Sailing with John by Chris Shaw

John’s introduction to sailing included a run as crew on the Royal Ocean Racing Club race to Santander. Although he was not in charge of the navigation, he was especially proud of the achievement of an arrival in La Coruna instead. Something of a fatalist at times, John was fond of saying “You get what you are given” by which he meant different things at different times; in this case he was referring to the destination that God, moving in his mysterious way, had chosen for him.

The Santander race held a special significance to John since it was also competed for unofficially by Patrick xxxx in Sopranino, a 20 something foot closed boat whose efforts inspired the formation of the Junior Offshore Group or JOG. Patrick wrote about Sopranino and the resulting book might have formed one of John’s choices if he had been on some Desert Island Books program. At any rate, the book fermented in John an unfailing admiration for “those that go down to the sea in ships” by which he meant small ships and more specifically small sailing ships.

Other early influences, via books, came through the Nova Espero exploits and those of Tilman in particular; and the culmination of these vicarious exploits eventually lead John to buying a GP14 dinghy. This was regularly sailed in and around Runswick Bay where, one Easter, John helped in the rescue of three Ampleforth monks who had made a similar craft and who had then capsized it at their first attempt to circumnavigate the bay. Since the monks had no idea of how to right the boat, and since the water was cold enough to induce hypothermia in about 30 minutes; they were lucky that John managed to attract a local fishing boat whose crew hauled them out. They were last seen, still shivering, in a tepid bath in a private house, stark naked in front of the matron-like owner and, perhaps, saddened at not having been allowed to meet their maker after all.

The GP14 became the Bunting prototype for a Sopranino-type exploit. The idea was to circumnavigate the Island of Mull. Planning was meticulous. Charts were bought and glued into polythene sacks. Changes of clothes likewise. Room was found for a pop-up tent, a small calor gas stove, sleeping bags and something to eat. In line with his fatalistic streak, no flares were carried. The rig departed, amid wavings from everyone else involved, behind a disreputable Bedford van which was John’s conveyance of choice at that time. Choice? Cheap, more likely since fame and fortune still eluded him.

Things started badly in that the rig and the van parted company on the lower level of the High Level bridge over the Tyne. The mast contacted a pillar of the bridge and shivered itself and ended up poking out over the Tyne. “That’s that” said John perhaps in thanks for his high level deliverance from a mission that perhaps he regretted having become involved with. Sailing invokes in many people a strange mix of braggadocio and outright fright and John was no exception. Anyway, a council of war persuaded him to press on and a kindly boatbuilder in Oban, John Currie, quietly mended the mast whilst, at the same time, announcing that the job would take some two weeks to do. The voyage commenced some thirty minutes later. The two Johns thus shared a trait under which both were capable of the most positive actions whilst proffering the ultimate in pessimism.

John has written about the voyage elsewhere. His account contains the truth, half the truth and something but the truth as is the custom with all yachtsman’s tales. But it was done, it was quite something to do it. One night on shore at loch Buie amidst the midges was dreadful; another on Staffa was remarkable; and a third on the darkest of nights, bobbing up and down in the sound of Mull was seriously uncomfortable. The compensations through such closeness to the character of the Western Isles were memorable. And the voyage initiated, or perhaps stimulated John’s lifelong interest in the sixth and seventh century spread of Christianity up the length of Ireland and across the North Channel up the West Coast of Scotland. This spread could only have taken place on or in coracles; boats with virtually no ability to move except under the influence of currents or winds. Truly, any navigation up this beautiful and so heavily indented coastline was ordained by a higher force than any monk had at his disposal. St Columba must surely have thought as he stepped off on Garvellacs, where his mother is buried, “you get what you are given”.

Whether by land or by sea, the west coast of Scotland , her people and her islands retained a powerful grip on John’s imagination. Many times the confluence of tides and winds required to get from one place to another by coracle were worked out. Clearly these voyagers would have had to wait weeks sometimes before proceeding. Many remote bays, with small strands of brilliant sand, were considered as coracle landing places where beehive cells could have been established such as the one still visible close to Eithne’s tomb. The deserted Monarch Islands, which were once home to over 300 people, were visited in a 26 foot Contessa as were the St Kilda Group, the Flannans, Loch Roag with its Broch and Standing Stones at Callanish, and North Rona where the inhabitants starved to death leaving just some Celtic crosses and houses more like rabbit warrens that anything a human would want to live in. In all cases the question was “Why here” and the answer seemed to be “You get what you are given”. Empathy with the “little” people increased in John’s mind as he stood on the shores of Vatersay contemplating the story of the “Men of Vatersay versus the Duke of Argyll”.

Of all the sights and of all the sounds though, nothing compared to arrival at Iona on the sunniest of days in the GP14. God was in his heaven and religion was everywhere. Stone spoke of reverence and perhaps John could have lived there. Parting in the evening for a row to Staffa in the flattest of calms was memorable for the way in which voices could be heard coming over the water somehow trapped in a layer of air perhaps only three feet high. Nobody could be seen; the great monks of those early days may well have thought that God had spoken to them; and they may well have been right. Certainly, it felt that way.

The great arc of early, primitive, and pure Christianity that stretched from Ireland, up through Iona and Scotland, and across to Lindisfarne and down to Whitby; and which stood the test even as Rome fell to advancing hordes of heathens; and which at one point in time offered leadership to the whole Christian world; this arc, with its outiers on the Skelligs, the Hebrides, perhaps St Kilda, North Rona and the Orkneys; this arc brought to his mind the faces and characters of its inhabitants; and formed a substantive base for his figurative art. These early Christians struggled and survived, asked for no recognition and received none. They lived and died in the doing of their work. When John was asked if he would like an exhibition of his work to be arranged in London, he replied “If the world wants to know about my work, it can beat a path to my door”.

John’s heroes were men like St Columba and St Brendan; and he would have followed them to the uttermost ends of the earth. Failing such saints in the 20th century, he fastened on other pioneers, the men of the Special Boat Section, the Lorient raiders, and those whom he commemorated in the Chapel on the Hambledon Hills. They too were focussed and selfless and strong in their beliefs and that is why they commanded his admiration and his loyalty.

John’s last voyage under sail was, in fact to Lorient. Three men in a 56 foot boat with combined ages of some 210 years. In the bad weather that we had of it, when it was John’s turn to take the tiller and steer a course, he stood there like one of his sculptures. He could have been granite. He never wavered and a more dependable mate never sailed. And when we did eventually come to the submarine pens at Lorient and saw the rusting remains of the ship that the raiders tried to sink so as to block the access to those pens, John was there and John was with them and John was visibly moved as I seldom elsewhere saw him so moved.


Carved in sycamore