Thursday, 10 June 2021



Bill Tilman (1898-1977) lead an extraordinary life, first as a mountaineer and explorer of remote, high altitude parts of the world, then later sailing a succession of pilot cutters to mountains that he could climb from the sea. He chronicled these expeditions in fifteen books that are superb examples of all a travel book should be. This is not the place to try to summarize such a life; that is best done by reading his books. They are available as two compendium volumes, one consisting of his seven mountain/travel books and the other of his eight sailing/mountain exploration books. In addition all fifteen volumes have recently been reissued by Lodestar Books with all original maps and photos plus new introductions and afterwords. The following is one of those new introductions.

Although Tilman spent longer traveling to the high latitudes in small vessels than he did trekking and climbing in central Asia he seems never to have developed the same affection for the Arctic landscape or its people as he did for the Himalayas. Perhaps this was because he knew central Asia in all its seasons and moods, something he never achieved in the Arctic. All his voyages to the high latitudes were made in summer, which in both the Arctic and Antarctica is no more than a short interlude between winters. In the polar regions winter is the dominant season; without spending a winter there, any appreciation of the polar regions is superficial.

Tilman knew his brief summer trips gave him a biased view of the place and considered wintering in Greenland. He twice mentions the possibility in his books, once in “Mischief in Greenland’ after his first voyage to Greenland and again in ‘In Mischief’s Wake’ when describing Mischief’s last voyage. Tilman achieved so much in his life that it is unreasonable to wish he had done more, but the world is poorer for not having a description by a writer of his caliber of a winter spent in a small vessel frozen into a remote polar bay.

Then and now, a small vessel is by far the most effective way to explore places like Greenland, Antarctica or Patagonia. To see the full round of the seasons the same boat frozen in the ice makes a good winter camp. Having transported its crew and all they need to the winter site, it then provides them with shelter for the winter and carries them and all their gear away again when the ice melts. Compared to a hut or even a tent ashore, its environmental impact is minimal. All that is required is a stout vessel with survival systems that can be kept working in the cold. There is no need for a large vessel or one specially built for such a venture. My own Iron Bark, a 35 ft steel gaff cutter of no particular distinction, has spent a winter in the ice of Antarctica and two winters frozen in Greenland; any of Tilman's pilot cutters could have done the same.

I expect that if Tilman had decided to spent a winter in the Arctic ice he would have chosen some bay remote from any settlement. Mischief could certainly carry enough food for her crew for eight or ten months of winter and enough fuel for cooking and melting drinking water, if not for heating. In Patagonia Tilman arranged for fuel to be delivered to a predetermined depot and he could have done something similar if he had wanted heating oil for a winter in Greenland. Even if this was not possible, spending a winter in an unheated boat with an insulating cover of snow is not particularly difficult, certainly easier than it was for the Inuit who until recently spent their winters in relative comfort in snow houses heated by nothing more than a stone lamp burning seal oil. 

A small vessel with a snow cover is quite habitable when heated by a nothing more than couple of candles and the intermittent use of the cooking stove. How habitable depends on the boat, but the interior temperature will probably rise above freezing once the cooker and candles have been lit for the breakfast and stay there for most of the day. I spent a winter in Antarctica on Iron Bark with only enough oil to run the heater for eight hours per week and although it was seldom comfortable, the lack of heating was no great hardship.

Although the discomfort of a winter in the high Arctic would not have bothered Tilman, his erratic crew selection methods may have caused him problems. At times he had trouble keeping his crews motivated and disciplined for a few months at a stretch on an ocean passage in relatively benign latitudes. The stress of a long winter’s night in the ice would certainly have been too much for some of his crews, while others would have thrived on the challenge. The potential for crew problems when living in a cold, dark vessel through the winter is considerable. Antarctic bases spend a great deal of effort screening numerous applicants for a few winter positions and still have a significant failure rate, and they are living in conditions that are palatial compared to a small vessel frozen in a remote bay.

A couple who have lived and sailed together for long enough to be used to one another’s quirks is undoubtedly the best crew for such a venture, but given Tilman’s well-advertised aversion to women on his vessels, that was never an option. A single-hander is not going to have difficulties with crew but a pilot cutter is too much for one person to handle, so this option too was closed to him. The relatively large crew of a pilot cutter means there are plenty of hands to share the workload and provide company but there is a real risk of serious conflict within a group of five or six, particularly in the dark months when the sun never rises.

