Celestial navigation

Today would have been my father’s 83rd birthday.  Today is the first time in my life I have not been able to speak with him on this date.

Birthdays were not a big deal really to my father, but I always made sure that wherever I was, I would phone on his birthday. He would receive random calls from many different countries as I would juggle time zones and try and find a sweet spot which was a decent time of day particularly for him.  I do remember phoning one year, I think from Mongolia, and reaching his remote island home mid morning Scottish time. He seemed a little surprised to hear my voice. When I wished him “Happy Birthday”, there was a silence on the other end of the phone.  A silence long enough for me to cringe at the thought of phoning on the wrong day, and long enough for him to wonder if he had forgotten his own birthday!

I broke the silence.  “It is today, isn’t it?” to which he replied that he thought it was the next day.  I could hear him turn away from the phone as his wife had joined the conversation.

“Check the newspaper.”  I heard.  Thousand of miles away there was a rustle of The Herald and a resulting surprised, “Oh, so it is!”

Since I cannot wish him any happy returns today, I have decided that I will share the account of one of the highlights of his life, an experience of which he was most proud. This will be a slightly different way of noting his birthday.

Lismore bound

Lismore bound – on the ferry from Oban

My father loved the sea.  In Nepal he wondered how I coped, living so far from the ocean! It was important in his life from an early age, both professionally and personally.

Throughout his working life and into retirement, he would devote any leave or spare time to volunteering as a watch officer with the Sail Training Association (now Tall Ships Youth Trust) as well as regularly crewing on a variety of schooners and yachts.  I remember him returning sheepishly one year from the London Boat Show, not quite sure how to break it to that he had won a week’s cruise on the Royalist.  He would have to scrape together last remaining leave of the year to take up the prize!

He continued to sail as long as he could into retirement and long after it was possible to crew, he would continue to receive many yachting and marine journals. After retirement he settled on the island of Lismore, being near the sea was important to both him and his wife.

Looking over to the isle of Lismore from Port Appin

Looking over to the isle of Lismore from Port Appin

In the last months of his life, when his health was very poor, he had few precious possessions with him.  Those he had were mostly sailing related! There were two highly cherished possessions in particular.  On the wall in his room, pride of place was given to a navigation chart and on his windowsill he kept, what looked like a small chunk of rock.

If you have ever heard the UK shipping forecast  you would be familiar with the list of  names, such as Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, German Bight, Humber, Lundy, Fastnet and the distinctive Rockall.

Shipping Forecast Map

Shipping Forecast Map

There is a very small group of people who have seen Rockall, never mind landed on the rock.  My father is one of those few who landed and was incredibly proud of it.  The navigational chart on his wall was of Rockall and the piece of stone was a sample taken from the rock.

Rockall Chart

The Rockall Navigational Chart

When my father died, the chart was among his possessions which came to us.  We all knew how important the Rockall voyage was to him and I was fascinated by the chart.  My eye caught the text at the bottom of the chart, and I realised that there was handwriting which I recognised alongside the printed word.  As I looked closely, I realised that the chart not only carefully set out the elevations, position, coordinates, sounding and fathoms pertaining to Rockall but also had a reference “existence confirmed by Capt. IR, British Yacht, M, July 1977” in my father’s very distinctive handwriting. This chart was starting to reveal the details of a fascinating story.


Around the same time, we received a letter of condolence from one of my father’s sailing friends.  It was a comforting and insightful letter, sharing reminiscences of my father and in particular talked about the voyage to Rockall, which had made a similarly strong mark on his life too.  I realised that this was none other than IR, the Captain of the yacht, who was indeed named on the chart.

While I was in Scotland, I started to piece together the details of the story, and the voyage which meant a great deal to the crew of the yacht, as well as having a place in history. I believe today would be a fitting time to share the story of that voyage. It is a remarkable account, of four keen sailors and true adventurers who set out on a voyage to find Rockall nearly 40 years ago.  I have been fortunate to have been generously provided with memories and written accounts of the voyage by the Skipper and crew, as well as drawing on my own memories from the tales my father used to tell. If there are any inaccuracies, they are entirely my own and reflect my lack of nautical understanding.  I am extraordinarily thankful that the crew recorded so much detail, and I draw most of my account from that.

Rockall is a tiny, remote and uninhabited islet in the expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean with the coordinates 57° 36′ 20″ N  13° 41′ 32″ W.  It is a single steep pinnacle of rock standing around 70 feet high, only 100 feet wide and with a circumference of a mere 250 feet It lies approximately 200 miles west of Scotland’s North Uist, 290 miles northwest of Ireland and 350 miles south south east of Iceland.. It is indeed a speck in the ocean. Location_map_Rockall


Image of Rockall from http://www.scotland.gov.uk

The very first landing on Rockall was made 8 September 1811 by Lt Basil Hall from HMS Endymion. The flat area near the top thereafter has been known as Hall’s Ledge.  Several landings have been made from small boats by the Royal Navy since then and the Royal Navy, Greenpeace, and others have used helicopters.  Prior to the Malaprop’s bid to land on Rockall, only 5 yachts had previously sailed to the islet and only 2 of those had landed.

