‘Hand (man) wanted for long voyage in small boat. No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure.’
So read the crew notice placed in the personal column of The Times by H.W. ‘Bill’ Tilman in the spring of 1959. This approach to selecting volunteers for a year-long voyage of 20,000 miles brought mixed seafaring experience: ‘Osborne had crossed the Atlantic fifty-one times in the Queen Mary, playing double bass in the ship’s orchestra’.
With unclimbed ice-capped peaks and anchorages that could at best be described as challenging, the Southern Ocean island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen provided obvious destinations for Tilman and his fifty-year-old wooden pilot cutter Mischief. His previous attempt to land in the Crozet Islands had been abandoned when their only means of landing was carried away by a severe storm in the Southern Ocean.
Back at Lymington, a survey of the ship uncovered serious Teredo worm damage. Tilman, undeterred, sold his car to fund the rebuilding work and began planning his third sailing expedition to the southern hemisphere.
Mischief among the Penguins (1961), Tilman’s account of landfalls on these tiny remote volcanic islands, bears testament to the development of his ocean navigation skills and seamanship. The accounts of the island anchorages, their snow-covered heights, geology and in particular the flora and fauna pay tribute to the varied interests and ingenuity of Mischief’s crew, not least after several months at sea when food supplies needed to be eked out. Tilman’s writing style, rich with informative and entertaining quotations, highlights the lessons learned with typical self-deprecating humour, while playing down the immensity of his achievements.
About the Author
Harold William Bill Tilman (1898 1977) was among the greatest adventurers of his time, a pioneering mountaineer and sailor who held exploration above all else. Tilman joined the army at seventeen and was twice awarded the Military Cross for bravery during WWI. After the war Tilman left for Africa, establishing himself as a coffee grower. He met Eric Shipton and began their famed mountaineering partnership, traversing Mount Kenya and climbing Kilimanjaro. Turning to the Himalaya, Tilman went on two Mount Everest expeditions, reaching 27,000 feet without oxygen in 1938. In 1936 he made the first ascent of Nanda Devi the highest mountain climbed until 1950. He was the first European to climb in the remote Assam Himalaya, he delved into Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor and he explored extensively in Nepal, all the while developing a mountaineering style characterised by its simplicity and emphasis on exploration. It was perhaps logical then that Tilman would eventually buy the pilot cutter Mischief, not with the intention of retiring from travelling, but to access remote mountains. For twenty-two years Tilman sailed Mischief and her successors to Patagonia, where he crossed the vast ice cap, and to Baffin Island to make the first ascent of Mount Raleigh. He made trips to Greenland, Spitsbergen and the South Shetlands, before disappearing in the South Atlantic Ocean in 1977.
Libby Purves is a well-known British radio presenter, journalist, author and critic. A long-time sailor, she writes a column in Yachting Monthly and in 1982 edited an anthology drawn from Tilman's sailing books.