Nothing to Lose

Captain Scott, at rest after day’s adventure. **

The spring /summer of 1973 was for me a transition period between finishing school and starting studies at Glasgow university. With time on my hands I applied for and was fortunate to get a 26 day scholarship to join the adventure sail training vessel ‘Captain Scott’. Purpose built in 1971 in Buckie, Scotland it was a 380 ton three masted top gallant schooner. 52m long and 30m high she was the largest sailing vessel flying the British flag at the time. The ship was staffed by a variety of experienced sailors. This included officers from the UK’s army, navy and air force. 

Later in life I spent some 10 years associated with another vessel, the engine powered MV Logos. The Captain Scott, however, was a sailing ship, though it did have diesel motors as back up if needed. The time I spent on board has been my only experience using sails before or since. However the time was intense and a crash course in the basics of sailing with the wind. The primary job of the professional crew was to take us raw recruits and shape us into an effective team who could operate the schooner. 

As trainees we were from a variety of backgrounds. One cohort came from the services themselves. People recommended by officers for possible promotion. Another group were folk from industry or business, again maybe being assessed for management potential. The third group were school leaver types such as myself who had got a scholarship. We were younger than the rest and didn’t have a lot at stake. The others potentially had career prospects on the line. Everyone’s time on board would be assessed by a simple pass or fail. No other form of grading. These simple two possibilities heightened the tension for those hoping for promotion or CV enhancement. Being classed as a failure is not a great bargaining chip when wanting that job as a manager or possible officer material. Also for those sent by their employer they may not have chosen to engage in three and a half weeks of arduous mental and physical activity in cramped quarters. For me it had been a free choice. Although I enjoyed it immensely there were still challenges I had to face.

Captain Scott was ran as a kind of naval version of ‘Outward Bound’. Discipline, endurance and the ability to work together were important to its ethos. I suppose it was designed to make men of boys. Named after the Antarctic explorer Richard Scott there was a figurehead of him on the bow. The vessel’s home port was the little village of Plockton, Wester Ross on the north west coast of Scotland. I made my way there and joined along with a new batch of trainees.

As I recall there was 42 of us joining what was the 15th such course since its inception in 1971. We were split up into 3 watches of 14. Over the coming days we would be moulded into a team sailing round a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There was also an expeditions officer who organised forays into the mountains that surround the rugged and largely remote coastline. For some brought up mainly in the city this region of the UK would be very different from what they were used to. Both my parents come from the NW Scotland. As a result I had spent many holidays in a similar area nearby so was familiar with the terrain and coast.

Our route from Plockton 21st May – 16th June 1973

Certainly the discipline was tough. Lieutenant Commander Victor Clark’s initial lecture was no doubt to stamp his authority on this his new crew. He did make an impression by telling us he was allowed to keelhaul those who did not follow orders. Then proceeded to show how you go about it! Thankfully he did not use actual people to demonstrate! He did command respect. With several dozen sails and a myriad of ropes all with a specific purpose there was a lot to instil in us.

Commander Clark had a long and very distinguished wartime, naval and Admiralty career. At the time he was nearing 50 years at sea. Amongst many adventures upon his retirement from the navy he spent 6 years on a 48,000-mile voyage sailing round the world in a 9 ton yacht. It included nearly a year shipwrecked on Palmerston Island, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands. One highlight of the course was him showing slides and relating stories of his odyssey. 

The Captain Scott and its ethos became a reality through Commander Clark’s vision and determination. With Kurt Kahn (founder of Gordonstoun School) he enlisted Prince Philip’s aid in finding sponsorship. I (and I suspect hundreds of other young men starting out in life) am thankful for his leadership in making it all happen.

His 2nd World War exploits and sailing mishaps didn’t shorten his life and he lived till he was 97. Mariner and adventurer this vicar’s son had another side to him. His naval obituary says he was sustained in 1941 by Christian’s quotation in John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ “When thou passest through the Waters I will be with thee; and through the Rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” (Isaiah 43 verse 2).

Ropes everywhere**

The training wasn’t all at sea and the final ‘test’ was a 3 day traverse over remote Scottish hills where we were to survive without coming in contact with civilisation of any kind, not even roads. At the end we met up again with the vessel at another place. In small groups shadowed by the expeditions leader it was a welcome break from being on board.