Finding Rockall would not be easy, not only on account of its size, but moreover because this was in the days before GPS and much of the navigational technology available these days.  There was no radar and the Consol, a radio system used for long range navigation, which had been stationed at Bushmills, was no longer functioning. The sailors would be heading out to sea and aiming to find Rockall purely using celestial navigation.  Reading the skies, the stars, the sun, charts and taking soundings and bearings would be the way they kept to course. Indeed, finding Rockall would require a combination of skilful navigation, good seamanship and luck!

My father was honoured to be part of this four-man crew with combined skills and experience which included sailing, mountaineering, Arctic exploration and scuba diving.  My sense is that all four shared a healthy seafaring humour too. The Skipper (IR), my father and one crew member (TC) set sail from the Gareloch in Scotland.  They picked up the fourth crew member (BC) from Portrush in Northern Ireland and departed from there near midnight on Sunday 3 July for Rockall, I imagine full of anticipation, determination and trepidation.

One watch consisted of the Captain and one crew member and my father and the remaining crew member took the other watch.  This ensured that there was one sailor with navigational skills on each watch.  Especially important, as Rockall is probably only visible from around 10 miles, in good visibility. Intense navigation continued day and night, with a constant checking of successive sun, moon and star sights.

A fog early in the sail, which brought an edge of tension and a steady southerly wind with accompanying rough weather made the first days tense and exhausting.  However, the angry weather dissipated on the Wednesday 6 July and the skies cleared.  The yacht was on course for Rockall and visibility was as good as it could be with my father at the helm. However, relying on celestial navigation, the crew could not be absolutely certain of their position.  At just after 10 am, there was a call:

“Complaint from the Helmsman”.

“Yes, D, what is it?” replied the Skipper

“Can’t see Rockall, the mast is in the way” was the deadpan reply!

Indeed, ahead of them, low on the horizon was Rockall.  They had successfully navigated the expanse of ocean and found the nautical needle in the marine haystack!

Rockall was dead ahead, and he could probably have seen it earlier had the mast not blocked his vision! BC later wrote that:

The tension which had been gradually mounting during the past 3 days suddenly vanished like a stale smell in a fresh breeze. Congratulations flowed freely, cameras clicked and preparations for landing were begun.

The already good conditions improved and, by the time we reached Rockall, the day was perfect. The sea was flat and the sun shone. The air was full of buzzing puffins and soaring fulmars, everywhere there was life and noise. Although Rockall is, for the most part, sheer it is pitted with curious fist—sized holes in the rock and these serve as perfect handholds for the climber. They also provide sheltered roosts for the seabirds and they are, consequently, mostly filled with droppings.

As the yacht approached Rockall, the crew prepared to make a landing.  However, what had appeared to be a calm sea was in fact a gentle but significant 6 foot swell.  This would make landing much more difficult as Rockall is sheer almost all round, and even where it is not, the slope is still very steep.  It was decided that the crew member with scuba experience would attempt the first landing, using his wet suit and from the yacht’s inflatable dinghy.  B landed safely, and was followed by T and my father shortly afterwards while the Skipper kept charge of the yacht.

Rockall landing 1977

Rockall landing 1977
A very precious photograph of the crew landing

Once safely established on the rock my father began to chip off a few highly—prized pieces of the granite rock whilst B made a push for the summit.

The climb to the summit required care due to the steepness of the rock and the bird droppings which make it rather slippery. At the top, B reported that “apart from the light, there was a spacious platform of rock just about big enough to take a deck chair!”  There are three bronze plaques inset into the rock near the summit, each recording a different event in the recent history, such as the first helicopter landing in 1952.

The crew took it in turns to climb to the summit, and my father lobbed the precious rock samples into the dinghy before they all rejoined the yacht. I can imagine the euphoria. Once aboard again, they circumnavigated a nautical lap of honour around the rock, and the Skipper produced a bottle of vintage champagne for all to toast their incredible achievement.  I am sure there would have been some reluctance to turn homewards and indeed by 3 pm Rockall was no longer visible below the horizon, though the image large and alive in the minds of each of the crew.

From all accounts the return was much more relaxed, as the Captain noted “Ireland is somewhat easier to find than Rockall!” I can just imagine the atmosphere of achievement, pride and an enormous release of pressure.  The return sail was accompanied by a large school of highly disinterested whales, apparently migrating northwards as well some friendly dolphins which swam alongside for some time, carrying out a close inspection and the sudden appearance overhead of an RAF Nimrod aircraft which flew over them several times at low altitude, also apparently checking them over, possibly wondering where on earth these guys had been! The seas remained calm, the skies grey as a helpful north westerly wind arose to send them gently home.

