Elastic Band Training

Port visitors to the MV Logos

For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many. 

So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months. 

An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.

Crowds visiting the MV Logos on board book exhibition

Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving! 

Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.

Weekly ‘IT’ Report

We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day. 

A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.

In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.

One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.

One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.

Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.

It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK

Modified Marcothon Madness

Canal towpath beckons, the default option.

For some years now once a year I have run every day for a month. I was inspired by what is known as the ‘Marcothon’. Started in 2009 by a Glasgow ultra running couple Marco and Debbie Consani the premise is simple. Run every day in December for 25 mins or 3 miles  (4.8km), whichever is shorter. Over the past 12 years it has gained huge popularity far beyond its Glasgow origins**. It may not sound like much but doing it whatever the weather and weaving in whatever else you have in a day and it’s effect on you grows as the month progresses. December is also often a busy time of year. My normal running habits are 3, maybe 4, times a week. For me an annual shift to daily running adds some helpful variety. 

To achieve this quirky goal I find myself playing mind games. The strategy is usually to do the daily run before breakfast. That way it is out of my mind. I don’t need to think of it any more during the day. You may say why do it at all! Early morning in a Scottish winter is not always that inviting. Often bitterly cold, windy, wet and sometimes snowy an extra half hour in bed is extremely attractive. When I succumb to this temptation it becomes necessary to do it at another time of day, like late afternoon. If this doesn’t work I resort to the ‘wild card’. Warning, this is to be used sparingly. The wild card is to go out at 11:30pm and run for an hour. That way I have covered 2 days in one run and don’t have to get up early in the morning. The downside is it plays havoc with sleep patterns and you could be awake most of the night! Reality is whatever way you try to do it there is a price to pay. 

In regards to routes some years I have tried going a different way each day. That involves extra creativity if always starting from home. Nowadays I tend to do shorter runs on the canal in the mornings and if possible do the longer runs off road on a trail or in the mountains late afternoon. I really don’t like street running or being on tarmac. Too stressful with traffic and very hard on the joints. 

Longer run on the trail. Dumgoyne in the Campsie hills in the distance.

One year my wife and I were both doing this self imposed effort. Late December we were flying to see family over Christmas. How to run 25 mins or 3 miles when the whole day we would be travelling? Solution was a 25 minute run in Stockholm’s Arlanda airport. Like to think this was a creative solution. It actually happened out of necessity. Our inbound flight was extremely late for our ongoing connection and Arlanda is a big airport. Carrying luggage also made for an extra workout. 

This year I have altered the challenge and am doing a modified version in November instead of December. The observant will notice this is written near the end of November. So far I am in hopes of achieving it and am looking forward to a more relaxed December thinking of other folks out running everyday. For some reason this year I have also inexplicably decided to modify the ‘rules’. Instead of 4.8km or 25 mins. I have upped the distance to an average of 7.5km/day. In effect I still do 4-5km majority of time but every few days then have to up to a longer 12-15km run. The added element of distance means a bit more planning but gives more variety than just ‘getting out the door’ each day.

Why do runners do these things? What is it that makes runners so obsessive? The other day I went a pleasant 18km country hike with friends which took us several hours and had a fair bit of climbing. Surely that would count for the day. No, on getting home I went out for a 4km run. A run is a run. A hike, however strenuous, is a hike.

Running every day in a month might sound inspiring until you read of those who do so for several months, years or even decades! Few will follow or even want to aspire to what the Marcothon did for Mike Wells’…

“10 years ago today, I discovered Marcothon 2011 and as I’d never run more than 3 days in a row before, I decided to try running every day for a week. That week became a month and then somehow, 3,653 days, 6,176 runs & 36,889 miles later, I’ve somehow ended up running every day since.”

Part of Mike Wells’ 22 Nov 2021  post on ‘Marcothon 2021’ Facebook group.

Each to his own (you may say that about me). I don’t see myself in Mike’s category. Today I am counting down the 4 remaining days of this month of my modified Marcothon. Looking forward to a few days break from running. For me this annual project has been a means to stay motivated as winter in the northern hemisphere starts to bite. I get weary of the short daylight and there is the temptation to stay more indoors. At least once a day I do something that on the surface has little or no perceived productivity. In that sense it is counter cultural. I live in a world where doing something ‘productive’ is what is deemed valuable. 