In order to function safely there were many rules to follow. A course failure could come from disobeying one of them. One of these was no smoking or drinking during the entire course. This wasn’t an issue for me but for those who were regular smokers it was a huge discipline. An infringement meant failure. I was amazed at the vigour and detective work from officers when a cigarette end was found in the heads (toilets). This threat of failure led to resentment with some. Indeed one guy’s anger led to what could have been tragic consequences. He dropped a heavy metal sailing needle from a great height, narrowly missing one of the officers. Another officer had his canoe holed. It was rumoured to be the same guy who had done it.  

We trainees all slept together dormitory style in the mid-section. Port and starboard bunks lining the hull and tables for eating in the middle. Waking up procedure was the bosun entering and sharply blowing his whistle. From then we had 30 seconds to be on deck naked where you were hosed down with salt water from a powerful fire hose. If you flinched or were late on deck you had to stand still before the hose an extra long time. There can be few more effective ways of being fully alert from slumber in under a minute. This routine was OK at sea. However I recall us once being on deck anchored in Tobermory Bay (Isle of Mull). We were being duly hosed down when the early morning mist lifted to have a full view of Tobermory waterfront. I have often wondered what anyone in the harbour would have thought of a couple of dozen naked figures on deck. 

As stated we crew were in 3 watches. I think it was 8 hours on, 16 off or maybe at sea 4 on and 8 off. Some activities were done either as a game or in competition. A 3 masted schooner has many sails. The captain could, for instance, ask all 3 watches to select a hurricane sail from the claustrophobic depths of the keel locker. Each watch had to fight the other off. I do not like closed, confined spaces and found it hard. Caving is not something I have ever wanted to do. There were also mundane things such as tying knots, mending sails and scrubbing deck.

Another game would be races from bow to stern where your feet should not touch the deck. Involved making use of the extensive rigging. Going aloft to reef the sails was difficult initially. Grateful that we were clipped on most of time. Getting over my feelings of vertigo I eventually became more accustomed to the height.

Getting over vertigo!**

Life under a large sailing ship is from a bygone age. All 3 watches, not just the one on duty sometimes had to get up whether daytime or middle of night if captain decided we needed to radically change direction by adjusting or adding sails. The entire crew was usually needed to hoist or lower. She could sail at 18 knots in a stiff breeze. There is something absolutely thrilling being aloft and suspended over the open water when moving at speed. Being with people who had immense experience of sailing meant this unique vessel’s potential was realised.

I did it – ‘conducted myself in a seamanlike manner’!

As I wrote this post I googled what I could find about the ship. Amazed to discover there is a 23 minute film about the Captain Scott and the training course. I do not feature in it as it was done in 1972, a year before my time on board. If interested you can see it here. It captures the atmosphere well. The 1970s style fashions on display are also interesting!

POSTSCRIPT – The Trust that ran the Captain Scott operated these courses from 1971-77. Thereafter it was sold and became based in Oman. Renamed ‘Shabab Oman’ it has until recent years operated as a sail training ship for the Omani navy.

** All photos except my certificate are by kind courtesy of Bruce Mike Roberts (course 23). Sadly I don’t have any I took. Can’t even recall if I had a camera!

A Tale of Riches to Rags

Satellite map of Nauru

For a couple of months towards the end of 1979 I was priviledged to visit a number of islands in the South Pacific. They were not tourist or luxury liner visits. Most of the time I stayed with locals. My work was representing the ship MV Logos and making advance preparations for the vessel to visit these far flung outposts of our world. If interested I describe the type of work I was engaged in in my posts City of Many Faces or I see men like trees walking! Here I am recalling a visit to a tiny island nation in the vast Pacific.

Location of the Repunlic of Nauru

Visiting Nauru was unintentional. Myself and a colleague were flying from Fiji to Honiara, Solomon Islands on Nauru’s national airline, Air Nauru. We had been encouraged by the cheap tickets on offer. However didn’t realise it would be expensive for us time-wise. Nauru was meant to be just a stopover but the airline had no plane available for our ongoing flight. It didn’t appear any other airline went there. They willingly put us up for 2 days in the island’s only hotel. We discovered most people in the hotel were also stranded for similar reasons as ourselves. Being put up by the airline was apparently a regular occurrence. Hard to imagine such happening with today’s airlines. Perversely I wondered if cheap air tickets and flight cancellations were a way of getting visitors to this remote place not on a normal tourist route. For a small place it boasts quite a few interesting and rather sad facts**.

