On a miserable night in December 1960, Francis Chichester found his way to the Walton and Frinton Yacht Club on the East Coast of England. He had just won the first Single-handed Transatlantic race and become an instant celebrity.
It seems that one of the members knew the great man well enough to persuade him to come and give a talk about his experiences. This he did at some length with a series of colour transparencies (very new and exciting – although, of course, the projector broke down half-way through).
Somewhere towards the back was an eleven-year-old boy sitting with his family. That was me and I was transfixed. Here were stories of gales and self-steering failure and the pigeon who hitched a ride in mid-Atlantic – and through it all, one man alone against the elements. That was the day I decided I was going to live on a boat and sail across oceans alone.
It took 57 years with a series of false starts; but in 2017, at the age of 68, I set off with my ideal boat, enough money and my good health – and the most wonderful sense of euphoria.
If you are interested in this sort of thing. If you too have a dream which somehow got lost as life took its convoluted course, then you might be interested to read my story…
I first set foot on a boat at the age of five. My family were on holiday in Cornwall which is the bit that sticks out of the British Isles at the bottom left. My father had sailed before the war (he bought his first boat off Eric Hiscock, author of Around the World in Wanderer III). Anyway, here he was with his wife and three children, the sun was shining, the breeze was gentle – and he hired a sailing dinghy on the Helford River. He gave me the tiller and told me to steer for “that yellow cornfield”. I did just that… until we grounded in the reeds at the edge of the field.
When we got home, Father bought a 14ft dinghy called Wilkie. She had a tiny foredeck which meant that I could pretend that the cuddy underneath was my cabin. However Mother wanted somewhere to boil a kettle and so, by the time I was eight, we had a 25ft Folkboat called Torgunn and found ourselves in Holland.
Torgunn – 25ft Folkboat
At 13, I was pleased to find us moving up to a 28ft Kim Holman-designed Sterling – a real boat. You could go anywhere in Bellrock – and that set me thinking…
Bellrock – 28ft Sterling
By this time I was at boarding school and doing very badly. I was considered either obstinate or stupid. The only subject I was any good at was English. So when, at 15, I borrowed ten shillings from another boy and ran away home, I informed my parents that what I wanted to do instead was live on a boat and make my living as a writer.
However, they had other ideas and sent me back to school. Sometimes parents have no imagination – although they did upgrade to a 36ft Halbardier ketch.
Bellrock II – 36ft Halbardier
So I left school at 18 with no A-levels. I used the English paper as a vehicle for my earnest opinion that Shakespeare was no more than a reasonably competent hack churning out plays for money. He would not have had time for the sort of convoluted thinking which had kept generations of academics in comfort ever since.
In putting forward this theory, I failed to consider that my paper would be marked by said comfortable academics…
Never mind, you don’t need a university education to live on a boat and write about it.
The only problem was that at 18, I had neither a boat nor anything to write about.
And that was how I ended up as a journalist, working my way through local papers and fetching up on the Daily Mail. Ultimately I became Chief Correspondent for the London Evening Standard. At times I had columns for the Daily Telegraph, Yachting World and the Mail’s You Magazine.
I had learned to write. But there was still the other part of the dream to attend to…
In my late 20’s I bought an 18ft Caprice, Amicus, and sailed her to the Channel Islands and Brittany.
Amicus – 18ft Caprice
In my 30’s I upgraded to a Rival 32 Largo and competed twice in the single-handed section of the Azores and Back Race and also in the 1988 Single-handed Transatlantic (Chichester’s OSTAR). Recently, I discovered that the 1988 edition of the Rival Owers’ Association newsletter included my account of that race. You can download it here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CM1YiEHAtuUU017Y1FRND6Zay0bTabOxMg6H3VpCO-U/edit?usp=sharing
Largo – Rival 32
But always, at the end of the voyage, I had to go back to work. You see, as John Lennon predicted, Life had happened to me while I was making other plans.
For one thing, I got married (briefly) at 23 – and then, just as my two sons were growing up and becoming independent and I was getting ready to go, I fell in love again. Of course, this time it was a little different because my second wife thought she would like nothing better than to bring up her family on a boat.
