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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