Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Ripping Yarns: Tristan Jones - 'Ice'

And Ripping Yarn is the only way to describe Tristan Jones 'Ice'

Jones, I can't call him quintessential Englishman because in fact he was Welsh, so let me call him quintessential old time Brit who put more than a mile or two under his keel and could spin a yarn, and probably never thought to spoil its telling by sticking to the truth.

Logging more miles single handed than any other person, living or dead, and often in what might be described in the trade as a plank, is testament to Jones' remarkable tenacity and seamanship.

If you have never had the pleasure, do give yourself a treat and read Jones at his best in 'Ice.'

If you do get into the man, just a word of caution. I found the 'Improbable Voyage' not to be confused with the 'Incredible Voyage' quite poor. As Euan Cameron readily admits below in Jones' obit, Jones wrote in order to finance his travels, the Improbable Voyage being just that, a means to and end.

Work Boat World, April 1997:

“The now-deceased author and character, Tristan Jones, has had some amazing adventures at sea. A most unconventional character who lived in a very unconventional way, he seemed to delight in putting himself into complicated and uncomfortable situations.

“This book records a voyage undertaken by Tristan Jones from southern England to Spitzbergen from 1959 to 1961. Jones sailed via Iceland and the coast of Greenland and managed to remain trapped in the ice for a full year somewhere between Greenland and Spitzbergen.

“Among other experiences, Jones' boat and crew were attacked by a hungry polar bear, which was finally dispatched by firing a flare into its mouth.

“It really is a crazy story of what not to do, but an interesting one, nevertheless, in its finest traditions of British eccentricity.”

Western Morning News, August 1996:

“Tristan Jones was another complete one-off singlehander, adventurer and above all seaman. He was forced to swallow the anchor and beach himself in not altogether idyllic surroundings in a cottage in Puke after eventually both legs had to be amputated due to a medical condition.

“He died just a year ago, but his legacy is a series of books of his adventures, ranging from a voyage from the lowest sea on the planet to its highest waters – an Andean lake – and achieving the northern most penetration of the Arctic by a solo-manned craft.

“That two-year odyssey is retold in Ice!, the book that really begins the Jones saga, from his discharge from wartime hospital berth to fitting out an old RNLI lifeboat converted to gaff ketch rig and slipping out of Falmouth 36 years ago on his first sailing epic. It's a classic tale raking with the greatest seafaring adventures…”

Sailing Inland & Offshore, April 1996:

“In Ice!, he sets out in summer from Iceland in CRESWELL and holes up in a Greenland Fjord near an Eskimo village for winter. Trapped by a violent snowstorm, without adequate food or cover, he spends a week trying to dig himself out before being rescued.

“While moored to an iceberg his boat is attacked by a ravenous polar bear.

“In the second winter he is trapped in the middle of an ice pack in the Arctic Ocean. For 366 days they are trapped there, marooned in the bleak murk of the polar winter, with tons of ice above them, hoping the ice pack will drift far enough to enable them to achieve the world's record for northernmost penetration by a solo-manned craft. Under the lights of the Auroa Borealis, Tristan grapples with loneliness and despair and finally, when the ice shifts, crushing CRESWELL like a matchbox, with death itself! Ice! has now become one of the classic sea tales of all times.”

Yachting World, May 1996:

“Another magnificent tale of derring-do from the indomitable Welsh adventurer. …this is Tristan Jones's attempt to sail a boat further north than anybody else.

“Accompanied by only a one-eyed, three-legged dog called Nelson, he battle through leads in the ice off Greenland, gets trapped, is attacked by a polar bear, spends a winter with the Eskimos, tries again, is locked in a precarious ice field north of Spitzbergen for an entire year and is finally towed free by his own ice floe.”

Classic Boat, February 1996:

“You know, you can take life too seriously, spending all your reading time pouring over instruction manuals and books of rules and regulations. At least once this winter, take a warming dose of an author who had little time for either: the recently departed Welsh fount of nautical high jinks, Tristan Jones. Now that ‘the last flicker of light has left my weather-wracked soul,’, as he wrote, Tristan's books will bring a second tide of revenue to his publishers. He was one of the great story-tellers of the sea, a real-life adventurer of the sort portrayed in good old fashioned boys' annuals. This book, first published in 1978, tells of Jones' 1959-1961 attempt to sail further north than anyone else, along with Nelson, an inherited three-legged one-eyed Labrador.

“Before sailing solo, Tristan Jones had crewed on an old boomie ketch, served in the Royal Navy and delivered boats from Holland to the USA, so he was already a veteran of long-distance sailing. Only he could have chosen as his shake-down ship for the Arctic voyage a smuggling caper, taking Scotch Whiskey to France. he went on to rub shoulders with characters in Ireland, Scotland, Iceland and Greenland. One of them turned nasty: a Polar bear. Nature, too, tested him to the limit as he was variously trapped by ice, capsized and all but crushed. He did it all in a 1908 ex-RNLI lifeboat called CRESWELL, a 32-footer with a double-diagonal mahogany-on-oak hull and gaff ketch rig, which he bought for ‘325 nikker’ from a dockyard worker.

“Describing the interior he reveals his inspiration: “Then there were pictures of Shackleton, Nansen, and Scott, all cut out of the old London Illustrated News magazines, and one of the Queen at the forward end of the cabin.’

