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. Sometimes parents have no imagination – although they did upgrade to a 36ft Halbardier ketch.
Bellrock II – 36ft Halbardier
So I left school 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. 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 is 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.
The little home-business turned out to be perfect: It provided the capital to buy the boat and also generates a regular monthly income which continues to be paid whether I am within reach of a mobile phone signal and doing a little work online – or if I am miles from land and awarding myself an impromptu holiday.
After all, there is still the family at home to provide for: Tamsin has been brilliant at keeping things together (even to the extent of clearing drains by plunging into them up to the armpit). Three of the children have flown the nest yet we get together for holidays two or three times a year and I sail home for Christmas. Hugo, the youngest, joins me for a week in the summer – ideally in Ireland for the Guinness.
The whole story (warts and all) is told in my book Old Man Sailing which you can find on the “Books” tab in the menu.
Meanwhile, this blog continues to chronicle the dream become 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.
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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.
I am available to speak to clubs and societies over Zoom (email address below).
The YouTube channel My Classic Boat featured my lockdown cruise at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8DzK4Xtivg&t=121s
My Twitter account is @oldmansailing.
And you can subscribe to my own YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdcR6l3UFssnS6zVPU96UAg
And, of course, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org