H.W. Tilman, The Eight Sailing/Mountain-Exploration Books by H.W. Tilman. Published simultaneously in the U.K. and the USA by Diadem Books, London and The Mountaineers, Seattle. 1967. 16 pages of color photos, maps. 995 pages. $36.
Tilman must be the most eccentric, stubborn, bull-headedly romantic, and plain cussed a fellow ever to put to sea and write about it. He’s the grinch of the high latitudes. Climbing and sailing are similar pursuits, he says, having quit the mountains for the sea in his fifties, both concerned with elemental things “which from time to time demand from men who practice those arts whatever self-reliance, prudence and endurance they may have. An essential difference is that the mountaineer usually accepts the challenge on his own terms, whereas once at sea, the sailor has no say in the matter and in consequence may suffer more often the salutary and humbling emotion of fear.”
If he ever suffered fear, he neglected to mention it, though he sailed some of the most frightful coasts in the world. Between 1954 and 1977 he voyaged to and went ashore on Patagonia, Crozet Islands, east and west Greenland, Iceland, Baffin Island, Kerguelen Island, the South Shetlands, Jan Mayen, and Spitsbergen. He conceived these as seaborne climbing expeditions, but invariably the climbing part didn’t come off, or proved disapppointing. In the Crozets, the target mountain even turned out not to exist. Tilman and his various crew did, however, manage to traverse the Patagonian Icecap, climb two 6000-foot peaks in Greenland and Mount Raleigh on Baffin Island.
This is cruising, not climbing, literature. And, it is unique. Small-boat sailors seldom visit the high northern latitudes, and most of those who sail southern latitudes are just passing through. Tilman describes voyages of exploration in the old sense of the word—the dangerous approach to an unknown coast after a long outward passage, and then the expedition ashore, all in total self-sufficiency. His models are the great Elizabethan sailor/ explorers like Drake, Raleigh, and Tilman’s hero John Davis. Like them, Tilman had to explore. Their excuse was the Northwest Passage; Tilman’s is the unclimbed peak—even if it doesn’t exist.
Tilman seems to have been a naturally talented seat-of-the-pants sailor, but he must have been hell to sail with. His views are outrageous—and freely expressed. The scope of his prejudices is global. Sometimes one thinks he must be kidding; he can’t possibly believe that. Not a single voyage goes by without crew problems, which Tilman seems to attribute to the general decline to decadence of today’s masculinity. Commenting on his first trip where he had a mutiny, the disillusioned Skipper can’t understand why it’s hard to fit young men (women need not apply) ready to sail 14,000 miles in an old wooden boat, nip across the old icecap and return in a year and a half, if all goes well. About a crewman who desserts, Tilman says, “His real grievance was that we had no distress signals and carried no liferaft. In my view every herring should hang by its own tail. Anyone venturing into unfrequented and dangerous waters does so with his eyes open … and should neither expect nor ask for help. The
confidence that is placed in being rescued fosters carelessness or even foolishness, and condones ignorance.”
He can be maddening when he goes on like that, especially in view of the boat his crew should have been ready to go down with. Mischief was a Bristol Channel pilot cutter built of wood in 1906, with cement in her bilge, inside ballast, and cumbersome, ill-shaped canvas sails. Tilman insists she was a well-designed sea boat, despite the fact that she was deathly slow and un-weatherly. She lacked halyard and sheet winches because the Skipper thought winches were for wimps. He actually says so. Self-steering devices and dacron sails go unmentioned, no doubt because Tilman considered them to indicate a state of nautical debasement near that of women aboard. As for conditions below, Eric the Red probably lived better at sea. Though she was 45 feet in length, Mischief seems not to have had standing headroom, and her primitive galley was located forward, the worst possible place, where the motion at sea must have been dreadful. Several prospective crew, Tilman gleefully reports, took a gander below and suddenly felt some pressing career obligations ashore.
The Skipper liked to do it the hard way. He made those magnificent voyages despite his boat, not because of it. He insists on discomfort even at the expense of his own objective. Mischief’s optimum crew was nine—ten guys crammed into a 45-foot hull. In a proper sea boat, he could have made the same voyages with a crew of three (plus climbers, who wouldn’t need to work themselves into a stupor before they reach the mountain) in half the time as the lumbering Mischief, which needed five guys to hoist the main.
Yet the pages of this book speed by. Tilman, as a character, is fascinating. One comes to care about him, not exactly to like him—he’s too tightly closed for that—but to hope for his success. Tough as he is, he seems to need protection. He’s such a dreamer and a romantic, so maladjusted to life ashore that he could never have survived it. One comes to hope, therefore, that his own prejudices won’t cause him failure in the wilderness.
Ironically, he died on another man’s boat, a better boat than he ever captained. An ex-crewman of Tilman’s, Simon Richardson refit and ice- strengthened a boat called En Avant in which he meant to visit Smith Island in the South Shetlands for a Tilman-style expedition. Richardson invited Tilman, at 79, to serve in the crew which, Tilman wrote from Rio, was “a better lot than any I have sailed with.” En Avant headed south in November, 1977. She was never seen again. Tilman had hoped to celebrate his 80th birthday in Antarctica.
To that small audience who cares about cruising literature, this book should become a classic. Tilman belongs in that old tradition of small-boat cranks— Slocum, Tristan Jones, Blondie Hasler, Chichester, others—all complicated misfits who sailed to the ends of the earth and wrote about it. Tilman’s prose, intelligent and erudite, is better than theirs, and his scope is broader. He is more than a deep water sailor, he is an explorer, and his book arrives at a time of swelling interest in high-latitude cruising.