Chapter One – Learning to Live
The curragh voyage: Early in the story, I mention my uncle went to sea in a boat with a calico skin – for more about the Iona Curragh voyage go here .
My family home: I mention my childhood home a number of times. This was in Cottenham, a village seven miles north of Cambridge, England. It was probably built in the late 1670s. It had a wooden frame made they said of old ships’ timbers, filled in with lath and plaster in between. At night as a child I would lie in bed, frightened of (imagined) wolves in the wildness out the back, staring at the colossal strangely shaped wooden beams, wondering about their previous life, the seas they’d sailed and the stories embedded in their very grain.
Much of Cottenham parish lies on a ridge around 8 metres above sea level, which, until the 17th-century draining of the Fens of northern East Anglia, was the only dry land between Cambridge and the Isle of Ely around 12 miles to the north-east of the village. As part of an extensive fenland region, Cottenham is drained by a system of ditches and lodes believed to have been built by the Romans. On 29 April 1676, a fire destroyed over half of the buildings in the village. The current house at 60 Denmark Road was probably built soon after this most famous fire of 1676, or it may be even older as it’s a little outside the centre of the village and may have survived that fire. At the back of the house was a vast old farmyard, a wonderful playground for me, gradually civilised by my parents into a beautifully landscaped garden.
In the book, I write about exploring the fenland on my bike. I came to love it, the sense of vastness that its flatness created. Writer Graham Swift captures the aura and history of this strange sea-like land in his novel, Waterland, a Booker prize finalist.
Prep School: As I tell in the book, when I was seven my parents sent me to Kings College Choir School in Cambridge. The choir is famous. Their Christmas Carol Service has been broadcast nationwide by the BBC in the UK on Christmas Eve every year since 1928. But no, even if you listen most carefully to the recordings from around 1960, you will not hear my voice. I wanted to be an explorer, not a singer. Being almost tone-deaf might have had something to do with it. But you can listen to them here. Simply divine.
Single-handed sailing: My introduction to single-handed sailing… it was through my father, sadly not a practitioner, but at least an avid follower of the first single-handed yacht race across the Atlantic. I was ten and in the book write about how I caught his interest.
The five intrepid yachtsmen who entered that first single-handed yacht race across the Atlantic were not the first single-handed ocean sailors. But they were the first in the modern age and certainly the first to compete in a single-handed sailing race across an ocean. Their example has inspired generations of sailors since. See https://rwyc.org/club-history/ostar-history/ostar-1960/
But they weren’t the first. Back in 1895, Joshua Slocum, then a 55-year-old ex-sailing ship captain, had rebuilt an 11.2m (36’9″) oyster sloop ‘Spray’ in Massachusetts and then sailed her around the world over the next three years, stopping in many ports along the way. He’d solved the essential difficulty of how to steer the boat all the time by selecting a boat and rig that was so well balanced that it could reputedly sail itself in a straight line when set up carefully on most points of sail. He did it all the time. But despite the apparent benefits of such design, boats as well-balanced as Spray are still rare today, perhaps because speed is often compromised. The skill to set up the vessel appropriately to sail by herself is even rarer. Slocum may not have been the first but he was the first to also write his story, and in a sufficiently engaging way that it is still popular and in print today. He laid claim to the best title too, ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’.
Following Slocum, there is one other early recorded account of single-handed ocean sailing, that of Howard Blackburn, a dory fisherman from Gloucester, Massachusetts, who completed two single-handed ocean voyages across the North Atlantic in the very early 1900s. See Garland J E, 1964, Lone Voyager. Hutchison of London.
Francis Chichester: I write about the inspiration of Francis Chichester’s single-handed voyage to Australia. For more about that see Chichester F, 1967, Gipsy Moth Circles the World. Hodder and Stoughton and also the autobiography of his wife Sheila, Chichester S, 1969, Two Lives Two Worlds. Hodder and Stoughton, in which she writes at length about the complications of meeting sponsor expectations.
Lapland 1967: Intrepid adventurousness and initiative is slowly grown in young people through unpredictable travel experiences. As I tell in the book, for my 17-year-old school friend Tim and I cycling in Lapland, 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle in 1967, life was anything but predictable.
Mollihawk IV: Pictured below, was the first yacht I ever sailed on, long before heading off across the Atlantic and Pacific in The Aegre. Mollihawk IV was/is a 47ft wooden centreboard sloop that a school friend’s parents bought and refitted in Cambridge (England) in about 1967. With the centreboard raised, she made it to inland Cambridge through the rivers and locks to a berth just by Banhams’s boatyard. I enthusiastically helped with the refit and, once she was back at sea, joined her here, anchored in the Wash near Kings Lynn. From there we sailed south down the coast of East Anglia. I write about how the weather steadily worsened, and I was too excited to sleep for two days.
Subsequently, my friend’s family took her across the Channel and through the European canals to the Mediterranean, where they cruised extensively.
Competitive rowing in London: … In London as a student, I joined Furnival Sculling Club, located by Hammersmith Bridge on the Thames in London. Like many amateur rowing clubs on the Thames tideway, it was steeped in history. Founded in 1896 by Dr Frederick Furnivall as a Ladies Sculling Club. Learn more here .
I loved the sport of competitive rowing. The sense of brooding power released in split-second bursts 30 times a minute. I joined a committed crew. It was extraordinarily demanding. There was no letting up just because you felt a bit tired. Many of the races are as if engraved in my brain, never to be forgotten.
One such was the occasion when I threw myself out of the boat. Not in disgust at losing a race we could have won, or from exhaustion or overheating, tempting as it was sometimes, but due to the blade breaking off the end of my oar.
I was rowing bow (the front seat, at the far end of the boat above) and steering our coxless IV (with my right foot in a sliding shoe that controlled the rudder). The course was on a narrow slightly twisty section of the upper Thames, and a line of small buoys had been laid to mark the course.
While warming up, and doing vigorous practice starts, I took us too close to the buoys and clipped one of them rather hard with my oar. Was it damaged? There was no time to look or exchange it. Then we started the race, going hard from the start as always.
The buoyed course was narrow, and I was keen to steer us into the fastest-moving water (on the outside of bends, for instance), but I overdid it a bit, and we neared the line of buoys on my side. I shouted a warning to Ian, whose oar was on the same side as mine, but at that exact moment, Geoff, the oarsman setting the pace at the back, known as Stroke, called for a spurt of 10 extra hard strokes, over-ruling everything.
With my first extra hard stroke, my oar hit a buoy, and perhaps already weakened, the blade (or part of it?) broke off. With suddenly no resistance from my oar, my body rocketed back on the sliding seat, tearing my feet out of the shoes attached to the boat and sending me flying heels over head, over the side of the boat into the water.
Worse was to come as I surfaced, spluttering, just where Ian’s oar was entering the water for his second mighty stroke of our 10. He held on to his oar firmly, thinking my head was a buoy, giving me a hefty whack. The next time I surfaced, it was to find the referee’s launch heading for me at speed, life rings at the ready.
But I was fine. The water must have cushioned the blow, for a cut at the top of my nose was all I had to show for it. My hurt pride wasn’t so visible.