What I’m Reading: H.W. Tilman

During the July heat wave I sequestered myself in my airconditioned office and went down the rabbit hole of reading about the exploration of the Arctic, especially the region around Canada’s Ellesmere Island, Greenland’s Davis Straits, and the waters around Svalbard (Spitzbergen).

The first book I read (and one of the more recent about exploring the start of the Northwest Passage) was Alvah Simon’s North to the Night, an account of his winter, alone, aboard a 36′ sloop, with only a kitten to keep him company while frozen in a cove on Bylot Island. Simon mentioned H.W. Tilman, a name I was vaguely familiar with, so I read enough excerpts online to order a single-volume anthology of of his eight “mountaineering and sailing” books: H.W. Tilman: The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books. His accounts of his treks in Nepal are collected in a separate volume, H.W. Tilman The Seven Mountain Travel Books

Harold William Tilman was an English explorer and mountain climber who made his reputation in the Himalayas with his neighbor in Kenya, Eric Shipton. Together they nearly succeeded in being the first expedition to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and are regarded as one of the most illustrious climbing teams in the history of mountaineering. Tilman wasn’t content with merely climbing mountains, he decided to combine bluewater ocean sailing and purchased an old Bristol pilot cutter, Mischief, which he sailed to Patagonia, the Crozet islands, and other remote islands in the southern ocean known as the Roaring Forties, the most storm swept, dangerous seas on Earth.

H.W. Tilman was captain of the schooner Patanela for the 1964 expedition to first climb Australia’s highest peak on remote Heard Island

In the 1960s Tilman advertised for volunteer crew members in the personal section of the London newspapers under the headline “No pay, no pleasure, no prospects” — seeking men who either had sailing or mountain climbing experience to join him on four to six month expeditions to the southern oceans as well as the coast of Greenland, Canada, and the northern islands of Iceland, the Faroes, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen. Ashore, the eccentric Tilman, a decorated veteran of both world wars, a life-long bachelor who lived on the Welsh coast with his sister and his dogs, wrote a series of books to support his explorations.

Tilman was a navigator, skilled with a sextant but admittedly humble in his accuracy, and a devout traditionalist who liked gaff-rigged boats, cursed marine engines, and was very particular about how a proper yacht should look and be sailed. Mischief carried him around the world and to the northern ice pack on many voyages, but was eventually sank while under tow off of Jan Mayen after crushing some planks on a submerged rock. A YouTube video of the old ship being careened on the beach of Jan Mayen before her loss can be found here.

Mischief was Tilman’s first Bristol Cutter — he sailed her around the world, losing her off Jan Mayen in 1968

Undeterred, Tilman bought another decrepit Bristol pilot cutter — one of the fleet of nearly 100 that were built on England’s west coast in the 1880s to carry pilots out to ships bound for English ports. When steam made them obsolete they were converted into yachts, and Tilman, who was as old as the boats he sailed in, seemed to take great pride in sailing the plucky little boats as close to the poles as possible. He would own three of them during his lifetime, sinking two, and gamely buying a third, each one compared to his beloved Mischief. They were fast, seaworthy boats. They had to be, for the pilots competed to be the first to meet the arriving ships ; and they were capable of handling the worst conditions around Cornwall and the southern Irish Sea with only one or two crew members aboard to carry the pilot and return alone to port to wait for the next job. Tilman poured whatever cash he had into repairing the old boats, continuously repairing sprung planks, worn out rigging, rotten timbers and spavined spars, sewing the tattered sails either himself or at the hands of a local shipwright. Once they were at sea, things, as the Russians would say, began to get worse. If it took 2000 pumps of the bilge pump to stay ahead of the leaking, then Tilman would “hove to” and let the boat drift in the seas until the wind and the waves calmed down enough to proceed. Inordinately fond of sailing the wooden boats in icy seas, he timed his expeditions to coincide with the one or two weeks in August when ice-bound hamlets on Greenland’s east coast were briefly accessible by small boat. If he made it ashore — and on some voyages the ice never cleared or the crew rebelled against his dogged determination to sail down some narrowing lead in the drifting pack ice and demanded he turn for home –but if he made it to shore then it was time to explore a glacier or climb a seaside mountain, always gauging himself by the effort it took him to reach a summit.