The airline it seems could afford such generosity. The reason was Nauru was full of the world’s purest quality rock phosphate, used in fertilisers. The population had became very wealthy selling mining rights to big companies. At one time Nauru citizens were the richest per capita in the world. My visit was during the boom times. There were no taxes and the government gave everybody a stipend. The population then was 4,000 (now nearly 11,000). It is the world’s smallest independent island nation. Air Nauru then had 4 Boeing aircraft in its fleet. One aircraft per thousand inhabitants! Even the milk was flown in. Sounds idyllic? Not really as there was no incentive to get jobs, start businesses or diversify its economy. 

Roughly oval shaped and about 6 km long and 4km wide Nauru has a main road round it’s perimeter. My recollection was of local teens racing round and round this looped road in expensive motorbikes. The interior of the island was where the mining occurred. I remember the bioluminescence of the waves at night, their sparkling a wonder to behold. Seeing the coral reef that surrounded the entire island was a constant reminder that a great and deep ocean was just out there. The moonlike standing limestone structures gave a kind of haunting beauty. Standing on a small, fairly flat island in the vast Pacific I felt vulnerable and exposed. It’s nearest neighbour is Banabi island 300km to the east. Yes Nauru had a beauty to it and I could understand why it was once called Pleasant island.

The tragedy of Nauru is that strip mining scarred 80% of the country’s entire surface leaving it a wasteland and the people clinging to the remaining habitable areas on the coast. Added to that was the phosphate runoff poisoning the ground waters with cadmium. When there was no more phosphate left to mine this single source of wealth disappeared. The people subsequently have become poor. Riches to rags. The government did win reparations from Australia for the environmental degradation it suffered. In a controversial development in recent years they have been getting income from Australia by serving as a detention centre for asylum seekers. A recent proposed project, currently of unknown impact on the environment, is deep sea mining of seabed metal nodules. There are also a number of dubious money making schemes.

“I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate…When I was a boy, it was so beautiful… Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

Rev Aingimea, Nauru Congregational Church, speaking to New York Times 10 Mar 1995.

We eventually did get on our onward flight to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Accommodation there was very different! We stayed in the convent of an Anglican women’s order. My colleague Jean as a woman had no problem in living in the community. For me the solution was the nuns putting me in an outhouse on a hill. However I could eat at mealtimes with the community. Breakfasts were silent which was fine. Meals when you could talk were often mundane. At other times discussing what the call of God might mean. I was impressed by the energy of the leading sister. The peace of the night would be punctuated by the sound of her battering away on a manual typewriter. 

In a few weeks time the world’s attention will turn to my home city of Glasgow. It is about to host the UN COP26 conference on climate change and the environment. Matters of global concern will be discussed with many voices and opinions. Nauru is literally a drop in the ocean of both the world’s population and land area. Insignificant as it might seem it’s tragic story represents the story of many communities and nations today. Places that suffer from a toxic mixture of greed, environmental degradation and humanity’s ongoing hunger for resources.

** See, for example, “11 amazing facts about Nauru…

East or West?

A few of Stockholm’s 30,000 islands!

My wife is Swedish and for almost 40 years I have been travelling to and from Sweden. Sometimes several times a year and occasionally a year or two with no visits. Short period stays for a few weeks up to one period where we lived and worked in the country for 2 years. It has been a privilege to get snapshots of the changes and trends in a country and culture over a generation. All aided by in-laws and Swedish friends as expert guides. Despite seeing a lot of the country I really have still only seen a small part. Much of the time the places visited have been in the main populated areas in the south of the country. Between the 2 biggest cities and south of that to the coast. Sweden is a big country with relatively few people. As an example the UK has 11 times more people per sq km. than Sweden. It is all relative and the north of the country is far more sparsely populated than the south where most live.

Gothenburg on the west coast and the capital Stockholm on the east. In many ways different but with some geographical similarities. One such is that each city has an archipelago. A string of islands off their respective coasts. Gothenburg’s look like they have exploded out along the coast whereas Stockholm’s seem more swirling in and attached to the city itself. Quite a few who live on these islands work in the cities and commute into their respective metropoli by ferry. A refreshing way to start and finish the work day. The lifestyle reminds me of when I lived in Sydney. There I stayed in the northern suburbs of Manly but went to work in the city by ferry. Salt spray and fresh winds do wonders for the frazzled office worker. 

