

“It was interesting because if John and I picked up a piece of wood, he’d say, ‘pick it up that end,’ and I’d say, ‘no this end’. We worked on opposite ends of the boat most of the time. I think the transom was the only place we didn’t manage to fall out!”

John and Roz toyed with the idea of moving back up to Scotland after their course in Lyme Regis, but were glad they stayed in Dorset, with help at hand. 

“Dick was a huge help during the build,” says Roz. “I still love watching him work with wood today. He’s so methodical and considered. Nothing is done in a hurry. It’s magical – Iike listening to Mozart. I hope I tried to achieve some of that along the way.”

The Prestons could have chosen a much easier construction than wood, but that was never an option.  

“Wood is pure joy,” says Roz. “Essentially, we were buying wood in bulk and cutting it down to laminate it or make it into furniture. There’s an immense satisfaction in turning a piece of raw timber into a door, for example, but it’s all curved, nothing is straightforward.

“When we got the frames set up we had to make sure everything was fair, and when we started planking we couldn’t have any ripples along the hull. We faired this so many times, she’s so smooth, people think she’s made of fibreglass.” 

A challenge for Roz was working at heights. Sweet Dreams’s hull was built upside down, so she was 8ft off the ground when it came to planing.

“At that stage I kept thinking I was going to fall off, so I went and did the deck beams instead in the warm, laminating room,” she recalls. “We both worked to our strengths, though I’m sure if a professional team had been building this boat they’d have done it more systematically, and in half the time!”

She remembers that Radio 2 kept them going through the long days of hard labour. All the machines would mysteriously go silent each morning during Ken Bruce’s PopMaster. 

“We were pretty good,” laughs Roz. “I could put together a compilation of music from 2000 to 2007 in my head. I know every song.” 

Launch day

The launch of Sweet Dreams in 2007 – 7 years after the build began – should have been a jubilant moment, but Roz describes it as a ‘pretty difficult time’.

“We’d built this whole boat ourselves, we were totally in control, and now we had to hand her over to a yard to have the keel attached. It went wrong from the very first moment.”

Roz and John had worked off a template to get the keelbolt holes perfect, but the yard insisted on re-aligning the lot. They used mastic instead of epoxy, despite Roz and John’s preference for epoxy, and applied too much torque, which resulted in the keelbolts sheering off. The couple had to re-do a lot of work, but this time went back to using epoxy as recommended by the designer. When they finally launched, one of the yard workers said, unkindly, “By the way, you’ll be back in two years because the keel will fail and the epoxy will crack off.” 

They put the bad experience behind them, and set off down Plymouth Sound.

“It was unforgettable,” says Roz. “Sweet Dreams is a cutter rig, and we got all the sails up. We made 6 knots in 12 knots of breeze, and we just took off across the sound with grins from ear to ear.” 

The next stop was Dartmouth Marina, where they took over the hotel and had a huge, well-deserved launch party. 

“John and I didn’t have children, we were never going to put kids through university, so this was our big party instead, our fabulous party, and it was a lot of fun.” 

Roz would like to say that was the end of the yacht build, but they soon realised the boat wasn’t finished. Sweet Dreams was leaning to starboard and low at the stern because there was an awful lot of weight in the back. 

“Just repaint the waterline,” advised the designer, which they did, but they still spent the winter of 2007-8 moving items around, such as the batteries which they shifted forward to under the port-side saloon berth. 

In 2009, when Sweet Dreams was truly finished, Roz and John moved back to Edinburgh, where John was on the board of the Queen’s Hall music venue and Scottish Drugs Forum. They sailed for two or three months every year, covering 10,000 miles, mostly in northern waters, including the Channel, the Irish Sea, Ireland and the west coast of France. 

Transatlantic refit

After John’s tragic death in November 2017, and the scattering of his ashes, Ed and Roz sailed Sweet Dreams back to Mylor in Cornwall, where Ed agreed to take on the role of skipper and began preparations for an ocean voyage. 

The original Doyle sails were replaced with twin headsails – ‘they didn’t owe us,’ says Roz, ‘they just got old,’ – and the Raymarine electronics upgraded. Roz also added a bow thruster: “I have to apologise to John for that one. He’d have never wanted that but my boat-handling is appalling and I need it!” 

In 2020 the Covid outbreak prevented a practice run to the Azores, but Roz managed to get to France for a couple of weeks, after which they made plans for some further adjustments to Sweet Dreams.

“Sailing with a new skipper is very different,” she says. “John and I were your classic middle aged sailing couple. He helmed and I did all the jumping around. It was all I ever knew, and suddenly it was me and a new skipper. I thought, ‘how do we make this work?’ In some ways it’s easier because it’s not personal. John and I used to have the most horrendous fallings out, when he hadn’t listened to me for example and we’d hit a rock!”

Ready to go

Roz decided to cross the Atlantic as part of the ARC+, the sister event to the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, which sails from Gran Canaria to Grenada with a stopover in Cape Verde. Friends had completed the World ARC, and she liked the idea of the camaraderie that comes with a rally.

The crossing to the start at Las Palmas went smoothly: “I think the first time Ed sailed Sweet Dreams, he was very conscious of John’s presence in the boat, so it’s been quite a journey for us all,” says Roz. “But you know, I have to give the guys credit. I couldn’t do it without them. We’re a great team, we all sailed a lot together, and we often sit and talk about John.”

Preparing for the transatlantic in Sweet Dreams’s cabin. Photo: Ali Wood

With just a day to go before the ARC+ start the vibe on Sweet Dreams is relaxed; Roz has spent the last couple of days provisioning for the 4-man crew, skipper Ed is busy plotting a course on a huge paper chart, and Dick, in a stripy apron, is cooking up a delicious-smelling chilli. 

In the saloon is a photo of John, mounted alongside the PG Tips monkey, the boat’s mascot who’s been with them since the beginning. 

Sailing again – Sweet Dreams at the start of the ARC+ (taken a day after this article). Photo: Ali Wood

It’s not the scene that Roz imagined at the start of her transatlantic – being without John – but she knows he would have been proud. 

“John and I never managed to do all the sailing we wanted to, but he’d be glad I’m here. He always said building Sweet Dreams was his greatest achievement. When I’m feeling old and tired, I remind myself what this is all about. John loved building Sweet Dreams. She was his absolute pride and joy.”