Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Bill Tilman – greatest adventure sailor of the 20th century?

Tilman1Bill Tilman was probably the greatest adventure sailor of the 20th century. Slocum, of course, would have to take the accolade for the 19th century. So it’s unfortunate that, while many sailors may have heard of Tilman, probably few are aware of how many voyages he made to the Arctic, South America, around Africa and to Antarctica. Here was a man driven by a thirst for adventure – he was 79 years old when he was lost at sea in 1977.I confess that I’d heard the name but had little idea of Tilman’s voyages when I ordered the door-stopper 956-page compendium of his eight sailing-mountaineering books to read over this winter away from Kuan Yin. (I’ll be writing about that book once I’ve finished it.) But I became so intrigued by Tilman that I located the biography of him by Tim Madge to find out more.

The Last Hero, Bill Tilman; A Biography of the Explorer by Tim Madge was published in 1995.Tilman book

Although Madge only defines “heroism” at the end of his book, the word “hero” is nowadays so over-used and so diluted that it’s worth giving the definition of “heroism” Madge was using with reference to Bill Tilman.

Heroism – “the application of will and tenacity to the overcoming of peril, the mastery of the elements.”

Tilman was born in 1898, in the late Victorian era, into a wealthy sugar trading family in Liverpool. His father was an overbearing – dare one say “Victorian” – man who expected a lot from his children. His eldest ran away to sea. His daughter married and moved away to America, only to return later to look after her parents and Tilman. Tilman himself was sent to boarding school, of course. From there, in 1914, at the age of 16, he trained as an artillery officer and joined the Royal Field Artillery and was soon swept up in the First World War.

It’s obviously impossible for us living in a world so far removed from the Great War to imagine the impact of seeing, hearing, smelling, and experiencing the bloody and senseless carnage of the trenches in Europe. According to Tilman’s biographer, Tilman was haunted by guilt for surviving:

“The philosophical side of Bill had been formed in these years, alongside the influences of his parents, especially his father. To the insecurity the dominant side of his father engendered in him, can we add that other great enemy of internal peace: guilt? The guilt of the survivor when most are dead or injured, maimed physically or mentally.”

After the war, Tilman accepted a government grant of a square mile of bush in Kenya and went out to clear the land and grow coffee. Though he enjoyed establishing his farm, he was soon bored with farm routine. So he took up mountaineering as a pastime. In 1930, he wrote to the mountaineer Eric Shipton and in the years that followed Shipton and Tilman became a climbing duo that revolutionized mountaineering especially in the Himalayas. they showed that small, lightly equipped parties could accomplish great things, and that cumbersome and expensive expeditions were largely unnecessary.

However, in England on holiday in 1932, Tilman and two companions suffered a terrible climbing accident in the Lake District. One man died, one woman was badly injured. Tilman damaged his back so severely he was told he would never climb again.

Yet the next year he set out of a 3000-mile adventure. Tired of Africa after 14 years, he bought a bicycle and cycled east to west across Africa as a farewell journey. Throughout the 1930s, Shipton and Tilman climbed mountains in the Himalayas, including Nanda Devi. In the Second World War, Tilman worked with Albanian and Italian partisans behind enemy lines.

These adventures and experiences might be more than enough for any man by the time he reached 50 years old. But at the age of 55, in 1953, Tilman decided he was too old for mountaineering and the slopes too crowded that he decided to go to sea. He bought a 45-foot long, 50-year-old wooden Bristol Cutter and for the next 24 years sailed every summer for distance shores and unclimbed mountains.


Mischief in the Fair Isles

His first voyage took his to southern Chile. Later he sailed around Africa, went to the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica and to Greenland and to arctic Canada. Always he sailed in search of mountains to climb – though that was surely the excuse not the reason. He and his crews would spend months getting to and from a location, sometimes only to spend a few days or a bare week or two on a mountain slope.

“As the reader may have gathered, this 21,000 mile voyage had not furnished the enjoyment that is desirable and is expected on such voyages. Nor had it resulted in any achievement. We had nothing to show for it except the fact that the Antarctic, or the least hostile part of it, can readily be reached in a small boat,” wrote Tilman after one particularly disappointing voyage.

