Nobody told the albatross

I have just got back from London having attended Roger Taylor’s lecture at the home of the Cruising Association at Limehouse Basin in London.

Roger is the self-styled Simple Sailor . He has written three well-received books about his voyages first in his Corribee, Ming Ming, and now in her successor, Ming Ming ll. In 2009, he was awarded the Jester Medal by the Ocean Cruising Club “for an outstanding contribution to the art of singlehanded sailing.” The large number of members present was a fitting testament to his endeavours.

He talked about his early sailing experience on the three-masted barque Endeavour ll, which ended in disaster when she went ashore in a violent storm on the north eastern tip of New Zealand. This pointed him towards small-boat, single-handed sailing with the boat as watertight as he could possibly make it – “I don’t like getting wet.” He started with a self-built 19 ft ferro-cement boat – Roc, in New Zealand. He entered the Trans-Tasman single-handed race for her maiden voyage.

Several years later, having returned to the UK, he bought a second-hand 21 foot Corribee and, remembering how much he had admired the solid build of the barque, he rebuilt the deck, totally sealing it save for a single hatch placed flat and protected by a coaming. He made water-tight compartments fore and aft, filling them with flotation foam to lighten the ends of boat. He treble-strengthened all the deck fittings. He changed to a junk rig for ease of sailing and ran the running rigging so that it could all be controlled from the hatch. Such was his success with this design, especially the simplicity of the junk rig, that, on a passage that reached 80 degrees north – a total passage of 65 days, he put on wet weather gear only once!

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Was it worth the journey from Teignmouth? – Absolutely. Will I change things? – Yes. Even though I am not intending to do what he has done, his lead has opened up possibilities that I had not considered.

I have never thought of single-handed sailors as being particularly lead-able people – there’s too much ‘self-reliance’ in what they do. Leadership in this case is not about channeling people with protocols and procedures but about creating a space for those who come behind to fill in any way they wish.

The lead comes in not accepting the generally accepted as correct, but working things out for oneself. The value comes in the choices it opens up. He showed a photograph of a black-browed albatross that had flown up to the boat one day. The books say that albatrosses are not found in the northern hemisphere. Obviously nobody had told this one! 21 foot Corribees are not designed for the arctic, nobody had told Roger – (perhaps they had and he proved them wrong).

An aim of this blog is to learn from those who went before. My specific intention is to remind ourselves that there is a world outside the virtual world of digital technology, and that those who inhabit this real world and choose to spend time in the mountains, the ancient forests or at sea – those who live close to the planet, highlight a deep legacy that transient technology is skating over. Please work with me on this – it is not technology itself that is the problem, it is the distraction it provides. Modern technology opens up new possibilities, fresh aspirations, but, because of its headlong progress, it can become all-consuming. It should be a part of life not the whole of it.

Ming Ming carries very little technology – not even an engine. There is a hand-held gps and a single burner stove, a radio, and provisions for 100 days. Roger showed a film of his recent passage to 79 degrees north to Svalbard and surrounding islands that few of us had heard of – an area of whales, walrus, glaciers, mountains shrouded in cloud.

In his third book, subtitled “the Tonic of Wildness”, he tells of his entering the Jester Challenge, (the successor to the original singlehanded race to Newport, Rhode Island), and then realising that making a passage to the so-called comforts of civilisation no longer held any appeal. His real desire was to go to the less traveled parts of the north. In the event, he started the race with the other contestants and then headed north west towards the Davis Strait off Greenland. In seeking to make these passages, in designing his boat to be in tune with the environment he enters and his subsequent belief in that boat, he has reminded us of a wider world that we would do well to understand.

I may be doing him a disfavour, but I do not think that this is what he set out to do originally. I suspect he set out to discover what he could do with what he was best at. The rest followed on naturally.

Thank you, Roger. Fair winds.

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Roger’s books are:

“Voyages of a Simple Sailor”, The Fitzroy Press 2009

“Ming Ming and the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing”, The Fitzroy Press 2010

“Ming Ming and the Tonic of Wildness”, The Fitzroy Press 2012

I commend them to you.