“All I want for Christmas, “I said when Tamsin asked, “is Shrimpy.”
It’s out of print and very much sought-after – the cheapest I’d seen a copy was £70.
The story of the young ex-Royal Marine Shane Acton, who sailed around the world in an 18ft Caprice in the 70s, was something I read again and again as I dreamed of escaping the rat race and just sailing over the horizon. At the time, it was an impossible dream; I had a job. I had commitments. Shane just went and did it.
In 1980, I had a Caprice, too. She was called Amicus. She leaked upwards through the keelbolts and downwards through the fibreglass-sheathed deck. I went all the way to Treguier in Amicus.
Obviously, I was a member of the Caprice Owners Association – and that was how I heard about Shane. At the time, he was making his way home through the French canals. If he made it across the channel, his would be the smallest boat ever to get all the way round. This was big news – at least, I thought it was.
Fortunately, so did the News Editor of the Daily Mail, where I was a keen and very junior reporter.
In those days, before mobile phones, contacting the circumnavigator was impossible. All we knew was that he was expected at the Caprice Owners Association East Coast Rally. With a local freelance photographer (I was too junior to warrant a staffer), I set out to make my way to Stone Point at the entrance to the Walton Backwaters.
Have you ever tried to get to Stone Point – without a boat -without getting very muddy? We got very muddy (a staff photographer would have chartered a boat).
And sure enough, we found Shane – and Iris, his “pretty Swiss Miss” who he picked up in Panama when he was so impoverished that he had sold all his clothes except for a pair of black oilskin trousers (nobody wanted those in Panama).
They were quite the most welcoming, unassuming and modest couple you could hope to meet – totally unaware they had done anything remotely remarkable.
They answered all our questions, posed for all our photographs – and delivered us to Walton Quay (since, by now, it would have been a matter of swimming).
The resulting story took up the whole of page three – which was the best you could hope for when Margaret Thatcher occupied the front page every day.
I mention this in order to stake my claim to having at least something to do with the publication of one of the best sailing books of all time. If you don’t believe me, keep an eye on the comments. I bet somebody is going to back me up.
Shrimpy, when it appeared, was a low-key sensation. The yachting press reviewed it. Nobody else took any notice. But dreamers like me – people who pottered about at weekends with visions of palm trees and grass skirts and coconuts, devoured it, treasured it and returned to it again and again.
I was very proud of my copy because it had the signatures of Shane and Iris on the frontispiece. Maybe the publisher sat them down and made them sign every copy.
There was a time when I could have quoted large tracts by heart – particularly Day 31 of the Pacific crossing: “Discovered that the thousands of goose barnacles on Shrimpy’s hull had grown so long as seriously to hamper our speed. Went over the side with a knife to clean them off. While in the water, I got stung by a passing jellyfish. It hurt like hell for a while, and I lost the use of my left arm for about 20 minutes. Had to sew up the mainsail again; it’s getting really rotten now. Drank the last of the coffee.”
And how about this: “Slowly, the black point on the horizon begins to grow. From a dot into a smudge, I can’t wait to get nearer, to discover its true shape. Slowly we can make out the peaks of the mountains; the greyness changes into browns and greens; trees, bushes, grass, shadows in the cracks of rocks: The bay. Smoke, houses, canoes, people! How I want to exchange words, how I want to embrace everybody, including the island. But water is still between us. Hello – waving hands – smiles. The first step on the sand, touching it with my hand, the island dances under my feet; it makes me dance with it. I am overwhelmed with happiness; the power of my joy is travelling on before me, catching all the people around me, travelling further, right to the last house in the village, encompassing the whole island, my whole world.”
Here was a man who cruised the Tuamotos. The SailTahiti website has this to say about the Tuamotus: “Known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’. So low in the water they are almost invisible and with strong currents and swell pushing onto coral reefs. Without GPS or accurate charts, it was wise to steer clear…”
Shane had a plastic sextant, a wristwatch and an ex-army compass.
He died in 2002 from lung cancer (he would smoke anything combustible – on one occasion, tea bags rolled in toilet paper and lit with a flare! In his last months, he returned from Central America to the comforting embrace of the NHS. Iris had long before set off on a journey of her own.
Eventually, I sold the book at a car boot sale . Tamsin and I were whittling down our library in preparation for the move onto the little catamaran. I have a vague memory that I had to discount Shrimpy because there was the stain of a large coffee mug on the cover.
So, you can imagine, I was very much looking forward to my Christmas present. There was, however, one small disappointment: Tamsin had bought me the Ulverscroft Large Print version (withdrawn from Sussex County Libraries March 27th 2001). That meant no pictures and print the size of the Janet and John books. What am I? An old man?
It’s not something you ask about a Christmas Present, but I wondered how much I could get for it – would it cover the £70 cost of the original?
That was when I was astonished to find a company called WOB Books offering a copy in “good” condition for £9.99. Of course, I bought it before anyone else grabbed it.
And it was waiting for me when I got back to North Wales.
Sure enough, it had the two signatures just as I remembered them.
And, would you believe it, there was a large coffee stain on the dust jacket – that is to say, a stain from a large coffee mug, just as I favoured back in the 1980s.
OK, so it’s probably not my original copy – I mean, what are the chances?
But, I’ll believe what I want to believe.