Bob Com­lay is a vet­er­an of two Tilman exped­i­tions to Green­land, and has cajoled many sail­ors, climbers and writers into con­trib­ut­ing fore­words and after­words to our new Col­lec­ted Edi­tion of Tilman, shed­ding fresh light on a fre­quently mis­un­der­stood fig­ure: 

I first met Bill Tilman when I was sev­en­teen; he was sev­enty-one, old enough to be my grand­fath­er. By the time I was half way through my nine­teenth year, I’d made two voy­ages north, sail­ing more than 10,000 miles and spend­ing just over eight months at sea with him, ‘tak­ing the rough with the smooth’, to quote his own ­stated require­ment of me.

Over the course of his sail­ing career, Tilman took on over one hun­dred dif­fer­ent crew mem­bers. Those with a back­ground of moun­tain­eer­ing or the army were taken on trust – their loy­alty under pres­sure and respect for his lead­er­ship never in doubt, even if their fit­ness for small boat voy­ages at times left some­thing to be desired. The remainder of the crews were selec­ted through advert­ise­ments placed in suit­able journ­als, typ­ic­ally in the per­son­al column of The Times. These notices were often delib­er­ately worded along the lines of Hands wanted for long voy­age in small boat. No pay, no pro­spects, not much pleas­ure – in order to weed out the chaff. The mixed bunch of applic­ants that res­ul­ted included a num­ber of young people like myself, the kind that we would prob­ably now loosely term ‘gap year’ can­did­ates.

The des­tin­a­tions were remote, the ocean pas­sages fol­lowed little-trav­elled courses and we sailed without life­jack­ets, safety lines or life rafts. GPS loc­at­or beacons had yet to be inven­ted and would, in any event, have been of little or no use; for much of the voy­age, Tilman’s boats were hun­dreds of miles bey­ond the nor­mal range of res­cue teams. While this might now appear fool­hardy, his atti­tude to safety was pro­act­ive, wherever pos­sible tak­ing sens­ible meas­ures to avoid get­ting into danger rather than tak­ing uncal­cu­lated risks with either boat or crew. Those cal­cu­la­tions owed more to moun­tain­eer­ing, where the con­sequence of risk is obvi­ous, than sail­ing.

Thirty years later I loaded a few of my old Koda­chrome images onto a simple web­site along with a few pages of text and a con­tact form, and a reg­u­lar trickle of incom­ing emails demon­strated the remark­able glob­al reach of the Tilman story. In 2008, one con­tact from the organ­isers of the Three Peaks Yacht Race invited me to give an illus­trated talk at a Tilman Fest­iv­al in Bar­mouth. It was a couple of years after that event that a mem­ber of its audi­ence, Dick Wynne, tra­di­tion­al east coast sail­or and the enthu­si­ast­ic work­ahol­ic behind Lode­star Books, con­tac­ted me with a pro­pos­al to ‘repub­lish Tilman’. Key to get­ting the pro­ject off the ground was gain­ing the approv­al of the copy­right hold­er, some­thing that I was happy to be able to facil­it­ate. Anoth­er couple of years passed by before our occa­sion­al con­ver­sa­tions led to a joint ven­ture being formed between Lode­star and Ver­teb­rate Pub­lish­ing, the spe­cial­ist climb­ing pub­lish­er based in Shef­field which owned the Tilman pub­lish­ing rights. The pub­lic­a­tion sched­ule was set for six­teen volumes in a new edi­tion – seven moun­tain­eer­ing books, eight sail­ing books and a reprint of J.R.L. Anderson’s bio­graphy – to appear quarterly in pairs between 2015 and 2017.

The new edi­tions con­tain new fore­words, and in many cases after­words, from trav­el­lers and writers who either knew Tilman or who are well qual­i­fied to com­ment. Sir Robin Knox-John­ston and his erstwhile Green­land sail­ing and climb­ing part­ner Sir Chris Bon­ing­ton were the first to sign up to the pro­ject, and a ter­rif­ic selec­tion of con­trib­ut­ors have fol­lowed suit.

Sir Robin set the stand­ard with six pages on his fel­low ‘old boy’ from Berkhams­ted School:

I have never been sure wheth­er Tilman was par­tic­u­larly hard on his crews or he just chose them badly. Such com­ments about a crew mem­ber as ‘felt that a man with the unseaman­like habit of wear­ing gloves at night in sum­mer in the Atlantic would not prosper on a voy­age of this kind’ indic­ate a rather unsym­path­et­ic atti­tude toward his crew’s com­fort, even if one might share his sur­prise.

