Notes in the Margin
by Penelope Williams

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

For me, it’s all about the sea. It’s where we came from. The mix of salts in the ancient oceans still echoes in our blood, whether you take this as a scientific fact or feel it in your marrow. Lovely!

Growing up aboard a wooden ketch in Falmouth Harbour, the sea and its moods were my chief concerns. My hopes hung on every syllable of the shipping forecast. Would we be seasick? Would the anchor drag? Would we get ashore to school? My head, when not buried in a book from Falmouth library, was popping out of the hatch on the foredeck to see what other boats had most recently arrived from the shores of America, Australia, South Africa or the West Indies. Did they need fresh milk, fresh bread? My sister and I would be rowing ashore to fetch these delectable prizes, and back to gaze, speechless, at the bronzed faces, bleached locks and crinkled eyes of our local heroes.

We saw hands of bananas hanging from the cabin beams. We saw beads from Canada, carvings from St Helena, scrim-shaw from the Azores, and we sipped, surreptitiously, from mugs of local rum (local to the Bahamas). We sat, quiet as sea-mice, in the corners of these cabins, hoping to remain unobserved and unsent to bed, while our parents exchanged tales, charts and weather reports with the newly arrived. Bottled dorado, Barbadian molasses and biltong from Port Elizabeth were eagerly traded for tins whose soggy labels had slipped into bilges, but whose attraction for sailors on monotonous shoestrings lay in the “surprise.”

Perched on the granite steps of the dinghy basin at the Prince of Wales Pier, where I was dropped ashore to school every day, and picked up at half past four, I smiled earnestly at every landing sailor and dreamed of stowing away. Pomona, Xlendi, Armorel, Romadi, Pegasus, Morgana … for me, the visit-ing yachts offered all the solemn promise of wave-leaping unicorns. Over the years, some of these yachts would return with news of yachts we had met before. Others sailed never to be heard of again, leaving rumours floating like wreckage in the doldrums. The stories went on into the small hours, wreathing with tobacco smoke and the flicker of Tilley lamps, giving me a lifelong fascination with tales tall and small.

The main reason for living on a boat in the seventies, I discovered, was to “escape the rat race.” My visions of giant rodents on the West Way, where we went to visit grandma in Ealing, were crystal clear. Myth and reality mingled perfectly in my life afloat. They still do. It’s what makes me write.

In the breezy May of 1976, Baroque arrived, to excitement in the harbour. The skipper was Bill (Major HW) Tilman, a notoriously grumpy, living legend whose books about voyages in his first boat, Mischief, were on the cramped wooden shelves of every yacht I’d ever been aboard. Mischief in Greenland, Mischief in Patagonia, Mischief Among the Penguins. I hadn’t read them then. Their damp-curled pages ranked, with Slocum, Chichester, Hiscock, and Reed’s Nautical Almanac, amongst the bibles of the world’s sailing population. “See if you can get aboard” grinned my father.

He might as well have suggested I invite myself to tea with Ancient Mariner.

But I was a lot braver then. I simply rowed circles around Baroque, singing sea shanties, until his crew finally let me aboard. I sat chirruping nonsense in the cabin, dark and damp as church and almost as awe-inspiring, until Major Tilman, somewhat surprisingly, offered me a can of coke. He asked my name, but couldn’t catch it: “Benny?” “No, Penny. I’m a girl!” I might as well have said “duchess.” In the disconcerted silence that followed Tilman growled at his crew, “Well, fetch her a glass!” Ladies drank from glasses, even if they were only ten years old. He signed our new copy of Ice with Everything and subsided into his bunk, staring up at the deck beams as if he could see right through them. I’d seen that look before. It was the thousand mile stare of men stuck in port, waiting for the wind. I knew he wanted to be back at sea, and I knew, without having the words yet, why.

Thirty years later, the mere idea of writing about Tilman has me nervously splashing my oars and singing off key. Few outside the sailing or mountaineering communities will ever have heard of him. How to do justice to the man’s deeds, let alone his words?

Tim Madge’s excellent biography, The Last Hero, is an insightful and inspiring account of a man whose life was spent compensating in heroic effort and achievement for all the lives Tilman saw lost in the mud of the Somme, before he was twenty years old. It was as if he was trying to do every-thing he thought that they, “so many better men, some of them friends,”1 could have done, or would have done, if they had not been killed. In Two Mountains and a River he alludes to his distress by quoting Coleridge: “And a thousand, thousand slimy things/Lived on and so did I.”2

Tilman was fond of quoting. It absolved him from more personal revelations that he found uncomfortable. After win-ning a Military Cross in the First World War, still aged only twenty, he went to Africa to carve a coffee plantation from the jungle, where isolation and his own unsociability left him to read the whole of Dent’s Everyman in his spare time. Carving completed, and library exhausted, he grew bored and switched to prospecting for gold. Prospects unimproved, he then cycled across Africa, east to west, living for two months on bananas. This exploit inspired his first book, Snow on the Equator. Real readers can’t help but dream of being writers.

