February 2009, on Ben Nevis

One of my earliest memories is of watching the Mary Rose being raised on TV – in 1982. I distinctly remember the news reporter saying that it was being lifted so slowly that you couldn’t see it move. The idea of this massive five hundred year old oak carcass being pulled out of the muddy entrance of Portsmouth harbour, at an invisible speed, literally blew my mind.

The salvage of the Mary Rose would have been much talked about round our kitchen table. Anything to do with the sea was of interest. Combined with history, doubly so. My dad was a keen sailor, and pretty much as soon as I could walk he’d take me out in his little gaff rigged dinghy. His father, my Grandpa, was an extraordinarily man. He had been a Colonel in the Royal Marines and had been awarded the DSO and DSC. He and Gran would often come down from their home in East Anglia to take us out on day trips. These excursions would always have a maritime, military or historical flavour. One time we went up to Greenwich to visit the Cutty Sark and Francis Chichester’s yacht, Gipsy Moth IV. I remember thinking how small it looked to sail around the world in, especially next to the big clipper ship.

I would have just turned twelve when Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud started their unsupported crossing of Antarctica in 1992. This was a strange time for me – my parents had split up back when I was seven. After living with my Mum in Derby for a few years I had made the decision to move back down to West Sussex to live with my Dad. It was a big move and I was still finding my feet. My Dad and I followed the explorers progress in the newspaper as they man-hauled their heavy sledges across the ice for 93 days. I was completely enthralled and in awe of them. It was a welcome distraction while I made new friends and tried to settle in.

Soon after they completed this feat we learnt that Fiennes was giving a lecture in nearby Petersfield. Dad got us tickets and one school night we went to see him talk and give a slide show. He was larger than life, charismatic, stoic and completely self-contained. As a young teenager with all the usual insecurities, I immediately thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to be like him. I eagerly consumed his books and dreamt of grand adventures. I had already been planning and embarking on my own mini expeditions with friends – hiking and camping on the South Downs. Instead of frostbite, snow storms and gale force winds we had irate farmers to contend with, but we would roam these hills for miles, often walking late into the night, accompanied by the lights of distant ships in the English Channel.

1988 – Cutty Sark, Greenwich, with Gran, Pa and my two younger brothers, Eddy and Andy. Matching National Trust outfits to boot. Sir Francis Chichester’s Yacht, Gipsy Moth IV was just in front of us.

A reluctant sailor

I first went sailing on my own when I was twelve. I should confess that I didn’t enjoy it very much. It was a frosty Easter holiday. I was clad in a soggy tracksuit and plimsolls. Dad had sent me off on an RYA dinghy course – clearly hoping that I’d catch the sailing bug – instead I just got a nasty cold. I was too small for the dinghies we were using so sailing to windward was difficult. It was a gusty blustery week and I often capsized. The water was bitterly cold. I just couldn’t work out what I was doing wrong while all the bigger, older teenagers, were managing fine. I enjoyed catching the wind with the sails but the terror of capsizing was difficult to overcome. Despite having the early symptoms of hypothermia most of the time (I have never been so cold before or since) I did OK and got my certificate, but it was a frustrating and overall pretty unpleasant experience. Perhaps because of this – and wanting to do my own thing – I resisted Dad’s attempts to enthuse me into sailing. Instead my focus remained on the hills. Of course I continued dinghy sailing regularly with him, albeit with some trepidation and reluctance.

My ill feelings towards sailing were tempered the next year though. Dad had decided to get a keel boat – or yacht as some people like to call them! We travelled to Cardiff and there he took ownership of a beautiful Westerly GK29, called Gopher Kicks. This plucky little 29 footer could just sleep 6 (and over the next two decades it often did). It had a good sail wardrobe of hank on sails and also a spinnaker. The tiny 13hp Lister Petter diesel engine was such a pain to start that we’d sail pretty much everywhere. We first sailed across the Bristol Channel and past Lundy.  I remember this first leg vividly. We were accompanied by the previous owner for the initial few days. He worked as a sailing instructor and it was clear that he knew his onions. He mentioned in passing that with some larger water tanks Gopher would happily take you across the Atlantic to America. This excited my interest immediately (definitely another Mary Rose moment). Here was a boat you could go for real adventures in. We did lots of sailing and had some brilliant times with her. The first sail back from Cardiff to Chichester was a perfect introduction to big boat sailing. I loved the predawn starts to catch the tide and freedoms this knowledge proffered. Exploring Helford river and mackerel fishing in the dinghy was simply dreamy. The next year we crossed the channel to France, but not until we’d spent a couple of nights anchored in Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. I had bought my climbing kit along just in case we could make a visit there and I could do some of the routes on the sea cliffs at nearby Swanage, luckily conditions permitted.