Roger (Ming Ming) Taylor makes some sharp obser­va­tions on Tilman’s qual­it­ies:

Tilman’s books are the nearest I get to hav­ing a per­man­ent bed­side com­pan­ion. They’re never far away. Some­times I read them cover to cover, other times I browse and dip. Tilman is end­lessly fas­cin­at­ing and infuri­at­ing too. His adven­tures serve as both inspir­a­tion and warn­ing. He is a guid­ing light and a hero, yet riddled with flaws and con­tra­dic­tions.

The more I read Tilman, the more I am con­vinced that his atti­tude to the prox­im­ity of land was not as well-honed or cau­tious as it should have been. His boats were neither the quick­est nor the most close-win­ded, nor were their engines par­tic­u­larly reli­able, yet time and again he stands in close, often, it seems, just for the hell of it.

Fel­low high lat­it­ude sail­or Skip Novak echoes Roger’s sen­ti­ments:

The Tilman stor­ies are re-read on a reg­u­lar basis, not only for amuse­ment but by way of remind­ing ourselves of our fal­lib­il­ity (mis­takes are still made) and for the wis­dom of not tak­ing ourselves too ser­i­ously. Some ships carry the Bible, we carry Tilman, a con­tinu­ous source of inspir­a­tion and enter­tain­ment.

From the per­spect­ive of a mod­ern yachts­man who is now depend­ent on a vari­ety of gad­gets, and in view of so many near misses exper­i­enced by Tilman and his crews, you can under­stand how recent gen­er­a­tions might dis­cred­it his meth­ods at sea, some of which may, with hind­sight, have been sus­pect.

It should be little sur­prise that some of the respond­ents to Tilman’s cryptic crew notices included young women to whom polite let­ters of refus­al had to be writ­ten. Much ill-informed non­sense has been writ­ten about Tilman’s atti­tude to women and it was appro­pri­ate that the new edi­tion offered a right to reply.

Janet Ver­asanso, the ‘Grace Darling’ of Mis­chief in Patago­nia, and prob­ably the only woman ever to sail with Tilman, has broken her silence after sixty years to give her own forth­right per­spect­ive on the encounter. Her con­tri­bu­tion offers a unique first-hand per­spect­ive which is sur­pris­ingly gra­cious in its con­clu­sion:

In ret­ro­spect it seems almost incred­ible that Tilman, who was so inept in the yard and on the voy­age to Gibral­tar, had with­in a mat­ter of months become a true sail­or, fear­lessly mas­ter­ing the intric­a­cies of tra­di­tion­al ocean nav­ig­a­tion and deep-sea sail­ing. He remains a colos­sus among the many her­oes of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, whose lac­on­ic sense of humour and wit lay deeply bur­ied in his day-to-day life, but was brought out most amus­ingly in excel­lent and fre­quently very frank books, which once star­ted are dif­fi­cult to put down.

Annie Hill, whose Voy­aging on a Small Income remains an inspir­a­tion to many, is an enthu­si­ast­ic fan:

For any­one who has read about H. W. Tilman, he might seem an unlikely inspir­a­tion for a young fem­in­ist and paci­fist. Admit­tedly, I was given Mis­chief in Patago­nia to read by someone who admired him without reser­va­tion, but I have read other books, equally recom­men­ded, without acquir­ing a life-long hero.

Else­where in her piece Annie offers her own exper­i­ence in defence of some of Tilman’s per­ceived fail­ings:

Green­land charts are gen­er­ally devoid of sound­ings and details and one moun­tain looks very much like anoth­er. Inter­pret­ing charts is a skill that can’t be learnt in a few weeks, and often there was no-one on board to help Tilman work out what he was look­ing at. Try doing this sort of pilot­age your­self, before mut­ter­ing that Tilman wasn’t all he could have been. That he made mis­takes was only to be expec­ted.

The new edi­tions also con­tain pre­vi­ously unpub­lished views of those who actu­ally sailed before the mast under Tilman’s lead­er­ship. Colin Putt, a vet­er­an of the remark­able Heard Island voy­age of 1964–65, who also sailed with me to West Green­land in 1970, knew Tilman bet­ter than most:

Some­times he failed to notice uncom­fort­able con­di­tions which oth­ers saw as hard­ships, but in con­geni­al com­pany he could be the life and soul of the party and he was always con­cerned and caring to his friends, although a little shy with strangers. He did have a hor­ror of com­mer­cial­isa­tion of adven­ture, any attempt to involve him in such would turn him away, so would any sug­ges­tion that his volun­teer crews should be paid or that he should install a two-way radio with which to cry for help and res­cue. People who had tried to open these ideas with him may well have left with an impres­sion of a lac­on­ic recluse, for he was too polite to enter into argu­ment with them.