Whenever my father spoke of Rockall, there was a twinkle in his eye and a spark of what could be considered mild mischief. The chart of Rockall was on his wall, within his sight until he died. I discovered that he did indeed prepare the chart himself.  Apparently there was no current large scale chart of that location to be found, and the Skipper managed to borrow an old chart, but was not able to take it to sea.  My father ensured that there was a copy of the chart available for the voyage.  He was a perfectionist, and would probably have spent hours at his huge draughtsman desk carefully tracing and annotating each tiny detail, critical to a voyage which would rely on celestial navigation. The crew shared that challenge and test which the voyage brought, and are justifiably proud of their successful sail without the benefits of modern technology.  My father would quite probably have been horrified to hear that a 2012 landing saw the first Tweet and Facebook update sent from Rockall!

In his final weeks, there were two things in particular that were especially important to my father.  He was anxious that we remembered that he was to be laid at rest alongside his wife on their island home.  And he wanted to know where his piece of Rockall was!   Indeed he is at rest beside his soulmate on the island they both loved so much. And that precious fragment chipped from Rockall’s granite surface, one of his most cherished possessions, was thoughtfully placed with him for that final journey.

Lismore 3

On the ferry to Lismore, the island where my father lies at rest

25 thoughts on “Celestial navigation

  1. What a great story! And it would explain why you seem to be quite the travelling adventurer yourself, P. Love the name, too — Rockall, All but a Rock! So lovely you have so much detail and those pix from his mates. 🙂

    • Thanks K, yes there probably is a bit of the “adventure” gene, along with a dogged determination and a sprinkling of risk taking!

      I realise that some of the captions on the photos did not appear – there is one image from the voyage landing, others are from the island of Lismore where he settled after retirement and is now interred. Hope the captions are visible now.

  2. You’ve honored your Dad with this beautiful story – you really took me to another time and place – as you always do. I understand the sadness of today. My thoughts and love go with you x

    • Thank you, Marie, I knew you would know where I was coming from and the need to work through this in an appropriate and constructive way. I’m glad I also took you past your home country and way out to sea!

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  4. dear Philippa,
    what a wonderful tribute to your Dad, writing about such an unforgettable and historical adventure. and to think that all the memories and the mementos from Rockall gave him such happiness and comfort such a sense of contented achievement. I hope writing this story also gave you comfort. I am sending you warms and gentle hugs, this first birthday without him; I know how your heart must ache.

    much love and light,

    Karen xoxo

    • Thank you Karen, yes it is a strange combination of comfort, grief and satisfaction and just know that I am doing the right thing. I send you love and warmth too as I know your heart too is ambushed by grief.

  5. Beautiful story, Philippa. I can’t imagine finding anything without a GPS; the skills these navigators had by reading celestial objects must have been amazing. What a way to honor your father. I loved reading every word and seeing the magnificent photos.

    • Thank you Beth – yes for me the fact that they set off on such an ambitious and exciting challenge, and succeeded relying on incredibly skilful navigation and seafaring skills is so inspiring! I am so glad that you enjoyed the tale.

  6. I wrote this for a few reasons, mainly personal ones and it has been surprising and warming to see how many have enjoyed this tale.

    Firstly, I wanted to get through this milestone in a way which was cathartic and positive. It is a day I have sensed approaching and wanted to be proactive rather than wallow as is often our default.

    I also wanted to tell the story as a tribute, because it was something my dad was so proud of and which remained important to him right to the end of his life. Even though he was a private person, I know he wanted the story to be told.

    And thirdly, I think it is an incredible story, of a voyage which four men undertook with enormous courage, skill and determination and is of historical importance. I feel that capturing and documenting this (bringing together existing accounts and memories) is critical because there is a risk that this story will be forgotten and what a loss that would be These men achieved a phenomenal feat sailing for, finding and landing on Rockall on a yacht and with only celestial navigation.

    What a privilege to be able to tell this story.

  7. Thank you Philippa for a wonderful story of adventure that your father starred in. I will never forget this amazing story and those amazing men. Getting to Rockall may be my new motto, the trip is hard, but if done well, it’s worth it in the end. Your father will now live in my memories, as well. Hugs to you!

  8. Oh didi, it is so nice of you to recount this special story- no wonder you are such an adventurer yourself! We are just back from Nepal yesterday and so I hope to connect with you by email or skype very soon xoxoxoxo Special thoughts to you on your dear Dad’s birthday xoxoxox

  9. Thank you Philippa for a wonderful story so lovingly told. It was my own Dad’s 80th on the 7th, but sadly the first birthday Mum totally forgot, as the Alzheimer’s takes away more and more of her memory.

    • Thank you so much, I know that retelling his story would make him proud. I just wish he could read it, but ironically, he would never entertain the internet! Birthday wishes to your dad too, and I am sorry that Alzheimer’s is stealing her memory x

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