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Well-salted

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My mother paled at the sight of salt water. Father relished it. In at the deep end was his style. I was 4, sitting with my mother on a shingle beach, when Father appeared in a boat rowed by his fellow Royal Marines and vaulted like a Viking into the surf. He picked me up, hoisted me over the gunwale and scrambled aboard as the boat reared thrillingly over the crashing waves.

Growing up by the sea, I was a summer amphibian, a winter beachcomber and an observer of warships and great liners. Later, my remit as a junior reporter included naval affairs, boat-building and champagne ship launches. I used to call on Uffa Fox, designer and nautical celebrity, for news. ‘Don’t you go putting that in the paper,’ he’d growl, always pleased that I did. I interviewed Alan Villiers, one of my heroes, a square-rigger in human form, who had made a life as a seaman-writer in the twilight of the windjammers. In the saloon of the small yacht Wanderer III I scribbled as Eric and Susan Hiscock talked modestly on their return from their second circumnavigation.

The Hiscocks were key figures in the 1950s and 1960s, professional voyagers who made reality of what many dreamed. They wrote the textbooks of blue-water sailing, touching the golden isles, sailing to the West Indies, Panama, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the Indian Ocean and South Africa. I knew people who dreamed and failed and others who just dreamed. Like me, many of my friends and acquaintances read the pre-war circumnavigation sagas of Harry Pidgeon in Islander; Alain Gerbault in Firecrest; Conor O’Brien in Saoirse; W. A. Robinson in Svaap; and Dwight Long in Idle Hour. In 1942–3, Vito Dumas, an Argentinian, sailed around the bottom of the world in the Roaring Forties. In a desperate episode he was preparing to amputate his horribly infected right arm when he fell unconscious and the swelling burst.

After the war a new crop of sailors dared th

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My mother paled at the sight of salt water. Father relished it. In at the deep end was his style. I was 4, sitting with my mother on a shingle beach, when Father appeared in a boat rowed by his fellow Royal Marines and vaulted like a Viking into the surf. He picked me up, hoisted me over the gunwale and scrambled aboard as the boat reared thrillingly over the crashing waves.