Tilman not only learned to sail, nav­ig­ate and com­mand late in life, but he was also largely self-taught. When he did get him­self into trouble at sea he was remark­ably good at fight­ing his way out of it and, like Shack­leton, never lost a crew mem­ber through any fault of his own.

Con­tri­bu­tions from the moun­tain­eer­ing com­munity to the new Tilman ­edi­tion reflect on the impact and import­ance of his climb­ing past. Steve Bell, just one example, pays elo­quent trib­ute to an early pion­eer of Him­alay­an climb­ing:

It is per­haps a kind­ness that the tacit­urn and ascet­ic Bill Tilman is no longer here to see the cir­cus that Everest has become; his angels might weep indeed. But we must remem­ber that whatever the future holds for the world’s highest moun­tain, it will never dimin­ish the mighty endeav­ours of its earli­est explorers.

I have long felt priv­ileged to have had the oppor­tun­ity to ‘take the rough with the smooth’. With hind­sight, know­ing that we sailed at the very end of an era about to be extin­guished by tech­no­lo­gic­al advances only serves to under­line that priv­ilege.

Sir Robin sums that point up in his fore­word to Mis­chief in Patago­nia:

The arrival of GPS has closed forever the hero­ic era of exped­i­tion travel, wheth­er on land or at sea. It has deprived the mod­ern sail­or of the sat­is­fac­tion of mak­ing a good land­fall by use of the sex­tant or dead reck­on­ing, and of the hours spent nervously watch­ing out for a land­fall in thick fog with just a lead line to indic­ate a pos­sible pos­i­tion. So it is per­haps hard for the sail­ors of today to ima­gine the extra care and doubt that were a part of the navigator’s lot until the 1980s. Tilman’s voy­ages have to be seen in the light of small eld­erly boats, reach­ing out to Polar areas infre­quently vis­ited and not accur­ately charted, and with crews of var­ied exper­i­ence, and without any of the mod­ern aids that are now taken for gran­ted.

It is a part of his rest­less char­ac­ter that Tilman act­ively sought the unfre­quen­ted areas of the world. He rel­ished the oppor­tun­ity to explore, and the dangers that are inev­it­able to the pathfind­er just brought added spice to his life. That Tilman com­pleted so many of his voy­ages suc­cess­fully is a cred­it to his determ­in­a­tion and his seaman­ship.

Roger Taylor comes close to cap­tur­ing my own recol­lec­tion of the char­ac­ter of the Skip­per:

In a sense his achieve­ments are all the great­er for his per­sist­ence in the face of con­stant set-backs: broken spars, blown-out sails, sprung planks, desert­ing crew and so on. He was no young­ster either, when cop­ing with all of this. Per­haps that’s one of my favour­ite aspects of his tales: his indom­it­able, bloody-minded refus­al to give up. But more than that, I come back again and again for the pure qual­ity of his writ­ing – witty, eru­dite, under­stated, self-deprec­at­ing. There was a lot more to him than the allegedly miso­gyn­ist­ic old cur­mudgeon of pop­u­lar por­tray­al. He was a com­plex man and a deep thinker. Even in the moments of greatest des­pair, as everything goes wrong for him, one senses that he is look­ing at it all with a twinkle in his eye.

And leav­ing the last word to Annie Hill:

Bill Tilman inspired me, not so much because of what he chose to do, but because of the way in which he did it: quietly, without fan­fare, under­stated, but with a pro­found sense of joy in his ven­tures and with a deep appre­ci­ation of the sub­lime beauty of remote places. The fact that he came home and wrote about them to share with oth­ers is the greatest of gifts. His books are clas­sics that should be in print as long as men and women climb moun­tains and sail the seas.

Dick Wynne’s ori­gin­al inten­tion had a com­mend­able aim – to keep Tilman in print. In real­ity, it’s gone far bey­ond that. Now the series is com­plete, we have added much to the record through the worthy con­tri­bu­tions of a num­ber of sig­ni­fic­ant voices, all of whom have been influ­enced dir­ectly or indir­ectly by Tilman him­self.