Mountains of the mind

By this time my hiking and camping trips along the South Downs had evolved to climbing and mountaineering around the UK. I’d go with local climbing clubs to North Wales and the Lake District. Then in February 1996, aged fifteen, I went to Scotland. When I first saw Glen Coe in its full winter coat I couldn’t believe such a dramatic and sublime landscape existed on the same small island I lived on. I had one aim in mind – the Aonach Eagach ridge. A few days later we made our ascent. Conditions weren’t ideal – it was blowing and snowing hard. About halfway along the traverse the cornice on the ridge collapsed right next to me. Hundreds of tons of snow fell down a sheer vertical drop and started an avalanche in the valley below. The fracture line ran no more than an inch above my feet. My footsteps disappeared over the edge just a few metres back. It was a very near miss. There and then I realised just how dangerous this place could be.

February 1996 – on the Aonach Eagach Ridge, Glen Coe

I returned from this week in Scotland more enthusiastic about climbing than ever. On the train on the way home I decided I wanted to be the youngest person ever to climb Everest. Nobody under seventeen had done it back then. I called all the expedition organisers and wrote to climbers I thought might be attempting it that season, there were only a few tourist outfits doing it back then but I asked them too. The responses were either no way or fine – if you have £30k! I tried to get sponsorship but nobody wanted to touch it and I was getting nowhere. It was a bitter disappointment. The year flew by and before I knew it I was getting too old to have a chance of beating the record. GCSE’s, romance, discovering art and music, and working my first job – as a fishmonger in London – gave me little time to dwell on it.

A secret door to digging holes

It was around this time that I decided I wanted to study to be an architect. From the elaborate dens I built as a kid to my woodwork projects at school I had always loved designing and making things. After my A-levels I got a place on a Foundation course set up by the Prince of Wales in London. I met some extraordinary people on this. They opened my eyes to a place that until then I wasn’t aware existed. It was like being shown a secret door. Through it was a world of acerbic wits, of learning, culture and breathtaking beauty. I learnt to draw, paint, about the geometry of Chartres Cathedral, Christopher Wren and Hawksmoor. I loved every moment. Sadly the degree course that followed this formative foundation year, at a different institution in a different city, nearly took all the enthusiasm I had for the subject out of me. I had also by then met a worrying number of frustrated and disenchanted architects!

I abandoned my degree after a year and got a job as a labourer on a building site in London, aged 20. The first few months were spent digging holes and mixing lime mortar for the bricklayers. This was for a historic building preservation trust called The Spitalfields Trust. I was lucky with my timing. Their administrator was leaving and they needed a hand in the office. Soon I was managing their sites in London and one in South Wales. After working for them for a few years I left and started my own building firm. All my projects during this time had something in common: I would take on ruins of historic buildings that were generally considered lost causes and restore them. I’d do any design work myself, but most of my time was spent on site. I completed some big structural projects. I think these early projects gave me the confidence to take on the seemingly impossible.

Finishing school and political ambitions

While running my building firm I applied for a place at the Courtauld Institute to study History of Art. Although the business was going well I was all too aware that I hadn’t completed my education and after the disaster of my architecture degree I really wanted to study something traditionally academic but most of all I wanted to find that secret door again. I was offered a place and after three trying years of writing essays I completed my degree. This is one of my biggest achievements. I had started out badly at school and after two years of poor results my parents discovered I was in fact quite seriously deaf. I had basically spent the first (crucial!) years of my schooling trying to lip read and staring out the window daydreaming! I had an operation and my hearing was improved but throughout my teens I was playing catch-up on those missed early years. I attended hours of after school classes. By finishing an academic degree, getting a First in my dissertation and high 2:1 overall, I could at last say this race was over. It wasn’t at all easy, in fact it was perhaps one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I received a lot of support from the Courtauld and it was a privilege to study there.

However, by the time I finished my degree I was desperate to build something again. Along with a few friends I took on a warehouse in Hackney Wick in East London and started work on my first big scale art work – The Labour Exchange. My degree had definitely made me more political – or at least less apolitical. I had recently read a survey showing how many people in the UK and US wanted to leave their jobs. I couldn’t see how this was sustainable and worried about the harm it was doing to their children’s own life expectations. I urgently wanted to promote the importance of demanding some real fulfillment from our 9 to 5 jobs. I figured that the best way to do this was by selling handcrafted bottles of peoples sweat! The piece got a fair bit of attention, a couple of my friends who saw it actually changed their careers, and credit it for encouraging them make the leap. Saatchi collected a bottle, but generally I found the people who ‘got it’ were those who couldn’t afford my expensive bespoke bottles. Reluctantly I had to shelve it and the special machine I built, the Labour Harvester.

