|Scotland // Photo by John Mcsporran via Flickr|
Craig McLean, The Daily Telegraph, February 5, 2015
When Craig McLean embarked on a father-son bonding trip aboard a tall ship with his 11-year-old, he feared they might be heading for stormy waters.
In the end it was the fish guts that bonded us, my son and me. But it was a close-run thing. It was the morning of our third day aboard Lady of Avenel, a tall ship 72ft in height and 102ft in length – big, but not so big that a novice eight-strong crew of middle-aged fathers and adolescent sons couldn’t sail her round a string of islands off the west coast of Scotland (albeit with the crucial guidance of three expert sailors). It would be a week-long test of landlubber parents who perhaps didn’t get as much one-on-one time with their offspring as they would like, and of sofa-moored boys whose manual skills largely extended to swiping a screen or twiddling a console. There would be no wife and no Wi-Fi. We might cope without one (I shan’t say which). But without both?
Sonny and I were a little apprehensive, but also excited. We are an active and close pair. We cycle, play table tennis and tennis, and many an evening and weekend revolve around his football training and matches. Our holidays are not generally of the luxury kind, being more camping-shaped and outdoors-focused. And yet, Sonny’s an 11-year-old teenager-in-waiting and I’m a grumpy old man.
We butt heads at the best of times, and attending to the simplest of chores is perennially, aggravatingly beyond him. How would we cope in the cramped conditions of a sailing boat where everyone has to (literally and figuratively) pull together?
We had left the port of Oban with little sense of what to expect. We were guinea pigs for a new kind of holiday experience: a ‘dads and lads’ odyssey on the high(ish) seas, crewing a ship with 11 sails, 73 ropes and more arcane terminology than you could shake a futtock shroud at. We were to journey to, if not the heart of darkness, then at least to Loch na Droma Buidhe, a sea loch offering picturesque anchorage for both yachts and fish-farm cages.
We were also to journey closer to home, inwards even, to our relationships with our sons. We would be working as a team to furl and unfurl sails, wrestle with gantlines and cranlines, climb the mast, crawl the bowsprit, navigate our way round sandbars and seals, cook and clean and sleep and forage and rock and roll over the late summer waves. Would this be a boy’s own adventure to evoke a harder but simpler, better time? Or would six nights at sea have some members of our party willingly walking the plank? I won’t lie: I wanted to keelhaul Sonny more than once. But the fish saved our bacon.
With no wind to speak of that day, we had set the ‘iron topsail’ – the engine – and motored Lady of Avenel up the side of Oronsay, an uninhabited island in the Inner Hebrides. All around us the sea simmered with mackerel. They broke the surface in silver flashes, churned beneath our stern. We fished with simple feather ties. Drop in your weighted line, wait a few seconds, haul it in: one, two, even three mackerel would come up, wriggling and bucking.
Sonny fished with gusto, de-hooked with no squeamishness and dispatched with brute efficiency. For an angler’s priest he used an old belaying pin (a skittle-like wooden spike used to affix ropes).
He walloped the mackerel over the head, groups of tiny, just-swallowed sprats flying from their gaping maws. Then he merrily set about gutting them, locating the tip of his Swiss army knife at the correct point in their bellies and ripping smoothly downwards. He was far from Minecraft now. He was catching and preparing his own dinner. The fish cleansed and rinsed, the bloody viscera wiped on his newly purchased outdoorsman’s trousers, we took to the ship’s dinghy and motored ashore. Sonny found the perfect nook among the lochside rocks. We set a fire – no matches, just a steel and cotton wool – and cooked our bounty.
As we ate straight from the flames with our hands, I commended him on doing all that himself. ‘Did it with you,’ came Sonny’s muttered reply from amid chews of sea-fresh fish. My fingers were burning but my heart was glowing.
The original Lady of Avenel was a trade brigantine built in Falmouth in 1874, and was fitted out as a training ship after the First World War by Capt Wilfred Dowman, who later owned Cutty Sark. Our Lady of Avenel was built in Poland in 1969 as a motor ship. In 1992 a Dutchman bought her and converted her into a square-rigger in a Gdansk shipyard. In 2012 she was purchased by Stefan Fritz and Jim Dines. The former was our captain; the latter is the owner of TS Rigging, an Essex-based company involved in the recent restoration of Cutty Sark. She looks magnificent – a few weeks after we were aboard she was doing Disney duty, appearing in Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
That tall-ship heritage is one of the themes running through Wild Journey, a venture established by Fritz, 49, and Charles Lyster, 54. Fritz has lived in Britain for 25 years but was born in Stuttgart.
‘I should be working in cars,’ he said. Instead he has devoted his working life to the sea; his day job is as a maritime surveyor. Lyster is a lifelong outdoorsman who has made a living climbing, hiking, sailing and leading corporate team-building exercises. What he doesn’t know about survival skills and the history of polar exploration could be written on the back of a husky’s dog tag.