So I sold Largo and bought a 27ft Heavenly Twins catamaran, Lottie Warren – and five years later, with two small boys, decided that this had been a very bad idea indeed. Everybody hated it – and if everybody else hated it, then it wasn’t much fun for me either.
Lottie Warren, a 27ft Heavenly Twins catamaran with Tamsin, Owen and Theo
There was a good deal of agonising at that point – what did I want to do? What was the right thing to do?
One way and another, I spent the next 17 years living in a house in a small market town on the East Coast, learning to make a living without actually going back to work. I did my best to become a part of the community. This was not a great success. I expect people found me rather odd and distant…
I joined the local sailing club, bought a Laser and came last year after year. Finally, I had to admit that going round the buoys on the same patch of river was not really my idea of sailing – and out of this grew the idea for a “proper” boat.
Samsara – another Rival 32
Something else had happened too: I had got old. Not in the sense of gradually declining faculties which is the way most people grow old. No, I became old at the age of 66 – almost as if someone had thrown a switch. I fell asleep at the wheel and wrote off my brand-new car (ten days old; hadn’t even had a chance to wash it). If I stood too long in the shower, a patch of skin on my nose would start to bleed, and I would come downstairs with a piece of toilet paper stuck to it…
Next, I spent so much time on antibiotics that I ended up in hospital having them intravenously (I had banged my elbow).
This sort of thing is depressing. Or at least it is until you realise that it is voluntary. Nobody needs to get old. After all, there are people in the world who live to 120 – which means that it is possible for anyone to live to 120 – if only they were to copy the lifestyles of those who have proved it can be done (I won’t bore you with the details now but there’s a tab at the top).
The most important part about this discovery was that it gave me a new lease of life – a second chance to do what I always wanted to do. In other words, to live on a boat and take her sailing and write about the experience.
It was pure good fortune that at 55, I discovered Residual Income – literally, at a craft fair, I happened to pick up a leaflet that showed you how earn it. By 68, it was paying me more than my three pensions combined (that’s on the “money” tab).
At last, I could afford to go sailing – and still provide for the family at home.
Tamsin has been brilliant at keeping things together (even to the extent of clearing drains by plunging into them up to the armpit). The last of the children has flown the nest, although we get together for holidays two or three times a year. Hugo, the youngest, joins me for a week in the summer.
The whole story (warts and all) is told in my book Old Man Sailing which you can find on the “Books” tab.
Meanwhile, this blog continues to chronicle the dream as reality. Admittedly, there are plenty of sailing blogs out there – many of them featuring beautiful young people wearing not many clothes. But I hope this one will appeal to a small but discerning readership.
If you have read this far, you qualify.
* * *
You can keep track of me on a ship-tracking app (I suggest Marine Traffic). Search for the British vessel “Samsara” MMSI number 232010712
In July 2020, I was interviewed on the BBC Radio2 Jeremy Vine Show. You can hear the recording here:
This resulted in a book which you can find on the “Books” page.
The YouTube channel My Classic Boat featured my lockdown cruise at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8DzK4Xtivg&t=121s
… and there’s another about the boat at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTYaZo_7AyM
My Twitter account is @oldmansailing, but I don’t really get Twitter. How can you say anything worthwhile in 280 characters?
Instagram is better: https://www.instagram.com/oldmansailing.
And you can subscribe to my YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdcR6l3UFssnS6zVPU96UAg
And, of course, there’s always email: firstname.lastname@example.org
27 Responses to The Old Man’s Story
It’s strange how little I knew about your life and yet, once revealed, how much of it I recognise only too well. However whatever parallels we share you have clearly put in more effort: greater newspaper titles worked on and, more importantly, greater offshore and ocean passages made. I am, Sir, an admirer!
Great stuff, John!
I’m not sure if an earlier attempt to reach you managed to get through but apologies if it did for the repetition. I recently discovered your blog and am slowly reading through the various comments.
I have a connection in that I bought Bellrock2 from your father. she was in Beaucette Marina on Guernsey.after purchase She was sailed back to the UK where i sailed with my wife along the south coast during the season. We lived onboard from May until September and for the next 5 years meandered found Brittany and down to Rochfort. en-route we called at Alderney and hosted your father onboard where we spent a couple of hours discussing our plans
Good luck with your plans and we look forward to following your progress in your blog
Hi John, How lovely to hear from you and to know that Bellrock gave you as much pleasure as she did my parents. Do you know any more or her history or where she is now?