April 2007 – pedalling away in the ‘Labour Harvester’

Obviously I wasn’t too disheartened because my next project was even more ambitious. At this time – in 2007 – voter turnout in the UK was chronically low and democracy seemed to be wilting. I started a campaign to encourage those who didn’t want to vote to at least turn up on election day and spoil their ballot paper. A spoilt ballot is still counted. These could then be used to measure the level of disapproval of the available political options – vs – the genuinely apathetic. As part of this campaign I spent two years working in the Houses of Parliament as a Researcher. While there I spent a lot of time trying to get MPs from all parties to support my idea. A few were genuinely up for it, but it was like herding cats.

The best armour against fear is knowledge

While building, studying and working in Parliament I was regularly sailing with my Dad on Gopher Kicks. We’d mainly go on day trips and weekends, sometimes competing in races in the Solent. I was a proficient sailor and my Dad’s first mate, but there remained something about it that I simply didn’t enjoy. Perhaps I was still traumatised from my freezing RYA dinghy coarse! I definitely still suffered from the same nagging anxiety on keel boats that I had had on dinghies. I simply didn’t understand how they worked.

This all changed when I picked up a book called The Godforsaken Sea, by Terry Lundy. It tells the story of the 1997 Vendée Globe and Tony Bullimore’s capsize in the Southern Ocean. Rather than putting me off I realised how extraordinarily tough a well designed sail boat can be and how (as long as your keel stays attached to the hull) its impossible for you to be blown over like in a dinghy. I also realised that this seaworthiness, combined with good planning, meant you could stay pretty safe in all but the most extreme conditions. Armed with this crucial knowledge my practical experience of sailing was transformed. My confidence grew and I threw myself into it. It may have been fifteen years later than my Dad had wanted, but I was now definitely hooked.

Summer 2010 – on Gopher Kick anchored at East Head, Chichester Harbour, on route to Falmouth

From this point on I wanted to learn all I could. Sailing with different skippers is a brilliant way of doing this. I signed up as crew for RORC races and took up dinghy sailing again to get a better feel for the wind. I did my RYA Coastal Skipper qualification and Dad let me take Gopher out without him and I got my first taste of skippering and taking responsibility for a boat and crew. I loved it. To further my knowledge I decided I should do my Yachtmaster exam. After I got this ticket the school I did my prep week with asked me if I’d be interested in becoming an instructor with them.  Until then teaching sailing had never occurred to me. I gladly accepted their offer and qualified as an RYA Crusing Instructor in Summer 2012. This has allowed me to keep sailing regularly. Most of this work has been in the English Channel, where tidal conditions can be tricky and the weather changes rapidly. I’ve completed thousands of miles and its been an excellent training for my more ambitious sailing plans.

Although I enjoyed my work as a sailing instructor I have always been careful not to do it full time. In between this work and my other projects I have usually returned to my work as a designer and cabinetmaker. I didn’t want this to go unmentioned because I’ve always enjoyed this work. Also the skills I’ve learnt along the way have proved very useful for the refit of Black Sheep.

Another job that I found especially fulfilling was with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In 2013 I started volunteering in their London office. I soon found myself working full-time for them as the Executive Assistant. They are a brilliant organisation with great integrity. They aren’t afraid to ask themselves the existential questions about what they doing and whether humanitarian assistance they are providing is actually helpful in the long term. As someone with natural tendency to be a ‘fixer’ participating in these difficult debates made me aware of my own preconceptions. Working with MSF helped me to appreciate how perfect can be the enemy of good, and that the method used matters just as much as the final result.

I left MSF in 2014 when I purchased Black Sheep. The plan was to start my own sailing school – but not before a shakedown trip across Biscay and back. Apart from nearly sinking due to taking on water through the fore deck/hull joint she sailed brilliantly. On my return we took her out of the water for the refit works necessary for commercial coding. However, within a few months a new project – a round the world race – the 2018 GGR – had been announced and the refit works had been significantly expanded.

I worked really hard on my campaign for the 2018 GGR but during the course of 2016 it became clear that I really wasn’t a good fit for it. Resigning from it at the end that year was a really difficult decision to make. I spent most of 2017 sailing – working for sail schools – and the refit works on Black Sheep took a backseat. In 2018 I have returned to the project with a new energy and determination. I had presumed I would find some funding for the race, or for the circumnavigation I still desperately want to do. I’ve accepted now that nobody is going to pay for this that I’m on my own. I’ve exhausted all sponsorship possibilities. It may be a few years before Black Sheep gets back in the water and I can start using her as my school boat, longer before I can attempt my circumnavigation in her. No matter – the important thing is that I enjoy the process – the method – live well – and make the whole journey count for something bigger than myself. Starting my own sail school is part of this, this will include offering opportunities for people who couldn’t normally afford to experience the sea to get a taste for it.

Tim Newson, April 2018