To me one remarkable thing about Sweden is the eye watering taxes people are prepared to pay. That might sound like a negative but there are advantages to living in what is a very egalitarian society. One of them is that many of these islands have free car and passenger ferries for both locals and visitors. Ran by the state you can enjoy free island hopping by bike, car or on foot. No skimping on the service from early morning to late at night. Some services run every 10 mins during the day.

This generous government policy also keeps the islands populated and accessible. If you have a second home on an island you can regularly visit. Also many go for day trips or weekends so local tourism and businesses thrive. In addition a number of close knit islands have bridges joining them. Further enhancing the convenience of moving around the islands. The islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago are car free and there are some passenger only ferries where you do pay. Not sure what the rules are for paying and non-paying ferries.

Lilla Varholmen to Hönö Island ferries

I have only visited Gothenburg’s northern archipelago and most seem to be mainly rocky with not a lot of trees. Not unlike Scotland’s west coast in parts. The few of Stockholm’s inner islands I have seen have more abundant tree life. Although ferry travel is made easy, living on these islands is not cheap. Houses are expensive. Sweden manages to combine a benevolent and generous form of socialism with competitive markets and a very entrepreneurial society. 

Stockholm, sometimes called the Venice of the north, is itself a collection of islands. It has more of everything compared to it’s smaller sibling Göteborg in the west. Thousands of islands in its archipelago (though not all populated), more wealth and more people.

The islands on both coasts often have picturesque harbours and an abundance of pleasure craft. All giving an air of relaxed and lazy living. As a mere observer with no real insider knowledge Stockholm’s islands seem to have more of a cosmopolitan air, perhaps inevitable given it is the capital. Gothenburg’s seem to have more of a local feel and its houses (I imagine) having more vibrant colours. 

The islands, whether on east or west, have a rich and interesting history. One example is Rörö, the northernmost island of Göteborg’s archipelago. Now it is a beautiful nature reserve with lovely walks. In days gone by locals got an income from luring ships with bonfires onto it’s rocks. They would then kill any surviving crew and plunder the cargo. The graves of an English crew are said to be buried along the island’s rocky western shore. In Rörö’s harbour today a lifeboat station has pride of place. Saving lives instead of plundering and killing. Times have changed. 

The islands on both east and west coasts have been strategic to the defence of Sweden through the centuries. Vaxholm is an island cluster on the way in from the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. It has been strategic to the defense of Stockholm from enemies to the east for centuries. A lot of the substantial buildings are of a defensive nature, such as military barracks or castles. The defence of the capital is still a concern today as every so often a foreign submarine appears in its waters. Vaxholm castle even has a mines museum in its courtyard. The Oxdjupet strait was a strategic waterway on the main passage into Stockholm. Guarded on the west side of the strait by Oskar-Fredriksborg castle and Fredriksborg fortress to the east. For 300 years locals worked on filling in this strait (yes 300 years!) as a means of preventing ships entering Stockholm. Times have also changed here and now this waterway accommodates large liners and ferries on their way into and out of Stockholm.

During the Cold War many underground bunkers were installed on both east and west coast as well as on the mainland. Their locations were hard to detect buried under rock and designed to survive nuclear attack. Some years ago I visited one of these in Gothenburg’s archipelago. Located on an uninhabited rocky outcrop it was well hidden from the pleasure boats that passed by. Along with hundreds of others it was destined to be demolished. 

I will not be drawn on whether east is better than west. Suffice to say I come from the port city of Glasgow in the west of Scotland. To the east we also have a capital city, Edinburgh. 

One thing I can say is that on a summer’s day seaside ice cream tastes just as good whether looking over the Baltic or the Kattegat. In fact good ice cream tastes the same wherever you are. 

Gumption in the Forest?

A new day

Whilst in Sweden visiting family my wife planned to visit a relative in another town, Ulricehamn. It is situated at the north end of Åsunden lake, about 100km east of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. The idea popped into my head that rather than jump in the car what about running there instead and then get a lift back. 