Lyster and Fritz had the idea for Wild Journey three or four years ago. Both wished they had spent more time with their late fathers. ‘Not in a creepy, therapy way,’ the bluff Lyster noted. ‘A manly, adventurous kind of way.’ So they developed a holiday – or escape – package, taking pairs of fathers and sons on island-hopping adventures. ‘Exploring is something humans have been doing as long as they’ve been human, spreading out and seeing the world,’ Lyster said, eyes afire. ‘We want to take you back to the days before there was Google Maps, before even the telephone, when you didn’t know what was beyond the horizon. We’re going to explore our little part of this wilderness in Scotland.’
The third member of their team was Andy Hodder, a 30-year-old West Countryman – first mate, rigger, engineer and naval architect. They made for a formidable trio, which was a good thing as we guests were rather a motley crew. Four pairs of dads and lads had travelled from all over the country to rendezvous in Oban, 97 miles and three hours by train north-west of Glasgow. Alongside me (a writer from London) there was a GP from Wales, a driving instructor from Lancashire and a hematologist from Scotland. Their boys were a little older than Sonny, in their early and mid-teens. But in the brilliant way that adults could always learn from, the four boys quickly became friends, confidants – and, yes, partners in skiving. The fathers bonded, too. It transpired that each had a good reason for wanting to spend quality time with his son. On top of that, all of us wanted to be taken out of our comfort zone, to be pushed a little. I think it’s fair to say we all wanted our boys to be pushed a lot.
A few hours out of Oban, the rain began bouncing off the cabin roof. ‘We don’t mind rain on a boat,’ Lyster said. ‘If we did, we wouldn’t get much done.’ They are mindful of wind though. It can becalm, or it can blow a sail with sufficient force to take your eye out. ‘Yesterday we had an inner jib whipping so hard it destroyed a rope,’ Fritz said cheerfully.
Our education began. With a shaming patience, Lyster, Fritz and Hodder gave us a tour of the sails, their names, their positions and their purposes: the main topsail, the mainsail, the main staysail, which are all different; the topsail, which isn’t at the top; the topgallant (pronounced t’gallant), which is. Then, having promptly forgotten all that, we moved on to the ropes: the buntlines and clewlines; the halyards (they pull the sail up), the downhauls (they pull it down); the ones you can climb up, the ones you’d better not climb up. Then, a quick guide to the phraseology contained within the sailor’s indispensable guide to, well, not drowning: the shipping forecast. If a meteorological change is expected ‘soon’, that’s six to 12 hours. ‘Imminent’ is within six hours. ‘Good visibility’ is more than five miles. ‘gale force 8’ means batten down the hatches and hope you don’t see your lunch again.
The dads tried to take all this in with furrow-browed intensity. The lads were also furrow-browed, but more at the thought of all the physical and mental graft this sailing lark seemed to involve. Soon we were arrayed in teams of four up either side of the boat – that’s port and starboard, yes? – downhauling halyards and making sure the staysail didn’t stay furled. Or was it vice versa? With the mainland a distant memory, all was peaceful, apart from the roar of the sea, the grunt of the namby-pamby city-dweller, the moan of the teenager and the rustle of box-fresh rainwear.
That night, after we had dropped anchor and eaten a communal dinner – every father-son pairing is assigned galley and cleaning duties – Lyster told us about one of his heroes, the Norwegian explorer and oceanographic pioneer Fridtjof Nansen . While crossing the Arctic sea ice on his 1893-96 attempt to reach the North Pole, his kayaks were attacked and damaged by walrus. From his meagre supplies, hundreds of miles from civilisation, Nansen managed to make paint to re-waterproof the kayaks and return home. Later, he became Norway’s first ambassador to the UK, and set up a forerunner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Sonny showed a glimmer of interest. But only a glimmer. To be fair, he was dog-tired. Also, he barely listens even to the adults he knows. But already after one day I could see he was thrilled at these new experiences and exertions.
Later, I looked at his first day’s entry in the logbook that Lyster asked us all to keep. ‘Weather: rainy. Learnt: what ropes do what and the names of all the parts of the ship. Drink: tea.’ It wasn’t inaccurate, I suppose.
By the evening of the third day, I can’t say I had entirely got my head round the names of the ropes and the sails and what does what. But I had developed something like sea legs. One of the other fathers and I were dispatched to the top of the mainmast to furl the nock sail. We climbed aloft, steadily clipping and unclipping ourselves to, well, some rigging. At this height we were swaying a bit, but only a bit. So the pair of us sat there for a while at dusk, looking over Loch a’ Chumhainn, watching the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Tiree chugging in over the horizon. It was quite magical and peaceful, not least because at this height we couldn’t see or hear our sons.
