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|2.||The Idea Is Born||13|
|4.||About Turn! Quick March!||37|
|5.||Round the World for the First Time||61|
|6.||The Road Not Taken||73|
|7.||Begin It Now||87|
|9.||The Single-Handed Transatlantic||121|
|10.||Off to France||149|
|11.||Into the Southern Occan||189|
|12.||A Close Encounter||207|
|13.||No Man's Land||231|
|14.||The Home Run||247|
|List of Sponsors||263|
The British Steel Challenge. Winter 1992. Somewhere in the Southern Ocean.
I set to work on the forestay fitting. I was sitting far forward, my legs over the side ... a huge wave swept in from behind ... the bow settled as the crest bore down. I felt the water reach my feet, my knees, my waist ... the wave gathered its shoulder under the hull ... she started to move, water gently tugging at my legs, pulling at me. A bow wave formed around my chest and when it came the acceleration was frightening ... I was looking down the front of the biggest wave I had ever seen ... a whoop of wild exhilaration rose from my clenched guts and I wondered how it would be to return one day and sail single-handed on the lightest, fastest, most high-tech boat I could muster. I wanted to surf down one of these waves to see how fast I could travel and discover what would happen at the bottom.
* * *
In 1964, when I was three, I was taken to Plymouth to watch the start of the second Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) from there to Newport, Rhode Island. This most famous of yacht races marked the birth of single-handed competition and was the brainchild of Blondie Hasler, an ex-Royal Marine. My family and I had gone out in my grandfather's old motor-sailer to wave the fleet out of Plymouth Sound. Of course, I had no idea at the time what an influence Hasler—a short, bald man with a ruddy face—and his tiny junk-rigged Folkboat Jester were to have on my life. Hasler had risen to fame after he led a daring exploit during the Second World War, when ten marines canoed under cover of darkness up the Gironde river to Nazi-occupied Bordeaux, where they sank several ships at the harbour quayside by attaching limpet mines to them. They were known thereafter as the Cockleshell Heroes—`cockleshell' being the term given to any small, light boat.
I called out to wish Hasler good luck and he shouted something back, which was lost in the general din. I was too young to grasp the enormity of what those yachtsmen were pitting themselves against. Thirty-seven days later—an eternity to a three-year-old—my father, John, told me Hasler had made it, and the magnitude of what he had achieved sank in. I was hooked from that moment on and often dreamed of someday setting out on a similar adventure. It was always the sea. Throughout my early childhood I made crude sailing ships out of boxes and broom handles, and set sail on imaginary voyages of discovery.
I also have vivid recollections of my first Channel crossing from Plymouth to Treguier with my father when I was quite young. We planned the menu, studied charts, prepared the boat and checked the weather forecast prior to departure. It was a hard trip and the feelings of achievement and pride when we made landfall were fantastic. I felt as if I had taken a step into the unknown and come out on top—although in truth my father did most of the work. But before long the Channel was not enough and I wanted more. It was the first of many steps that were eventually to lead to the somewhat larger challenge of the Vendée Globe thirty or so years later.
I was born on 22 December 1961 in Yealmpton, Devon. My father was a consultant in tropical agriculture who worked abroad on two-year projects, supervising development schemes in Aden, Australia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. I suppose my upbringing was a little unconventional. We lived in the bush in Aden for a while in the 1960s, where at times my father had to go to work in a mine-proof Jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back. It was a pretty wild time—one of our bedrooms had bullet holes up the wall and we had to have armed guards round the house at night. Access from the outside world was by Dakota, which had to land on the beach—we burned old car tyres to show our position and the wind direction. It was an unstable period in the country, with much talk of revolution. We had a small catamaran hidden on the beach, with an escape route from the house via a wadi (dried-up water course), should things get really bad. The plan was to pile us all on board and sail out to meet one of the oil tankers passing up and down the Red Sea. They were exciting times and good fun, particularly as I was at an age when danger has no meaning. Travel and adventure were becoming a way of life. I believe that the greatest lottery in life is your parents. You aren't able to choose them and yet they are the ones who have the job of establishing the principles with which you set out in life. After that, it's up to you. My parents taught me that I could do anything I wanted to and I have always believed it to be true. Add a clear idea of what inspires you, dedicate your energies to its pursuit and there is no knowing what you will achieve, particularly if others are inspired by your dream and offer their help.
