I got a phone call from my mother, “He has gone and bloody well done it, the old fool” and although I feigned sympathy with her, I could feel my admiration growing for him, for the first time since I was a very small boy. I had to hide the smile in my voice.
For several months he had been slipping away to a small jetty on the River Ouse to tinker with his newly acquired pride and joy, the 35 foot yacht ‘Petra’. We were all quite surprised when he spent his life savings on a boat, there had never been any nautical tendencies in the family before, to my knowledge he had never before set foot on such a vessel. But he was in his late sixties, and it seemed healthy enough that he should have a bolt hole, something akin to a floating caravan to go and potter around with. He had cleared out his savings to buy that boat, and couldn’t even afford the toll for passing beneath the swing bridge at Newhaven Harbour, the only route out to sea, confined to a small river it all seemed safe enough to us. What we hadn’t realised was that he was preparing the good ship Petra for a world voyage. He had provisioned her with cheap catering tins of baked beans, dried milk, sugar and portion packets of biscuits(taken from cafes), and had been slowly moving all his important belongings to her hold.
This particular weekend, he had slipped the mooring and laid in wait while the swing bridge was opened for another vessel, he had then sneaked out alongside, ignoring the shouts of the harbourmaster, and powered out to sea. Suddenly what we thought were the fanciful dreams of an old man had become reality, was he really going to try to circumnavigate the globe?.
The next thing that we heard of him was a bombardment of phone calls from the national press, they had sniffed a story and were behaving like terriers to get ‘the inside line’ on this ordinary mans rather extra-ordinary behaviour. We didn’t tell them much, he wouldn’t have liked it. We didn’t tell them that he had for many years nurtured a dream to seek the north-west passage, that it wasn’t true that he was untrained; he had after all been on that weekend dingy sailing course on the River Dart twenty years before. He had learned the rudiments of navigation, from books borrowed from the library, although he did disable the radio, mainly for fear of not having a licence, that and the fact that he was mostly deaf.
The Headline news, when it appeared, dubbed him ‘Captain Calamity’ and ‘Captain Crazy’, and gave an account of how he had single-handedly repelled the Channel Islands Coastguard with a boat-hook when they tried to board his vessel, while caught in a storm off the rocky coast of the Channel Islands. The papers made much of the fact that he had no radio, and that the only charts he had were a roadmap of Europe, spiral bound of course. I could see that by most standards, this could appear foolish, and wasn’t really surprised at the scorn that was poured on his venture, but I could also understand the reality of his situation. He was embarking on an adventure, a true adventure, one that he wasn’t sure that he would return from, one that replaced the numbing hum-drum existence that he had been living, with something that resembled the world of his youth. He had after all been sent to war at the age of sixteen, without a map, he had fought in the desert in Algeria and up the length of Italy, lain in foxholes at Monte Casino and the River Sangro – a small boy without a family, brought up amidst the anarchy of the battlefield.
He had embarked on a journey out to sea, with no particular destination, broke and no expectations, he was, at the age of 68, alive again. As he put it "maps are for when you are trying to get somewhere," I think there is some sanity in that.
He was gone for several years, and to almost everyone’s surprise, returned unharmed; except for his hair which turned snow-white during a bad storm in the Bay of Biscay, that he spent partly in the water, tied to a line, trying to cut an entangled drift-net away from the propeller.
He had many new tales to tell, like those of having his boat impounded “for his own safety” by “caring” authorities in France and spain, and him liberating Petra during the dead of night with the help of friendly locals. He also had some good advice to give on the suitability of huge catering tins of baked beans for long stormy voyages, and how to clear up the mess when they inevitably empty onto the floor.
It appears that despite being away for all that time he never quite learned to sail, at least not how to negotiate a course, it seems he just went where the wind took him. He was always reluctant to recount tales of exactly what happened, as he always said “I did it for my own sake”.
To our amazement he returned one day, by aeroplane having sold 'Petra' following the disastrous theft of his automatic steering rig. Mother had long since become expert on her rights relating to death at sea. On his return he settled back into his armchair, to watch television, or play Tomb raider on his playstation, living on his small pension, until he died some ten years later.
This was no crazy old man, I doubt that many people are brave enough to make a break for freedom as he did.