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!

Valley Thoughts

Aiguille du Midi

Over almost the last decade my wife and I have made several visits to the lovely French town of Chamonix and the valley named after it. Situated at the foot of Mt. Blanc, the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842m towers over the town. You need to crane your neck to see it. The valley on its eastern side is created by the Mt Blanc massif. Mt Blanc itself at 4,809m is Europe’s highest mountain and straddles France and Italy. Switzerland is also part of the massif. Country borders seem influenced by the geography of the mountain passes.

Our visits to the valley have been for a few reasons. One has been my taking part in the Ultra Trail du Mt. Blanc (UTMB) series trail races** and on other occasions to be a spectator cum tourist at said races.

It has been a wonderful experience to participate in these events that, like the massif, cover 3 countries. Despite my being just an ordinary ‘back of the pack’ runner it is great to be at the same start line as the world’s best mountain and trail runners. During the week of races there are approx 8,000 ultra runners taking part from 80+ countries. Here in Scotland ultra running is a niche activity. In Chamonix for a week in late August it is mainstream and I feel normal. The French fete their top runners in a way you don’t see anywhere else. 

My three races there have probably been the toughest physical experiences of my life. The unrelenting steepness of the mountains and the thinner air see to that. The occasions have also been life affirming. For me running long distances provides opportunity as a Christian to challenge both body and spirit. The truth is I need at times to step out of the comfortable routines of life. In ways that can’t be described in words God nourishes, blesses and equips to continue to live the much longer and more challenging race of life. We exist in a physical world but it takes spiritual resources to truly live.

All UTMB races end (most also start) in Chamonix in front of St. Michel Church in town centre. A few times I have sought solace from tension before races by sitting on the steps in front of the church. From there I ponder the massive cathedral of the Mt. Blanc massif that looms in front of me. Sandwiched between two silent but potent symbols of God’s love, power and presence.

St. Michel Church, just before starting the 2012 UTMB
Cross, overlooking Vallorcine at north end of the valley.

The visits to Chamonix in more of a tourist capacity have obviously been more relaxed. That’s when either I have not competed by failing to get through the ballot process or felt unable to muster the mental or physical resources to take part. Then I have simply enjoyed being a spectator cheering on others as they strive to achieve. Also taking time to hike and enjoy the spectacular vistas.

Chamonix of course is home to many other sports; hiking, the home of alpine climbing, rock climbing, mountain biking; skiing; para gliding and wingsuit flying to name a few. I have met young people who are enthusiasts willing to forego studies or career, live simply and realise their adventures. Working in hospitality, as taxi drivers or as guides they pay for their outdoor passion in climbing, skiing or whatever. Elite trail runners who train there year round are often sponsored by big name outdoor gear companies. The place is also a magnet for tourists. These different types of people are exemplified in my journal entry of 2 Sept 2015…

We have got in the habit of having breakfast in a small cafe which wasn’t far away from the chairlift to Aiguille du Midi. The cosy premises seemed to comprise of 2 types of people. One group were relaxed chair lifters out for the day and dressed in the latest fashionable ski and outdoor wear. Another group had the business air of serious mountaineers or rock climbers laden with safety ropes and equipment. Of this latter group I observed one wizened figure who seemed to be a mountain guide. He looked like he was waiting for his clients for the day. His face seemed to show a man used to being in the high mountains and who lived an intensely physical life. I imagined his trade reflected a nobility missing from much of modern life; that of making a living from a rugged life of outdoor adventure. I never talked to the man but sometimes a face inspires a story.

Chamonix as a town is not that remarkable. At the beginning of the 20th century it was largely unknown. At times the Chamonix valley was even cut off from the rest of France during bad winters. Now it is a mixture of adventure playground and expensive tourist magnet. The people who have come to make a living there and those who have come to enjoy it’s beauty as tourists or sports enthusiasts made it what it is. The same forces may change it for the worse as the stark, wild and pure beauty of the mountains are made accessible to more and more. 

Other changes in the environment of the region may have consequences further afield. The glaciers that used to encroach on living areas have now receded far up the mountainsides. Even in under a decade you notice the difference. 

This is not an advert for the town or the valley. It became special to us due to spending time there and doing things we enjoyed. I’m sure you have places equally special. 

Coffee table inspiration!

** A series of several different races around Mt. Blanc, varying in length and difficulty. You can read my experience in these races here.