“His tales are richly illuminated with nautical history, and explanations of the role of craft as diverse as the Norwegian knarr to the Eskimo umiak. ‘I had always been conscious that I was a direct link between the past centuries of sail-in-trade and the future, when sail will come into its own again. I can't wait for the oil wells to run dry,’ he wrote.

“We can only hope that when the oil wells do run dry there will be someone who has Tristan Jones' wit, wisdom and the skill to convey both to future generations of readers and salty stories.

Obituary: Tristan Jones

Euan Cameron

Tristan Jones, sailor, author, adventurer: born off Tristan da Cunha 8 May 1924; died Phuket Island, Thailand 21 June 1995.

Tristan Jones's life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.

It all began with a breach birth in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha - hence the Christian name - in May 1924. Mrs Jones was the ship's cook and both she and Tristan's father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. "By God, this one will always land on his feet!" the ship's mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. "He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he'll never drown!"

Before he was 18, Tristan Jones had been rescued from the sea three times. He left school at the age of 13 and worked as a "nipper" aboard a coastal sailing ketch, but at the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy, serving on convoy duties to the Soviet Union from Iceland. After the war he transferred to the Royal Hydrographic Service, but in 1952 in Aden an inshore survey vessel he was on was blown up by guerrillas and his spinal injuries were so severe that he was told he would never walk again.

On his discharge from hospital, he bought and converted an old lifeboat and decided he would set a new record for taking a sailing boat further north than the 84 degrees N achieved by F. Nansen. His improbable, Baron Munchausen-like exploits in the Arctic, accompanied by his one-eyed, three- legged Labrador dog, Nelson, were to be the subject of his second book, Ice! (1979).

His next venture was the eccentric notion of conquering the "vertical sailing record of the world". Having sailed his boat on the earth's lowest stretch of water, the Dead Sea, at 1,250 feet below sea-level, Jones determined to sail the highest, Lake Titicaca, 12,580 feet up in the Andes. His account of this six-year journey was published in The Incredible Voyage (1978), which became a best-seller in Britain and the United States.

As a writer, Tristan Jones's work varied greatly. He could reel off rip- roaring yarns, such as Saga of a Wayward Sailor (1980), but he could also produce reflective and highly literate work such as the account of his boyhood in his best book, A Steady Trade (1982). As his British editor, I often pleaded with him to settle down and devote himself to serious, unhurried writing, but a few weeks in New York or London, where his advances on royalties could disappear with liquid celerity, were more than his seafaring soul could stand.

Up until 1985, one could never be quite sure where Jones was living at any given moment. His boats were his home. Letters or faxes might arrive from the uttermost parts of the earth: a request for money to be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, say, or an urgent request for some vital part of an outboard engine to be obtained from a trusting chandler and despatched with all haste to Constanta on the Black Sea.

Occasionally, if his publisher paid his fare, he would turn up for publication of a new book, as he did for the launch of A Steady Trade in 1982. Such visits could be hazardous, however, and on this occasion Jones held his own among such distinguished television chat-show guests as Sir Laurens van der Post and Patrick Leigh Fermor, only to finish the evening draining the BBC's hospitality room of its entire stock of liquor.

Although he was proud to receive a Welsh Arts Council Literature Award for The Incredible Voyage and to have an entry in The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, the success of his books and the tributes he received from fellow writers and explorers meant little to him. He wrote in order to go on sailing, and, when his leg was amputated and he could no longer sail solo, he set out to show the world that disability need not preclude a life of adventure. He acquired a trimaran, mischievously named it Outward Leg, and set off with a crew of two to make his 20th Atlantic crossing in a small boat.

He arrived on the south coast of England in the summer of 1984 and when he reached Brighton Marina (how he sneered at words like "marina": "That's a name for smart Kensington ladies walking their poodles in the park"), I travelled down to take him some money and buy him lunch. He persuaded me to "come for a sail" and I spent a sleepless night bumping along the Channel, but it gave me an inkling of how this courageous seadog had survived his many lives.

No sooner was the anchor hauled up than the jokes and drinking stopped and Tristan was transformed into a strict disciplinarian, barking orders at his crew, charting courses and ceaselessly surveying the horizon. I was deposited in the dawn light at the foot of a dock-side in Folkestone, and as the sea surged Tristan issued orders to jump, cling to a metal hand-rail and climb the 57 vertical steps to the top. Terrified, but relieved to be on steady ground, I looked down to see him waving and giving a thumbs- up sign. It was almost the last time I saw him.

From Britain, he sailed his trimaran the lengths of the Rhine and the Danube to the Black Sea and eventually across the Indian Ocean. For the last 10 years, he lived on Phuket Island off the coast of Thailand, still writing and, even after the loss of his other leg last year, teaching disabled young people to sail. He was a true original and an immensely brave man. He had no known relatives, but he had friends and drinking companions in ports all over the world. Independent

I was rather hoping to find an interview with Jones, but this is all I could come up with. I have vague recollections of him being asked if he ever got pissed off with just his dog for company, to which I think the reply was, 'Only when it beat me at chess.'



    Interview with Tristan Jones.


    Tristan liked nothing more than to smoke and drink. His favourite tipple would be a rum and coke, heavy on the rum, is there any other way ? Wonderful article brings Tristan to life and shows his true character . Thank-you.


    Some one liners from 'old sea dogs' your readers may enjoy.