Blokes Up North – through the heart of the Northwest Passage by sail and oar


Blokes Up North.

Blokes… Up North. They sound ordinary enough, and they and their publisher try to describe themselves that way – but ordinary they aren’t really.

They’re as tough as the old boots they probably keep in a cupboard somewhere.

For one thing, they’re Marines. For another, the authors of this account published by Lodestar, Kev Oliver and Tony Lancashire have sailed, rowed and dragged a 17ft open dinghy from West to East through the often frozen seas and islands that claimed so many explorers and crews in search of the North West passage during the 19th century.

Even today in the era of global warming and in the height of the Arctic summer, it’s not too strong a claim to say that in doing so they risked their lives, and that surviving and reaching their destination is no small achievement in a time when the age of exploration is otherwise largely over.

Oliver is clearly a big fan of Shackleton and fascinated by polar exploration generally. On top of that he had drawn inspiration from an old friend from the Marines who as a 19-year old with a pal had circumnavigated Spitzbergen, and was also a great admirer of the scarily determined dinghy cruising exponent Frank Dye.

Lancashire’s viewpoint seems to have been that he admired Oliver and liked adventuring with him in the Marines – and was hoping he’d be asked along for an unexplained scheme…

The boat they chose was the Norseboat 17, which seems like a very good choice, being long enough for two rowing stations and, in theory, just about light enough to be handled on shore or ice  – but was still going to need additional built-in buoyancy, and, in all that ice, reinforced bows.

And so, as the rest of the world continued to reel and totter in the months following the the banking crisis, in July, 2009 these two ‘ordinary’ blokes set off . Happily they were well equipped, as well as well trained, even if they were not hugely experienced small boat sailors or rowers.

The book recounts their adventures in their own voices – typically a few paragraphs from one followed by a few from the other. It’s a choppy sort of effect, but lends the book a novel conversational quality, and brings a new dimension to the narrative. It’s certainly an interesting approach, and I’m quite glad someone’s tried it.

The story includes the usual sailing expedition incidents – falling in, near capsizes, losing the mainsail halliard (which meant they couldn’t raise the mainsail and go to windward) in 9ft waves miles from land and being blown further North further out into open sea – but with the added spice that the cold Arctic water has the power to kill in moments. Happily, they figured out a way round the halliard problem – but then there was the time their tent got sat on by a polar bear…

I won’t spoil this story or any of the others. If sailing adventures are something you enjoy – and many of us do, especially in the dull dark days of winter – this book from Lodestar priced at £12 in the UK, £13 in Europe and £15 elsewhere won’t disappoint.

PS – Did I mention that one of the best half dozen Victorian and early 20th century books about cruising the Thames Estuary – arguably it is the best – previously available only in hardback is now available in paperback from Lodestar? H Lewis Jones’ Swin, Swale & Swatchway

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