While in Africa, Tilman met and climbed with another exceptional writer–explorer, Eric Shipton. The two became known as the “terrible twins” of their generation, pioneering the oxygen and climbing techniques that eventually helped Tensing and Hillary reach the summit of Everest. Tilman wrote seven books about mountaineering, recording an era, and a sense of endeavour, that is lost forever.

Already into middle age, he then decided to sail to his mountains, and wrote a further eight books. In language as plain and wiry as a salt-rimed length of hemp, he carries the reader safely through icebergs, williwaws, kelp, storms, mutinies, and uncharted islands. His style is consistently understated. “On a voyage to Iceland in Mischief we once watched the eruption and formation of a volcanic island where the successive explosions under the sea and the uprush of steam, smoke and ash to a great height were sufficiently awe-inspiring.”3 Sufficiently!

The only romance he ever refers to was the sea itself. On the trip from Las Palmas to Montevideo, en route for his first adventure in Patagonia, he writes: “For the next seven days we ran in the full swing of the trades. These were days of glorious sailing. The sun blazed down till the pitch in the seams bubbled, the dazzling white twins swayed and curtsied until their booms kissed the water, while the ship rolled lazily along her run of more than a hundred miles every day. … We even had flying fish for breakfast every morning with no exertion at all.”4

Tilman’s love of nature was more than gastronomic. Sighting polar bears in Arctic waters made one whole voyage worthwhile. He frequently identifies wild flowers and plants, noting the “pleasing” scent of wild ylang-ylang, or the fact that Kerguelen cabbage must be boiled for three hours to make it edible. In the Patagonian Channels, he blends admiration with a dry, self-deprecating humour, and a rare reference to his experience in the trenches. “Several more floes of fantastic shape and delicate blue colouring, now drifted by close to the ship and were greeted with pleased cries, much as some ignorant clown might greet the first few ranging shots of a hostile battery.”5 Securing a safer anchorage, Tilman left half the crew in charge of the ship, and went ashore with the rest to make the first ever crossing of the Patagonian ice cap, from Chile to Argentina.

The restraint in his prose makes Tilman’s honesty all the more poignant. In Mischief’s Wake includes his obituary for his first yacht. Mischief struck a rock on someone else’s watch, and, after days of painful rescue efforts, while she was battered by sea and ice on a beach, she sank as she was being towed to harbour. “For me it was the loss of more than a yacht. I felt like one who had first betrayed and then deserted a stricken friend; a friend with whom for the past fourteen years I had spent more time at sea than on land, and who, when not at sea, had seldom been out of my thoughts … I shall never forget her.” His final reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost says it all: “The world was all before her, where to choose / Her place of rest, and Providence her guide.”6

Tilman sailed and climbed without any of the technology or corporate sponsorships that insure the modern hero. Not for him the weeping on camera in a cockpit dwarfed by mighty seas. When they sailed, Tilman and his crew knew that they might not come back. In trouble, the only ones to save them would be themselves. He would not have wanted it any other way.

Writing for a stunt-hungry publisher was the last thing on his mind. He was lucky enough not to have to earn a living, or rely on a sponsor, but worked harder than most labourers at sea or on the mountains. The only solace he could find ashore was in painstakingly trekking ink across pages as empty, white and defiant as unexplored glaciers. For this alone, he is my hero. His favourite word on the map of Patagonia, was “inesplorado.” Unexplored. As a woman who loves the sea, the ice and occasional degrees of solitude, I believe this was not, as Freudians might have it, the desire to penetrate the unbroken, but the desire to be alone with the purity of creation: “to seek those first experiences and try to feel as felt the earlier man in a happier time, to see the world as they saw it.” (Tilman quoting Belloc.)7

Was Tilman a man driven, or drawn? Hard on others, he was harder on himself. Was he driven by survivor’s guilt, a heavy-handed father, or a Victorian work ethic? He stead-fastly refused to comment on his own motivation for doing anything, this time resorting to Stevenson: “In the joy of the actors lies the sense of any action. That is the explanation, that the excuse.”8

I don’t believe any man could be driven to do what he did, given that he had a choice, and could have retired on an independent income to sit on his war laurels. Tilman chose to sail and climb.

So what is it that draws a man to spend most of his years at sea, with companions he hardly knows?

Space. Ice. Waves. Wind. The unexpected. The unknown. The primeval pull of the sea in the blood, salt calling home to salt. Even on the glaciers, or in the ice, Tilman was treading frozen water, frozen sea. My sense is that Tilman went back there because that’s where he felt he belonged.