That said, having company through a polar winter makes it easier to get through the long winter’s night. I have spent two winters alone in the high latitudes, one in Antarctica and the other in Greenland, and each time found the dark of the long winter’s night (80 days in the case of my solitary Greenland winter) hard on the mind. In comparison, the winter that Annie Hill and I spent frozen into a remote bay on Greenland’s west coast in latitude 73°N passed pleasantly, and not only because the food was better and the bunk warmer. While I doubt if the long night would have bothered Tilman, with or without company, one wonders how his crew would have fared. The darkness depresses many people, even those brought up with it. Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world, chiefly among young men: food for though if planning such a venture.

Dramatic photos such as those of Shackleton’s Endurance have lead to the expectation that any vessel in ice will be subject to pressure, forced upward and crushed. While this may happen to a small vessel caught in the open by moving ice, the opposite occurs in a protected bay – the vessel gets dragged down as the ice thickens. A vessel frozen into bay ice is not subject to any lateral pressure provided it is moored far enough from the shore to be clear of the shearing pressures of the tide crack and in water deep enough that the sea does not freeze to bottom causing pressure ridges. Indeed, once firmly frozen in the vessel becomes part of the floe, safe, warm and with an apron of ice all around to protect it from collisions with stray bits of ice.

New ice is formed by the freezing of seawater-saturated snow lying on the surface of the floe and the ice thickens from the top. As the process repeats itself the first-formed ice remains at at the bottom of the floe and is pushed deeper and deeper as the winter progresses. Unless a vessel can emulate the Fram and withdraw its rudder, propeller and bobstay, these projections become embedded in that first-formed ice and drag the vessel down. While the ice is thin the vessel can break it and float near its normal lines. Later as the ice thickens she is becomes firmly stuck in it and pulled down, but not by the full thickness of the ice because of the phenomenon of pressure solution which allows the vessel to rise through the ice to a limited extent. Iron Bark was drawn down by between one and two feet in the course of each of her Arctic and Antarctic winters and I would expect something similar would happen to a pilot cutter.

The simple, robust equipment on Tilman’s pilot cutters would have worked well through an Arctic winter. Without deliberately attempting to emulate him, indeed without any knowledge of his methods, most of Iron Bark’s equipment is identical to Tilman’s, an example of convergent evolution. Paraffin (kerosene) stoves work at temperatures that butane or propane do not. They can be kept running with a basic stock of spare parts and burn a compact, widely available fuel. Even now, there is nowhere in Greenland to refill a propane bottle, but paraffin is sold in every village. Candles are a more reliable source of light than electricity with the bonus of providing a little heat. They also give an early warning of inadequate ventilation as they dim and gutter long before oxygen level fall to that critical for humans. Frills such as pressurized water systems that Tilman would never have contemplated for a summer voyage become completely irrelevant in winter when everything is frozen.

For the rest, living on a small vessel in winter requires a little fortitude and considerable patience. The alcohol for preheating the stove itself needs warming before it will burn, pens will not write and toothpaste does not squeeze from its tube until warmed in an inner pocket, liquid detergent freezes and rum is a slushy solid. None of this would have bothered Tilman, but it may have been a problem for some of his crews.

Advancing age sometimes requires changing methods, if not objectives, and perhaps Tilman’s later voyages (excluding that final one on En Avant) may have been happier and achieved more in a smaller vessel. Instead of persisting with pilot cutters after the loss of Sea Breeze, it may have been better if he had replaced her with something smaller. By that time Tilman was not making long traverses or climbs that required an extended absence from the mothership. A vessel that could carry three people and be managed by one for a day or two while the climbing party was ashore would have served his purposes and been easier to crew, sail and maintain.

Given Tilman’s preference for older wooden working vessels, a Falmouth Quay punt or a small ex-fishing vessel would have been obvious candidates. Such vessels were at that time cheap to buy and run, seaworthy, capable of withstanding hard usage and require minimal mechanical equipment, all important considerations for a vessel in Tilman’s hands. As an example, Pauline and Tim Carr have done splendid things in the Falmouth Quay punt Curlew, sailing and climbing in both winter and summer in South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. A similar vessel could have carried Tilman plus another climber and a ship keeper to all the places that Baroque sailed, as well as being able to spend a winter in Greenland’s ice if Tilman had chosen to do so.

But this is all speculation, and impertinent when applied to someone of Bill Tilman’s accomplishments. He lived a full life and left us a legacy of fifteen magnificent books, more that enough for one person.

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