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

Birth days and death days


Birthdays are a strange thing.  In our family we have a guarded attitude towards the special days because they are tinged with sadness and poignancy.

In 1998, my mother died on her 65th birthday. Every year I struggle to get through that day.  Then in 2007, my step-mother, with whom I was also very close, died. On her 75th birthday.   When birthdays approach in our family, we half joke (in that totally inappropriate way which Scots are rather good at) that we hope we get through the day.  Not so deep down, we are very nervous about our own and each others’ birthdays.

When I woke up yesterday, on my birthday, I was in a strange mood.  My recent unexpected health escapade meant that I cancelled my plan to celebrate my birthday somewhere new.  I would be spending my day in Yangon and it was impossible not to associate the day with the birthday I marked not long after arriving in Myanmar in 2009.  It was a Big Birthday – one ending with a zero, and due to paperwork difficulties we were not able to travel, so any wish bucket plans were not possible to realise.  Furthermore, being in the middle of rainy season it meant that travel anyway even nearby was not really a great idea.  So we marked the day in Yangon, visiting the beautiful Shwe Dagon temple in the daytime, and then with a small group of friends in the evening.

I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was nurturing two already significant tumours and was blissfully unaware of the turn life was going to take in a few short weeks.  Now, on my birthday, in addition to the association of birth days with death days, I have the added association of my 2009 birthday with Breast Cancer.  And that starts to explain my mood yesterday, when I found myself fighting back tears before I had even got out of bed.

However, I had decided to take a day’s leave and was determined to have a relaxing and indulgent day.  I opened up my constant companion (my laptop) in anticipation of birthday greetings through email and Facebook.  And it was wonderful – messages had arrived overnight, and more were streaming in from around the world.  There are some things which Facebook is very good at.

As I skimmed through my newsfeed, however, my eye caught an update which I struggled to understand initially.  Then the realisation sank in.  My blogging sister Jenny, author of Get out Gertrude, had passed away the previous evening.  We knew that time was limited for her, but as her family said in the notice it was far sooner than expected.  Those tears which had been on standby behind my eyes sprang into action.

Jenny and I had connected through our blogs and twitter interactions based on our (albeit different) breast cancer diagnoses.  Jenny had been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) which is notoriously aggressive and although Stage 4, she was leading a very full and meaningful life.  She was studying, blogging regularly and a tireless active advocate on IBC.  She tells the full story on her blog.  As the disease has progressed and treatment options limited, we knew that her time with us was limited.  But with regular activity online and her incisive and wise insights, the severity of her physical health was hidden behind a strong vibrant voice.  I will miss her enormously, but value how much I learned from her. Her post on talking to her youngest daughter, who has special needs, is one which will always stay with me and shows her strength, humanity, openness and selflessness.  The fact that she documented and shared this when time and energy were precious, and sadly limited, shows her generosity.

As I am based in Asia, and Jenny in New Zealand we are in a small number of bloggers/tweeters in this side of the planet.  So, for example, while the weekly #bcsm discussion would be underway on Monday evenings in the US, Jenny and I would be joining from Tuesday morning/lunchtime.  I think of us as the “Tuesday bloggers”.  Her passing on a Tuesday is strangely meaningful and comforting to me personally.

It was probably a good thing that I had decided to take the day of my birthday off work.  In my poignant and pensive frame of mind, I could focus on Jenny as well as the preoccupations which had already been crowding my thoughts.  So I moved back to my Facebook feed and the greetings, so that I could attempt to respond to each message individually.  When I was young I was always brought up to send a thank you note for presents and cards, and never seemed to quite finish the task.  So I have tried to redress the balance in this Facebook era.  As messages came through from different parts of the world, the phrase “many returns of the day” and its inference echoed round and round in my mind.  And then one message hit me with an almost physical force as it resonated so much with my emotional place.

“Happy Birthday! I’m so glad you are around for another one!!! :)”

And that was it in a nutshell.  When I found the lump in September 2009, I thought I would not be around for the forthcoming Christmas, never mind birthdays one, two or even three years hence.  None of us has any idea how many more “returns of the day” we will have, but to have three is something I am incredibly thankful for. My relationship with mortality has matured and changed beyond recognition and I do not take these “returns” for granted any more.

So, today is August 2nd.  And here’s another strange coincidence.  Today is Rachel’s birthday. Her close friend Sarah has shared a post which Rachel’s mother has written.  My fears and associations connected with my own birthday, Jenny’s passing and Rachel’s birthday are all joining together in an emotional whirlpool.

But mixed with that emotion is a sense of bittersweet gratitude.  It is the day after my birthday. and I am overwhelmingly thankful.  Thankful that I did indeed wake up today!  Thankful that there have been returns of the day which I feared there would not be.  I am thankful that I am most clearly around for another one!

And most of all, I am thankful for the rich friendship of very special women like Jenny and Rachel.


The birthday present

I’m afraid it is time for another small confession.

One of the prompts for my visit to Cambodia was to continue a strange practice which started on my trans-siberian epic journey 12 years ago.  Wait a minute, how many years ago?  Impossible!  Well, however many years ago it was, it sparked the practice of spending my birthdays in Asia.  Over the past 12 years I have spent my birthdays in Nepal (several), Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and of course the one where it started – China.  I have a strange pull to spend the day in a different Asian country each year if possible.  Hence the Cambodia visit.

When I revisit my thoughts from this time last year, I realise how far I really have come.  Last year I spent a quiet and reflective day, and I can see just how much I was still wrapped up in a cancery space emotionally and physically.  I had only just started going “topless” a couple of weeks previously, braving my scalp stubble to the world, and was still suffering from the later stages of shingles.

For the first time since starting to blog, I am going to do something really radical just to highlight how far I have come indeed……..

This is a photo.  Of me.  Last year.  On my birthday.

I am becoming less precious about being anonymous, and while I do not like photos of myself (especially the ones where I have “cancer” stamped clearly on my forehead), I do feel more able to come out from behind my protective barrier.  And one big reason is that I feel able to share a picture from my birthday this year, here in Cambodia.

My day was firmly about living in the present.  None of know what is ahead and with the cancer lens in front of our eyes, fear and anxiety are never far away.  So I grasped the mettle and decided to do something I have long wanted to do and not think of the distant future and what might or might not happen.  I booked myself an “off the beaten track” trip for the day and despite torrential monsoon rain, I had an incredible day, slithering around villages and clambering over temples like an aging, bespectacled female Indiana Jones!

I still have my anxieties, and I still fear the return of cancer.  I know that won’t change and will intensify and fluctuate with scares and checks.  But for today I have discovered that I can live in the immediate, here-and-now present.  And that is the best birthday present possible.

As good a day as any for reflection

Sunday was a strange day with strange emotions.  It was my birthday, and brought with it a host of mixed feelings.

At any age, it is of course something to celebrate, but as the years advance it is also an important time to reflect.  This year more than ever.

My birthday last year was one of those big milestone ones and I found the lump a few weeks later.  I can’t help but connect the two events in my mind.  It is odd to think that so much has happened in the past year, and that I was blissfully unaware of the cancer present and growing when I was marking that milestone birthday last year.     

Looking back over the past year, particularly, is impossible without becoming emotional.  And the nature of cancer means that looking to the future is equally fraught with emotion through the uncertainty which a cancer diagnosis brings.

So the way I approached this birthday, was in keeping with the way I try to approach my relationship with the cancer beast.  By small actions which I have in my control, and which make me feel good.  So I rounded off the day in the pool, swimming one length for each of my years, which took me to a smidgen over a kilometre.  That can’t be bad for a girl who has been through the Triathlon from hell!