When I sold Bellrock II she bad been advertised by Moody’s in their September second hand sale event but didn’t sell.
Following this, I moved her to Deacons yard and readvertised her and she was bought by David Waller then living in Havant. A few days later I was onboard with David and hid wife Jenifer, when he sailed her round to his empty berth in Northerney marina.
I looked in on future occasions when I was in the area and she was there for a couple of years then disappeared.
I have looked in the ads for Halberdiers for sale but have never seen her.
If she appears I will let you know.
Hi John! George & I so enjoyed hearing your voice on the radio. Next stop NZ? Lots of love, H & G
Hi Haley, Yes, NZ is definitely on the agenda!
My son heard you on the radio yesterday and told me about you. My first question was what did you do for food and he didn’t know so here I am to find out!
Hi Caroline, the best thing would be to go on the BBC Sounds app and listen soon after 1.35 p.m. Regards, John
An absolute inspiration, a pleasure to here your story and a voice I could listen to no end. For myself I am totally overwhelmed by your bravery and challenging experience though for you it was just another expedition, I mean that in a nice way. On the open unpredictable ocean for me I would have been so happy to have been part of your crew to see so many sights and to have had a once in a life time experience, for you another day on the boat, for an outsider looking in an overwhelming story. I can see it’s very much a passion and I wish you so so well in the future, it was lovely to hear and I look forward to reading your old man sailing story. Many thanks for lighting up many peoples lives.
What a great story and adventure.
Made me envious.
Superb interview today on Radio 2. You are a natural with a great story to tell. From a fellow,
but more cowardly sailor, well done.
Like you old man, I was a weekend sailer and at 65 I I sold my house, everything and bought a jeanneau 35 to achieve my dreams. At 81 years old I’ve sold up and now have a 6th floor flat looking out to sea but I see yachts passing from my window and suffer from Cronin nostalgia. Don’t give it up old man. Ian Prince, Brighton.s
Great interview today. We live on the Kent coast and my 5 year old is really interested in learning to sail. I will show him your blog. So inspiring!!
Do you live in Lowestoft? I lived in Gorleston but went to school in Lowestoft. We did a lot of sailing as a family and brother and I won a race on the Norfolk broads ! I would be very intyeretsed in following your blog.
Just heard you on the radio, what an adventure!
just heard you on the radio. Excellent tale, needs to be a book or a series most definitely X
Just been listening to you being interviewed on Racio 2 – I’m not a sailor but have sailed as a crew on an old gaff Next Wave from Cyprus to Israel many years ago now all I dream and think of is ‘boats ‘ but as I’m an ‘old gaff’ myself I wish I’d had that dream when I was lot younger – then maybe I might have done exactly and carried out my ‘dreams’ like yourself … it was great to listen to you talking on radio about your adventure and best wishes on your next journey
Just heard you on Jeremy Vine. You certainly did not embarrass yourself at all! It was an eloquent and interesting account of your lockdown. Everyone who has a dream of escape will be admiring your choices. Well done and good luck for the next leg of your journey.
Great to hear you on the radio today and listen to your fantastic inspirational story
Dave and Bev (Hazel Grove Cheshire )
Just heard your report on radio 2, I’m originally from Plymouth, sailing in my blood, now living in Bangkok, you’ve inspired me to live my later life as I’ve always dreamed – take to the open seas ! Well done old boy
Top person young man John, very brave and most interesting on the Vine show, keep safe and keep it up.
Brilliant story of escaping lock down. I love your spirit. I love to sail and travel and am now trying to bring my two boys along. Looking forward to hearing about more adventures.
Just listened to you on Radio 2. Absolutely brilliant story! Wish I was on that boat with you.
im 62 and seriously thinking of giving up work, buying a boat and casting off
Good on you! Its never to late to follow your dreams. I saw your picture on the walls of the Horta marina and Ijust had to read your blog. As you say age is just a number so follow yr dream and have a great adventure!!!
Yes, I’m interested.