It may be Shackleton who is most famous for a hilariously honest advertisement for crew in The Times, but his advertisement has never been found. Tilman’s curt recruiting paragraph is well documented:

“Hand (man) wanted for long voyages in small boat. no pay, no prospects, not much pleasure”

Tilman demanded high standards and many privations of himself and his volunteers crews; he was often disappointed in the people he selected. In his many books, he shows a great sense of humour and self-deprecation – though probably the reality of living with him in trying circumstances at sea was sometimes too much for a younger generation of wannabe adventurers.

He sailed to western Greenland no fewer than 11 times and, in the end, lost two of his vessels there. “Mischief”, his first Bristol Cutter was lost when she struck a lone rock pinnacle off Jan Mayen Island and repairs on a beach failed.

Undaunted, Tilman bought “Sea Breeze”, another Bristol Cutter and a boat that should have been condemned – she was by the surveyor but Tilman wanted her. She sank after running aground on the ledge of an iceberg off Greenland. His next boat, “Baroque”, another Bristol Cutter, served for 5 voyages to the Arctic, by which time Tilman was 79 years old.

He recognized that his sailing days were over, but he hungered for one more voyage even if he wouldn’t be able to climb a mountain peak at the end of it. So when a former crew member invited him to sail with him to South Shetland Island, in Antarctica, Tilman of course jumped at the idea. Perhaps he knew he would never go to sea again.

Tragically the vessel chosen was completely unsuitable for the voyage or the conditions they were likely to encounter in the Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. She was a flat-bottomed tug boat with low gunnels adapted to sailing by the addition of a mast and a welded on keel. (I will be posting an in-depth look at this in later post.)

“En Avant” sailed from Rio de Janeiro on November 1st, 1977, heading for the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) but she never arrived.

Tilman never married and lived with his sister during all the years of his sailing adventures. To an age obsessed with sex such as ours, it is natural to ask why he never married. Was he gay? Did he hate women? Was he incapable or afraid of commitment? Thankfully his biographer Tim Madge puts all these cliches to rest. No, he was not gay. Yes, he had good relationships with the women in his life. What he seemed to lack, in the early part of his life, was opportunity. and later he had a family in his sister Adeline and her daughters and their families.

“It is clear he never fully recovered from (the First World War) and that he could never bring himself to let his emotions out – to feel in any public kind of way. Watching his fellows die, day by day, in front of his eyes, may well have destroyed any further chance he had of ever allowing any kind of deeply felt emotion out. In this sense he was, from 1918, emotionally on ice.”

He may also have decided – like many busy, passionate people with close friends or family – that marriage or an intimate personal relationship was not worth the effort, the compromises and often the pain.

“Bill Tilman’s life was so full, so expressive of adventure, in all its forms, that it is nearly impossible to take it all in…To a more cynical age much of what he did can be dismissed as the whim of gentleman adventurer, a man without a purpose…It may be wrong to try to claw any meaning at all from his life, other than to celebrate its achievements, and to laugh with him at the absurdity of the world of men.”tilmansailbook

From today’s perspective, Bill Tilman is an eccentric from another age. He did write books and give talks about his adventures but it’s hard to imagine him pursuing sponsorship and television deals, writing blogs or participating in the modern-day industries of self-promotion for money. Unlike so many of today’s adventurers, even in his books Tilman wasn’t selling anything. Perhaps his low-key and understated ways may serve for reflection. Do we sail or climb mountains or “go off on adventures” for the experiences themselves or are they merely raw footage to be converted into saleable products?

Links to additional information:

Wikipedia citation – here

A few Tilman quotes – here

3 comments on “Bill Tilman – greatest adventure sailor of the 20th century?

  1. Roger Harris
    September 18, 2013

    Great post, Dennison!

    Please drop me a line and let me know how you’re doing. Good for you for enrolling in the Georgian College course.


    • oceanhermit
      November 3, 2013


      how are you doing? How was the summer?

      School is going great – and definitely the right decision. Lots of work and learning a lot.


  2. treescaper
    February 16, 2015

    John (JRL) Anderson’s original biography, ‘High Mountains, Cold Seas’, is arguably a better book, much quoted by Tim Madge. The best biography by far is to be found in the fifteen travel books, all of which will be republished in extended form over the next couple of years, along with a new imprint of Anderson’s book. Keep an eye on Lodestar Books for forthcoming announcements and details. (I should declare an interest here, I’m acting as lead researcher on the project. But in my defence, I did sail over 10,000 miles with ‘the Skipper’ 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on March 11, 2013 by in Book Reviews, Sailboats, Sailing, Voyages.
%d bloggers like this: