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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

A Sporting Chance?

Risk, Sport and Personal Responsibility By Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Their bad day on the Battenkill hit Ed, Brenna and the rest of the gang pretty hard last week, so we've given everybody some time off to rest and recuperate. No, it's not the end of the trail—our "Trip of a Lifetime" will return on February 6th. This week, however, we thought we'd look at one man's real-life trip of a lifetime, and at the questions it raises about risk, sport and personal responsibility.

January 30, 2001

As I write this, a 57-year-old grandfather is making preparations to sail a much-modified 14-foot aluminum workboat around Great Britain—a non-stop voyage of more than 2,000 nautical miles. His name is Stuart Hill. He's the operations director of an Internet portal company based in the United Kingdom, and, yes, so far as I can tell, he's completely sane.

What does this have to do with paddlesport? More than I'd have thought, as it turns out. Like canoeists and kayakers, small-boat sailors rely on skill and stamina to get from one place to another across the world's waters. Most of us, most of the time, regard motors in the same light as we regard unasked-for advice—unnecessary, at best; at worst, undesirable. And, just as is the case with whitewater paddlers, sailors in tidal waters must go with the flow or suffer the consequences. Tidal currents, like rivers, are driven by gravity. All smart boaters travel "downhill" whenever they can, whether they're relying on wind or muscle for their primary motive power.

There are historical ties, too. When, in late April or early May of this year, Stuart launches his boat, fittingly christened Maximum Exposure, and embarks on his marathon circumnavigation, he'll be following in the wake of John "Rob Roy" MacGregor, the British barrister who was the father of modern recreational canoeing. MacGregor's exploits in a succession of decked "canoes"—today, all Americans and even many Britons would call them kayaks—sparked off an international canoeing craze that lasted until the end of the nineteenth century. (I've written more about this elsewhere.) But MacGregor was a sailor, as well as a canoeist. In 1867, after learning that a "Boat Exhibition" and regatta were to be held in Paris, he commissioned a 21-foot yawl* from the boatyard that built his little canoes, and then proceeded to sail this diminutive yacht across the Channel and up the Seine to Paris, without any help from either crew or pilot.

MacGregor was as good a publicist as he was a sailor. The book he wrote about his cross-Channel exploit, The Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy, enjoyed the same success as his earlier canoeing tales, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe and The Rob Roy on the Baltic: it was an instant best-seller. But MacGregor didn't need the money. He was a gentleman of independent means and a noted philanthropist. Much of the income from the sale of his books and the subsequent lecture tours was therefore divided among the many charities which he supported. It was no small sum. MacGregor kept careful records of his earnings. Before many years had passed, his royalties and lecture fees added up to more than £10,000, at a time when a skilled laborer might feel himself lucky to earn £50 a year.

Among the many people who purchased a copy of The Voyage Alone was one Empson Edward Middleton. He, too, was a gentleman of means. This was indeed fortunate, since he was also sufficiently eccentric to have been thought mad if he'd been unlucky enough to be born poor. Happily, though, Middleton's eccentricities were innocent ones. He believed himself possessed of "a great store of electricity." This, he asserted, helped him control any sailing vessel's wheel or tiller and gave him supernatural skill in steering and holding a course. He may just have been right, I suppose. He was certainly a good helmsman. But he was also convinced that the earth was both stationary and flat (or, at least, not round), and that the sun was "but a very moderate remove from the surface of the Earth." Understandably enough, this was not a view that won him much support from Britain's Astronomer Royal, who replied to Middleton's many letters on the subject with the "defiant contempt which is the birthright of…the dishonest and ungodly in all walks of life." Or such, at least, was Middleton's view.

Nor was his fruitless battle with the intransigent Astronomer Royal his only frustration. When Middleton happened upon a copy of MacGregor's newly-published book in a circulating library, he'd been laboring over a translation of the Æneid for several years, attempting—with a singular lack of success, it must be said—to transform Virgil's epic Latin hexameters into "truly artistic" rhymed English pentameters. Middleton was clearly a man in need of rest and recreation. Sleepless and sore-eyed, he was ready for a change of scene, and he found just what he was looking for in MacGregor's muscular prose.

"All hail The Voyage Alone," Middleton wrote of his discovery. And he lost no time in setting out to make his own mark in the boating world. First, he commissioned a near-copy of MacGregor's yawl from the same builders, "to be ready on the 15th May." He had already worked out what he would do with her: "I immediately determined to sail around England, choosing that course as the most difficult one I could think of, on account of its powerful tides."

To reduce a long and fascinating story to its barest essentials, he succeeded. Starting from Ramsgate Harbour on Friday, June 18th, 1869, "sailing alone in a boat for the first time in [his] life," Middleton circumnavigated England. He was the first to do so single-handed. On September 24th, he left The Kate—Middleton had named the little yacht after his sister—at Victoria Dock, confident that his place in history was now secure.

What then remains for Stuart Hill to do, 132 years later? Two things. Though Middleton sailed across the Irish Sea and "coasted" up Ireland from Courtown to Donaghadee before sailing back across to Britain, he did not venture around Scotland, choosing instead to cross from west to east by way of the Crinan (now Forth & Clyde) Canal. He also broke his journey every evening, preferring, in the words of Arthur Ransome, "to sleep and feed ashore."

Hill has other plans. He hopes to circumnavigate all of Great Britain, and he intends to do so without stopping even once—this in a 14-foot open aluminum boat, driven by a rig cannibalized from a windsurfer.

Will he succeed? I've no idea, I'm afraid, though I won't say I'm overly optimistic. The difficulties standing in his way are formidable. Not only will he have to contend with the vagaries of wind and tide, to say nothing of the limitations of the human frame, but for part of his voyage he will also be sailing through Dover Strait—"the busiest of all the straits used for international navigation," in the words of The Times Atlas and Encyclopedia of the Sea. Middleton's voyage ended with The Kate "a wreck," her bowsprit smashed in a collision with a steamer. Hill will have to contend with far more than river steamers, however. He can expect to encounter ferries, hydrofoils, and high-speed hovercraft, not to mention 250,000-ton Very Large Crude Carriers. The narrow sea between Great Britain and the continent can be a mighty crowded place.

Still, it's hard not to be caught up in the excitement of such an adventure. Whether canoeist, kayaker, or small-boat sailor—these weren't mutually-exclusive labels in MacGregor's and Middleton's time, of course, and they needn't be today, either—most of us harbor a secret wish to attempt some "impossible" feat or other at least one time before we die. As Napoleon once wryly observed, "Every private carries a field-marshal's baton in his cartridge pouch." It's simply human nature.

But what of the risk? Is it fair—is it even morally right—for anyone to risk his life in pursuit of something so ephemeral as a sporting "first"? What if it all goes terribly wrong? What, then, of the grief born by those who stayed at home? The grief of wives and children. The grief of widowed husbands, or of lovers, suddenly finding themselves alone again. What of the perils that our follies—or even our innocent errors—compel total strangers to bear? What of water-rescue personnel, for example, or helicopter crew, or lifeboatmen? Are we justified in expecting them to accept, willy-nilly, the dangers that we have chosen to defy?

These are difficult and troubling questions, all of them. And I won't pretend to have any answers, save only to note that we all risk our lives every day for far more mundane ends. One person in every eighty born in the United States will die in a car wreck, and thousands of people will risk their lives to save total strangers from heaps of twisted metal and gasoline-fed flames. Yet we jump in our cars without a thought, often for no better reason than to drive down to the convenience store to pick up a six-pack (or a half-gallon of milk) that we forgot to buy on our way home from work. How pointless such trips are, really. Imagine risking your life for a six-pack! Could anything be more foolish, or more irresponsible? Yet we all do it. And many thousands of us will die needlessly as a result.

Whether we accept it or not, canoeing and kayaking, like dinghy sailing, are necessarily "risk sports." Prudence, experience, and skill can minimize the risks we run, to be sure, but nothing can eliminate them entirely. And death waits even in familiar places. You needn't sail a small boat on the North Sea to run the risk of drowning. You can die in a farm pond just as easily. I almost did, in fact. That being the case, what then is a "sporting chance"? How much risk—to both ourselves and to others—should we accept in our pursuit of sport? I don't know the answer to this, either, but I know I'll be thinking a lot more about the question as I watch Stuart Hill prepare to set sail.

* A yawl is a two-masted sailing boat with the smaller mizzen mast stepped right aft, behind the rudder post.

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.







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