Growing up by the sea, I was a summer amphibian, a winter beachcomber and an observer of warships and great liners. Later, my remit as a junior reporter included naval affairs, boat-building and champagne ship launches. I used to call on Uffa Fox, designer and nautical celebrity, for news. ‘Don’t you go putting that in the paper,’ he’d growl, always pleased that I did. I interviewed Alan Villiers, one of my heroes, a square-rigger in human form, who had made a life as a seaman-writer in the twilight of the windjammers. In the saloon of the small yacht Wanderer III I scribbled as Eric and Susan Hiscock talked modestly on their return from their second circumnavigation. The Hiscocks were key figures in the 1950s and 1960s, professional voyagers who made reality of what many dreamed. They wrote the textbooks of blue-water sailing, touching the golden isles, sailing to the West Indies, Panama, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, the Indian Ocean and South Africa. I knew people who dreamed and failed and others who just dreamed. Like me, many of my friends and acquaintances read the pre-war circumnavigation sagas of Harry Pidgeon in Islander; Alain Gerbault in Firecrest; Conor O’Brien in Saoirse; W. A. Robinson in Svaap; and Dwight Long in Idle Hour. In 1942–3, Vito Dumas, an Argentinian, sailed around the bottom of the world in the Roaring Forties. In a desperate episode he was preparing to amputate his horribly infected right arm when he fell unconscious and the swelling burst. After the war a new crop of sailors dared the oceans in small yachts and I read their books: Once is Enough by Miles Smeeton, whose Tzu Hang was twice rolled stern over stem and dismasted; The Wind Calls the Tune by Colin Smith and Charles Violet; Sopranino by Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie; Red Mains’l by Edmund Pye; Sheila in the Wind by Adrian Hayter. No story was more harrowing than Ann Davison’s Last Voyage. What began as a romantic journey ended with the boat smashed on the rocks at Portland and her husband drowned before her eyes. She kept faith with the idea and in 1952 was the first woman to cross the Atlantic solo. In the 1960s and 1970s Francis Chichester, Alec Rose, Robin Knox-Johnston and Chay Blyth made famous single-handed circumnavigations. Their ancestor in adventure was Joshua Slocum, a Nova Scotia-born American. He rebuilt Spray, a derelict 37-foot sloop, and in 1895, aged 51, set off from Boston and sailed her 46,000 miles by way of the Azores, Gibraltar, Pernambuco, the Magellan Straits, Samoa, Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean. It was the first solo circumnavigation and his Sailing Alone Around the World, published in 1900, was the grandfather of the small-boat voyage book, the classic. It is laconic and simple, non-romantic in that Slocum refuses to be a lone hero struggling against the terrifying sea. Rather, he is at home in the ocean wilderness, insisting that ‘the wonderful sea charmed me from the first’. Spray is his companion as much as a boat: ‘The Spray enjoyed many civilities while she rode at anchor.’ Revisiting Sailing Alone after more than thirty years, I was reminded of Slocum’s trick of appearing as a self-effacing guest, reading and cooking while the trusty Spray gets on with the job of sailing, holding her course with the wheel secured. Slocum claimed that for 2,700 miles across the Indian Ocean he steered for only three hours. ‘I just lashed the helm . . . a delightful sail.’ Some mariners objected that the yacht could not have steered herself over such distances. I do not suppose that she did. Slocum sailed before the invention of the self-steering contraptions that enable modern long-distance sailors to escape the tyranny of the helm. On the other hand, self-steering is a matter of balancing the rig, and Slocum was a skilled seaman. In any case, characterizing Spray as a wise old horse who knows the way home is part of his yarn. ‘The Spray made the discovery that the worst sea is not so terrible to a well-appointed ship.’ His refusal to dramatize gives power to his narratives of storms; and in these crises we find him at the wheel for up to thirty hours. In one of his famous stories he takes to his bunk in the Straits of Magellan having first sprinkled Spray’s deck with carpet tacks. Sure enough, marauding Tierra del Fuego warriors creep aboard and hop off howling. Slocum teases us, too, by relating that his only timepiece is an old tin clock and that when it fails he boils it to get it ticking again. He was, of course, well-salted, a sailor since boyhood and a captain at 25. He married Virginia Walker in Sydney and thereafter she shared his cabin, sailed the oceans, gave birth aboard ship to four children, and educated them at sea. She died in the captain’s cabin in Buenos Aires; and Slocum, in his son’s words, was a ship with a broken rudder. He married again and, following shipwreck in South America, built a 35-foot boat and, with his new wife, Hettie, sailed 5,500 miles home. He was out of a job – ‘what was there for an old sailor to do?’ – when he set off in Spray, determined to make a living writing and lecturing about his world voyage. He and Hettie drifted apart. In 1909, aged 65, lonely and unhappy, he set sail in his beloved Spray for South America. Both were ragged and unseaworthy. They were never seen again. Slocum founded a new age of ocean wandering and self-reliant seamanship. His narrative, and his envoi ‘To young men contemplating a voyage I would say go’, we re inspirational. So we re the stories of his successors in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s hard-up escapers restored old boats and sailed for the South Seas and freedom. In 1960 H. G. Hasler originated the single-handed transatlantic race, for the adventure of it all and to improve self-steering gear for loners. Francis Chichester won and, aged 66, went on to be the first to circumnavigate alone, with one stop, by way of the Capes of Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn. In 1968–9 Robin Knox-Johnston won the Golden Globe race, sailing alone and non-stop around the world. Another competitor, Donald Crowhurst, became deranged and killed himself at sea. Nigel Tetley, who completed the course, was found hanged a year later. John Ridgway, who pulled out of that race in Brazil, sails on. I have voyaged with him twice across the North Atlantic and on the 6,000-mile Cape Town-Melbourne Roaring Forties leg of his recent, and third, circumnavigation. These were the adventures I dreamed of when I read Slocum and Co. years ago. Ridgway is old-school and pays his own way in his 30-year-old ketch. The logo-plastered modern ocean racers that make headlines and cost millions are a long way from Slocum and his tin clock. The ocean doesn’t change, though. Its might and meanings are still to be sought. ‘Go,’ urged Slocum, ‘the sea was made to be sailed over.’ His story, told with humour, humility and wonder, resonates still.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Trevor Fishlock 2004


About the contributor

Trevor Fishlock was a foreign correspondent for The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and went to sea to escape the telephone. He has written books on India, Russia, America and Wales. His latest, Conquerors of Time: Exploration and Invention in the Age of Daring, is published by John Murray.

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