Up to the day before my plan had been to follow part of Sjuhäradsrundan, the cycle route along the disused railway. However it would mainly be covered in tarmac. I didn’t like what would effectively be a road run. A last minute suggestion persuaded me to instead join part of Sjuhäradsleden, a long-distance forest trail. It would make it easier on my feet but not for navigation. I have got lost in the forests of Sweden several times before. It was difficult to ascertain the distance on this new route but it looked like marathon distance which turned out to be right. 

So last Monday at 0630 I set off from where we were staying in the forest. Initially on a gravel road to Gånghester, a village on outskirts of Borås town. Plan was to join the former railway track there and then link in with the forestry trail from Dalsjöfors.

A short way into run I passed a place where several years ago I bumped into 2 elks whilst rounding the corner. All 3 of us were equally surprised. Despite them being strongly associated with Sweden they are elusive creatures and I have only seen a few times. On that occasion I carefully backed away. They are big and not to be messed with. Had I been running a few weeks later in October the elk hunting season begins. Then it wouldn’t be elks but people to watch out for. It is not advisable to enter deep forest when groups of hunters are out and about.

On this occasion I was thinking not so much of elks but more of elk fleas (‘älgloppa’). They are hard to get rid off once on your skin but thankfully don’t bite. Same can’t be said about the ticks. Nasty, infectious bites with even nastier potential disease. Plenty of them especially in long grass. In this there was some similarity to Scotland! 

Known to me as elk corner.

On the former rail track from Gånghester to Dalsjöfors I met a few early morning cyclists on their way to work. Also a guy running much faster than I at about 10 km/hour pace pushing a child’s buggy. I was not going to be tempted to keep up and kept to my modest 8km/hr as he moved ahead.

Runner and buggy receding into distance.

Arriving Dalsjöfors instructions from family were ‘turn right and join the forest trail when you see Toarps State church up on hill to the left‘. I couldn’t see church for trees but thankfully saw the sign. Interesting that all over rural Europe directions to finding your way are often given in relation to the church of a village or town. Maybe a message there. Eventually after gaining some height I did see the church.

Toarps church peeking through the trees

The route I was now on was Sjuhäradsleden which I would follow all the way to Ulricehamn. Where I joined it was well marked and was so for most of journey. An orange diamond or painted line seen clearly on trees, poles etc. The only gripe I have with Swedish orientation signs are that there are often markings 50m or so after a fork in the trail, rarely at the fork itself. For me, it can mean carefully checking some way up each arm of the fork. However I think Swedes know what they are doing as orienteering is very popular with all ages in Sweden. They are very good at it. On second thoughts maybe looking some distance ahead rather than focussing close at hand gives better awareness of where you are. There might be a life lesson there. You the reader can decide.

Spot the sign!

Terrain was frequently changing from gravelled roads to thick forest. The latter required concentration and awareness of where I was. Also the occasional meadow but the overall sense was of trees everywhere. At more open farm steadings the route would often deviate from the farm road to make a detour into a field. I guess the farmer wanted privacy. That said one landowner told me enthusiastically that I go through her house front gate as that was the route.

Field detour

A few times the trail was ‘booby trapped’ with electric fences requiring an inelegant sliding along the ground. I guess the safety of grazing animals takes priority over the ease with which two legged travellers can pass through.

Over, in-between or under?

Mostly it was quiet and at times even felt lonely. For about 25km think I only met one person and quite a number of contented horses and sheep.

The final 10km or so of the route felt hard. Few pictures of this last section, too pre-occupied. I was getting weary and adopting a run-walk strategy. The forest terrain was more difficult to traverse, the trail underfoot becoming fainter and mixing with other tracks. However what made it most difficult was that suddenly the trail stopped being marked. No more welcome orange diamonds or lines giving reassurance of progress. I now had to follow the map downloaded the night before and which I had not studied. Ended up getting lost.

This is what lost looks like!

When lost on a trail my usual experience is of mild panic and a sense of wasted time and energy. I blindly strike out in whatever direction seems best. This time I decided to be calm, go slowly and patiently retrace my steps back to where I last knew where I was. No second guessing my location and trying to make up time with ‘shortcuts’. 

My strategy paid off and gradually I was ‘free’ of the last forested area. I now had the wider perspective of lush fields. A few more km of this and I was on a cycle path leading to Ulricehamn’s town centre and my destination.  

Cycle track into Ulricehamn.

42.3km, 640m climb, 693m descent. 6hrs 2mins.