That day had brought another small victory. We had managed to repel some boarders. Fritz had taken the four boys out in a dinghy. He had then pretended the engine had packed in, and told the quartet of wet-behind-the-ears cabin boys they would have to paddle back to Lady of Avenel. This would require teamwork, attentive listening and good communication. Not skills that are generally in the wheelhouse of adolescent boys. Accordingly they got nowhere fast, and drifted around for a while, merrily jibbering and jabbering. Meanwhile, as we stood on the bridge, taking turns at the wheel, the endlessly surprising Lyster had unveiled one of his boy’s toys: a barrel gun fashioned from some plumbing pipe, gaffer tape and a plastic lid. The ammunition: wedges of raw potato. The propellant: Tesco hairspray, injected into a hole in the pipe and ignited with a lighter. The four dads then spent an enjoyable interlude firing raw root vegetable at their stranded children. Kids, eh?
Each morning we rose from our spartan but comfortable cabins at about 7am. Even for a sporty kid, Sonny was knackered, spending day after day in the open air, the wind scouring his face and testing his limbs. And as any parent knows, a weary child is a grumpy child. Add to that the threat of chores, and you have the makings of heavy seas. There were interludes of seasickness, too, notably after a visit to the magical Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. The churning waves saw a couple of our crew heading below decks for a wee lie-down, while I had a high old time trying to make a lunch of fish-finger sandwiches in a galley that was pitching and bucking like a rollercoaster.
But whether the conditions were millpond-calm or ocean-going-turbulent, the daily rota of sailing/cooking/swabbing duties were for Sonny tasks of a Sisyphean magnitude. He tries to wriggle out of his obligations whenever he can. Unless it involves a football squad, the concept of working together as a team appears alien to him. One breakfast time there was a spot of porridge-pot argy-bargy. One boy washed up, but Sonny refused to dry. ‘Why can’t he do it?’ he whined truculently. ‘ Lord of the Flies just flashed through my mind,’ one of the fathers remarked, not unkindly.
In Sonny’s defence, strictly speaking Wild Journey is tailored for teenagers. And even as a smart, big-for-his age 11-year-old, Sonny was two to five years younger than the other boys. But still. His refusal to get on board was bloody annoying. Especially as each day also began with an inspirational pep talk from Lyster.
One morning he quoted Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.’ Another, he recited William Arthur Ward’s poem To Risk: ‘But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.’
For Sonny, I think it went in one ear and out of the other. But then he surprised me again. Towards the end of our week-long, 117-mile journey, Lyster had a special challenge for us. In glorious sunshine, and with seals poking up their heads in salute, we motored into the Treshnish Isles, off the west coast of Mull, and put ashore on Lunga. At 200 acres it is the largest of the uninhabited, grassy outcrops. One Donald Campbell and his extended family lived here until 1857, before abandoning their homes to the North Atlantic elements. The thick but crumbling stone walls of their cottages are the only evidence of human habitation. Now the isles belong to the Arctic terns, little terns, cormorants, rock pipits and lesser black-backed gulls.
Our task was to bivouac – that is, rough camp – overnight on the island. Each father-son pairing was given some tarpaulin and some bamboo, and that was it. Sonny and I recced the interior of one of the abandoned homes. It was armpit-high with nettles. I saw a flash of brown fur, and hoped it was a rabbit and not a rat. We trampled down the nettles, then cut sheaves of the equally tall bracken and laid it on the ground. We lashed the tarp to stones near the base of a wall, and fixed it at a low angle to the ground. We could wriggle under it, just.
That evening the crew of Lady of Avenel dined alfresco on the edge of the Atlantic. In the dark we climbed Lunga’s highest peak. The four boys – fast friends by now – raced ahead and conspired like pirates. We fathers inhaled deeply and counted our blessings.
Sonny and I slept that night, cheek by jowl, in our bracken coffin. It was blissful, peaceful, bonding. In the wee-hours pitch-black Sonny cried out for me, just to check I was still there. Even the discovery of a slug on my neck couldn’t spoil the moment.
It was all over bar the hiking. On our final full day the eight of us were tasked with yomping over the Ross of Mull, the south-western promontory of Mull, and reconnecting with the Lady, Lyster, Fritz and Hodder. In horizontal rain we tramped up hill and down bog, peering intently at an increasingly soggy map. Drawing on hitherto unseen reservoirs of stoicism, for four hours the boys just got on with it, even as the elements drenched their underpants.
The following morning, as we headed back towards Oban – hearts full, but also heavy – Lyster addressed the ruddy-faced lads. ‘This is the best time of your lives to make the most of your dads,’ his debrief began. ‘Take any opportunities that come along,’ he counselled over a ruminant pipe full of Holland House tobacco. ‘Do things together.’ He had lost his father 25 years previously, ‘sooner than I expected. There are so many questions I’ve had for him in that time. And if I was living my life again, I wish I’d said yes to more things.’
I knew there and then that this would be only the first wild journey for Sonny and me. I think Sonny did too.
Wild Journey is running two Lads and Dads trips this year, August 9-15 and 16-22, and one for Parents and Teens, August 23-29. They cost £1,250 for a pair for the seven days
This article was written by Craig McLean from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.