As a fan of great travel writing, I think Tilman is one of the best I’ve read, particularly in the broad sub-genre of nautical explorers and singlehanded sailors. His biting portrayals of some of his more hapless crew members, most of whom had little sailing experience and were very dismayed to find themselves sailing into the most extreme conditions on the planet on leaky 100-year old boats commanded by a navigator who only had a vague idea of their position, a taciturn commander with a strange drive to sail into frozen oceans littered with immense ice bergs and rafts of floating pack ice in thick fog and the darkness of night, are some of the more memorable passages in all his books.

A great leader, Tilman believed in following the example of the old New England whaling captains who avoided going into port because they knew their crews would desert the ship at the first opportunity. One of his favorite quotes Some members of his crew, terrified to be at sea in a decrepit boat, or disgusted to be served a left-over curry for breakfast, mutinied and abandoned Tilman in some remote port, left short-handed and willing to take any man with a pulse aboard to help continue his quixotic quest to be the first to climb some desolate frozen mountain surrounded by the sea.

Ever erudite, Tilman intersperses his stories with accounts of the history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic Seas, recounting the Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland, the discoveries made by whalers and sealers, presenting their stoic tenacity in light of his own voyages’ challenges and setbacks. What emerges over the course of his eight sailing/mountaineering adventures is a story of the end of the romantic era of bluewater sailing — a world without GPS, digital charts, reliable diesel engines, satellite-informed weather forecasts, and the other modern conveniences that have removed so much of the ambiguity and risk of classic celestial navigation. It is also a paean to a generation of explorers — iron men in wooden ships — that roved the seas and high latitudes looking for the blank spots on the maps, the “last of the firsts” — first to circumnavigate Spitzbergen, first to climb Mount Heard, first to set foot on the most desolate, remote places left on the planet.

As a writer, Tilman has the clear declarative style of someone in the habit of diligently maintaining a ship’s log, but enlivens his sea stories with a biting wit, an encyclopedia of obscure quotations, and love for the language of the sea.

He’s by far the best nautical food writers I’ve ever read. Like one of Tolkien’s hobbits who obsesses about stuff like “Gentleman’s Relish,” Tilman lived by the edict that an army marches on its stomach, fretting the most about the difficulty of finding a cook for his expeditions, one who could work in the pitching, heaving chaos of the galley where even the saltiest sailor is sure to get seasick, juggling flying pans on swinging stoves and trying to do the best with a larder consisting of tins of bully beef (the corned beef that is the mainstay of British military rations), lifeboat biscuits (aka hardtack), twice-baked bread (Tilman obsesses about bread, chapattis, tostadas, regarding them as the essential tool for conveying cheese, fish paste, or peanut butter to the mouth), and rotten onions. The high point of any day at sea for Tilman was the “duff,” a kind of boiled pudding made from flour, lard, sultanas and molasses (among other things) in a bucket. I’m grateful he taught me that some indestructible black rye bread he procured from a Danish bakery near Godthab (Nuuk) was an “aperient” or mild laxative.

At about this early stage we first noticed a strange smell in the cabin, all pervasive and difficult to pin down, which I attributed to either a dead rat, fermenting rice, or uncommonly bad cheese. We had on board, stowed in the cabin, six whole ten lb Cheddars, each in a soldered tin. The smell having become intolerable we got to work with a cold chisel to open up all the cheeses. In three of the tins – and it is still a mystery how it got there — we found and inch or two of water. All was not lost. I housed the three sickly invalids in a box on deck where they could enjoy the sun and the wind. They were the last and by no means the worst to be eaten. Good judges, such as Taffy and myself, spoke highly of them, especially when alleviated with a raw onion.

H.W Tilman

He vanished in 1977 at the age of 79 in the South Atlantic near the Falkland Islands while crewing on an expedition organized by one of his former crew, Simon Richardson on a converted Dutch tug, the En Avant.

Tilman’s last berth

One of Tilman’s former hands, Bob Comly, has a wonderful blog about Tilman’s travels. There are a couple biographies of the man: High Mountains and Cold Seas and The Last Hero which I have yet to read. If you want some other Greenland reading I recommend Sloan Wilson’s Ice Brothers, a fictional story of the author’s service in the Coast Guard patrolling Greenland’s east coast for Nazi weather stations, and Rockwell Kent’s N by E.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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