Generally, children whose parents were working abroad were sent to boarding school. However, my mother Sally wanted her family around her, and so opted to keep her four boys—my elder brother Richard, younger brothers Martin and Andrew, and me—at home and teach us herself using a correspondence course. Now that I have children of my own I understand what she achieved; she wasn't a teacher, yet she managed it and managed it well. To my mind, we were very lucky and privileged: not every youngster is able to travel the world and stay in other countries long enough to get under the skin of the local culture.
By the time I was fourteen years old I was back in England and my last two years of education were at a public school in Plymouth. I hated every second of it. It was the first time I had been subjected to the restrictions and disciplines of daily school routine—I found the going hard. I can remember one geography lesson during which we were studying the agricultural system of a country where my family and I had lived for two years. I knew that what was being taught was out of date, but when I tried to explain that things had changed, that progress had been made since the text book had been published, I was told to shut up and listen—we were studying for an exam on the book. Well, sod you, I thought. From that point on I switched off, kept my own counsel and wasted a very good educational opportunity—something that I have since regretted. I left school as soon as I could at the age of sixteen.
I was fourteen when I first met Tracey, who is now my wife and mother of our three lovely children Alex, Olivia and Eliot. Tracey was thirteen years old at the time and she laughs now when I say that from the moment we met I knew we would marry some day. Our first encounter took place in Sanuk, my family's wooden sailing dinghy. I needed a crew to help me take part in a race organised by my local sailing club in Cornwall, and she was the only one available. She wasn't too keen as she couldn't sail, but I promised that all she would have to do was pass me the sandwiches. The race was a distance of three miles or so. We forgot the sandwiches, worked hard together and won the race. We've been good friends ever since.
After I left school I worked on a local farm for a time while I looked around for something a little more exciting. The chance came along in the shape of the Royal Maritime Auxiliary Service tugs that worked out of Plymouth. I landed a job as a ship's boy and loved it—it was an active life and I was good at the work. The crew were a jolly, roustabout bunch and, to cap it all, the wages were good. A whole new world was opening up.
I may have done a lot of travelling, but in other ways my life had been a fairly protected one. Alcohol was high on the crew's agenda and I did my best to keep up with the older, more seasoned hands on their wild runs ashore. I struggled to last the course on these sessions but usually ended up sleeping in a corner.
The job and the crew taught me a lot about life. The men may have played hard, but they also worked hard—and well, too. I came to realise that the principles enshrined in good seamanship—hard-won values developed and handed down over many years of experience—are standards by which you can run your life. If you see that a job needs doing, do it; when you do the job, do it well; and accept no standard but the highest. At sea you never know when you might need to call on your equipment in a crisis and you can't afford to have it let you or anyone else down. Don't get caught in a corner, always think ahead and make sure that you have an alternative plan. My time on the tugs also made me appreciate the power of the sea and to view it with a professional eye, rather than with the dewy-eyed enthusiasm of an amateur.
I was on the Robust when she was called out to help during the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race in which fifteen yachtsmen died. While we missed the worst of the storm, we did witness its aftermath, and a very sobering experience it was. In my view, many of those lives were lost due to a lack of discipline and an ignorance of basic safety practices. The design and construction of many of the yachts in the race were not up to the job and a number of easy years had lulled crews into a sense of complacency. Some crews had no training or disciplined routines in place, and in some cases did not even meet each other until the day of the race. Several of the new boats were simply unseaworthy because designers had shaved away at safety margins in the interests of speed. We came across a number of empty yachts that had been abandoned for life rafts, with subsequent loss of life. If only the crews had remained on board, some of those men would probably have survived. Many a crew has abandoned the safety of a yacht too soon. Unless the craft is on fire or sinking beneath you, you should stick with it—a vessel, even one that is dismasted or stricken in some other way, is much more seaworthy than a life raft. It is also easier for Air Sea Rescue crews to spot a yacht in a rough sea than to see a tiny inflatable. The experience was a sobering reminder that the sea is boss, and the sorrowful sight of those abandoned yachts has stayed with me ever since.
I had two years with the tugs and loved every minute of it. I was a bit wild and always in trouble, so I'm not sure that I contributed a great deal beyond my immediate responsibilities. The pay was amazing for a teenager still living at home. Once, when we were called out to a burning gas tanker, I earned £900 in one week. However, I made the most of it, as you do at that age, and all I had to show after two years was a bicycle. The job was great and I have some good memories, but it wasn't long before I became restless and yearned for something more adventurous.
Several of the crew were ex-Royal Marines and I found that I had an empathy with them. They did their job with whatever was at hand. I listened open-mouthed to their war stories and tales of antics ashore and decided that this was the life for me. I went to my local recruiting office in Plymouth and signed up for nine years in the Royal Marines.
One of the sergeants who introduced us to the joys of life in the Marines cut an impressive figure. He looked like Desperate Dan of schoolboy-comic fame. Hair sprouted from his nose and ears, curled up from his chest to escape the confines of the collar around his neck, and protruded from cuffs enclosing mighty wrists. His glare was so fierce that we raw recruits couldn't meet it as it made its slow, penetrating and disdainful pass over us, putting the fear of death in to us. His gravelly voice, roughened on a thousand parade grounds, commanded our total concentration: `I ain't no fuckin' Einstein, but I do know Newton's theory of shit,' he growled. `Shit runs downhill and from where I'm stood, you're at the bottom of the valley.'
Great, I thought. I'll have some of this. Whatever it takes to get a green beret, I'll do it. You pour as much shit down your hill as you like. I'll do whatever it takes to get to the top, look back and push over the next load. An hour's intensive exercise later I had learned that climbing out of that pit was to be no easy task. The honour of wearing a green beret was indeed going to be hard-earned. However, I loved the training and couldn't get enough of it. It was the first time I had encountered something to command my full attention and energy.
My first assignment was Commaccio Company, an internal security unit based in Arbroath, Scotland. We were responsible for protecting nuclear weapons bases, and oil rigs. This was what I had joined up for—having lots of fun, while at the same time working in a very professional organisation. We were extremely fit, always on the move, and forever training and preparing for the worst.
After about two years in Commaccio Company I was called in to see the boss, who told me about a job with the new Royal Marines Sail Training Centre in Plymouth. He felt I was the man for the position. I decided to go for the interview because at least I would get a trip home out of it. And so started a long and happy stint at the Sail Training Centre, where my early aspirations to a career in sailing were reinforced. There were two of us on board the sail training vessel: Terry Judge, an old-timer who had many years' experience, and me. It was an unusual situation in that we had command of a yacht on which the crew might range from new recruit to major-general. As lower deckers, Terry and I had to bridge both command and age gaps to ensure that our crew, many of whom had not met each other before, pulled together. Oddly enough, the higher or lower the rank, the easier the man was to deal with. It was the middle ranks, fighting for the next step up the ladder, who often proved a handful. Still, we never had any problems that couldn't be solved and I was able to learn the first principles of man management.
The interesting thing about an offshore trip on a small boat is that you untie more than the boat when you slip the mooring. The trappings and pretensions of rank and authority are soon stripped away. There's nowhere to hide, and it can be a raw experience for some. Natural leaders come to the fore, and a pecking order emerges which is not necessarily the one in place prior to departure. What is important is that everyone feels they are making a contribution, whatever their skill or ability. This promotes a mutual respect which evolves into a healthy team spirit where rank ceases to matter. If it is your turn to clean the toilet—and this includes the skipper—then clean it you will.
We covered thousands of miles, and eventually we were running our own expeditions as far afield as the Baltic and the Mediterranean. For several months at a time we were away from base working as an independent unit. Having become a skipper in my own right, I developed a pride in how things should be done. I found that I thrived on the responsibility, particularly when I was under pressure or when things were going wrong. It was an incredible opportunity and I made the most of it as mile upon mile passed under the keel, each one slowly turning me into a professional seaman. For all the educational books, courses and videos, you can't duplicate time before the mast.
Posted June 28, 2000
A rare glimpse inside the mind of a thinking 'man of action.' His attitudes, beliefs, and drive are compelling contrasts to today's usual diet of cynicism. His mental processes when confronted with adversity are not uncommon, but rarely written down. As a father of three sons approaching manhood I cannot think of a more productive and healthy approach to any endeavor in life. A book sure to inspire without being insipid. My sons also recommend it highly.
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