The feeling of belonging, whether to a lover or a family, a group of friends or a country or, ultimately, in the world, is essential to human happiness. Belonging is the antidote to loneliness. Tilman, a self-confessed hermit, found it hard to “belong” with most people, but perhaps even harder to be totally alone. The fact that he never took the single-handed sailor’s route was not because it was impossible to do so in icy waters, but because he didn’t want to. There is an undeniable satisfaction in putting together a crew of men who might walk past each other in the street, but who, when crisis comes, will pull together and survive. Tilman learned the value, and the vulnerability, of human bonds in the trenches. He never lost it. He was much more human, in that sense, than he is generally given credit for.

Between 1954 and 1977, Bill Tilman sailed over 160,000 miles across the world’s oceans. In 2002, I crewed a paltry 500 miles on a steel ketch from Ushuaia to Antarctica. The month we spent cruising the Antarctic Peninsula showed me a beauty I felt was holy. Magnificent icebergs lured and appalled me in equal measure. The sense of awe was overwhelming. No wonder Tilman was drawn.

Down below in the cabin, I felt as much at home in the frozen south as I did as a child in Falmouth Harbour. I lay in my bunk, listening to the water burbling along the hull, while the “bergy bits” scrabbled past, and imagined the molecules of unfrozen ocean, each linking to the next, all the way back to Falmouth on the other side of the world. Home on the water, is home, anywhere.

Incorrigible as always, and wishing to celebrate his eightieth birthday in Antarctica, Tilman sailed as crew on a converted tug, En Avant. The voyage to Rio de Janeiro was very happy. En Avant sailed for Port Stanley in November 1977. She never arrived. The old man of the sea, and his brave companions, had gone.

I can’t leave him there. In honour of his underestimated humour, and his kindness, I’d rather leave you with his views on elephant seals, as he met them in the Crozet Islands. “Should an aggressive old fellow decide to shuffle forwards one has to step back pretty smartly. The youngsters have better manners. They just lie with one eye open and the other half shut as one approaches, and if one begins stroking them they shut both and go to sleep again.”9 Imagine this fierce old mariner sitting quietly down by a young seal, and stroking it to sleep.

It’s lonely at a keyboard, for any writer. Humdrum, tap-tap, on a voyage across the unknown, in search of the extraordinary. I’m a copywriter these days. It’s an artisan’s job, managing language for people who can’t, the way a ship-wright handles timber. It’s still about telling stories. That’s how I grew up: listening out for the fabulous thread that spins into a narrative spell.

Living on the water taught me to observe the world from its margin: the quiet, unregarded space in which some of the most sincere thoughts are often noted. My marginal life was a gift to me from my parents. Tilman’s was a brave and remarkable choice.

My next adventure will no doubt be on paper, that daunting voyage across the wilderness of my novel. Like the icebergs, this lures and appals.

But “To the brave all things are possible.”10 That’s me, quoting Tilman.


  1. HW Tilman, “Two Mountains and a River,” The Seven Mountain-Travel Books, Mountaineers Books, 2003, p. 517.
  2. Ibid.
  3. HW Tilman, “In Mischief’s Wake,” The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books, Diadem Books, 1993, p. 651.
  4. Tilman, “Mischief in Patagonia,” op. cit., p. 42.
  5. Ibid, p. 81.
  6. Tilman, “In Mischief’s Wake,” op. cit., p. 658.
  7. Tilman, “Mischief in Patagonia,” op. cit., p. 21.
  8. Tilman, “Mischief in Greenland,” op. cit., p. 263.
  9. Tilman, “Mischief Among the Penguins,” op. cit., p. 191.
  10. Ibid, p. 203.

The Diadem Books collection includes an introduction by Colin Putt, one of Tilman’s crew, and a more comprehensive bibliography. For anyone seeking a Tilman first edition that might have been to sea on someone else’s boat, these notes might help.

Mischief in Patagonia first published by Cambridge University Press, 1957. Mischief Among the Penguins first published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961. Mischief in Greenland first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1964.

Mostly Mischief first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1966. Mischief Goes South first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1968. In Mischief’s Wake first published by Hollis & Carter Ltd, 1971.

Ice With Everything first published by Nautical Publishing Company, in association with GG Harrup & Co. Ltd, 1974.

Triumph and Tribulation first published by Nautical Publishing Company, 1977.

Diadem Books also published HW Tilman, The Seven Mountain-Travel Books. The collection is also published by Mountaineers Books. It comprises:

Snow on the Equator, The Ascent of Nanda Devi, When Men and Mountains Meet, Everest, 1938, Two Mountains and a River, China to Chitral, Nepal Himalaya.

Tim Madge’s biography, The Last Hero, is published by Hodder & Staughton.

Bob Comlay, another of Tilman’s crew, runs a fascinating website with some beautiful photographs at

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