For many of us who run the benefits are not only physical but also psychological. Other aspects of life are enhanced. Running may or may not be your thing. However the rigour of committing to doing something you know is good for you for 30/31 consecutive days might be just the prescription needed.

What will I now do in December? I have given some thought to eating my way daily through a chocolate advent calendar. However I have no inclination to eat just a little chocolate a day apart, why would I do that? The temptation to eat several in one go is just too great – definitely not my thing. Advent though is another thing entirely.

** You can read the Consani’s story of the Marcothon here. Their son has created the ‘mini Marco’, run 1 mile (1.6km) every day in December!

PS- a postscript written on 30 November, having actually completed the month. The sting in the tail in the last week was realising I had slipped on my goal of a daily average of 7.5km for the month. It meant several days of longer than planned distances in order to achieve this. Just 1 km below average converts to an extra 30 km for the month! Note to self- if I ever do a mileage related ‘run every day’ thing again it is very important to be consistent from the beginning if I am going to keep up the average. 

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!

The Elephant in The Room

Like the proverbial elephant in the room the pandemic and it’s effects on physical, mental and spiritual health cannot be ignored. I thought writing a blog in these times one topic I would safely ignore is the virus. There is so much in the news and most conversation is permeated by it that people don’t need to hear more. However this elephant at times suffocates and takes up too much of my mental space. It needs addressing in some way so here goes. 

Late last year I wrote to friends some of my ‘lockdown musings’. With a few variations it largely applies today…

Quiet evenings; unhurried; fogginess of mind (brain fog); stress despite little activity; furtive shopping; playing guitar; waiting on God; preciousness of relationships; impatience; news overload; irrational fear; auto distancing from people; cleanliness; blurring of the particular and the routine; Zoom and video meetings; online church; discouragement; crosswords; newspapers; clear, blue plane-free skies; sweet birdsong; phone calls; cancelled trips; cancelled races; freedom of trail / mountain running; walks alone, together with Elisabeth and with friends; envying people with gardens; good books, podcasts and music; family fears; solitary but not alone; frustration; weariness; disquiet; sleep; noise of social media; a different future; peace; mortality; resurrection; Ignatian retreat and use of imagination; annoyed with myself; anger at rule breakers; gratitude; face masks; picnics in friend’s gardens; rare meetings with relatives; indecisive; becoming ‘buddy’ to two overseas students; short stays at friends’ cottages between lockdowns; amazing 42+ year Zoom reunion with former colleagues; guilt at things not done.  

Such a bundle of experiences and contrasting feelings! I have much to be thankful for. For some the pandemic has brought much misery, sorrow and grief. With your unique circumstances you will have your own list.

It would be nice to say that these days I wake up, jump out of bed and ‘seize the day’. However there are times when I lie awake and think wearily of doing exactly the same thing as yesterday. Slight variations, maybe a different walk route from day before! Or a short car trip for some errand or different household chores. More dangerously I might imagine starting on a minor DIY project. Rarely enjoyed and usually filled with frustration. Going through this mental exercise hundreds of times the past year there is little that is different or new that motivates me in doing these things again. Except discipline. 

Discipline will get me out of bed. However another less healthy stimulus to activity is a misplaced sense of guilt if not busy. I initially thought that lockdown offered an attractive possibility. More time to slow down and just ‘be’. However the paradox is I often trade this opportunity by filling my life at the altar of ‘poor quality’ activity.

Many of us here in the UK are eagerly observing the beginnings of spring, the season of hope. It seems to bolster the desire for long awaited freedoms from lockdown. Tentatively daring to imagine a post pandemic world where that elephant takes much less space and we can breath easier. 

A long time ago king David wrote probably the best loved and most well known of the Psalms. His voice rings true today as an antidote (vaccine?) to my frenetic nature. Best read slowly.

God, my shepherd!

    I don’t need a thing. You have bedded me down in lush meadows,

    you find me quiet pools to drink from.

True to your word, you let me catch my breath

    and send me in the right direction. 

Psalm 23 vs 1-3 (Message translation)