Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview: The old man and the Vertical Sailing


(By Jon Amtrup) Bob Shepton is an institution in northern waters. The 76 year old sailor and climber is following in Bill Tillman's wake by combining his two passions – and doesn’t let age stop him. 

He has done six Greenland expeditions and last summer he brought the Favresse brothers, Nico and Olivier (Belgium), Sean Villaneuva O’Driscoll (Ireland), and Ben Ditto (US) there for some big wall climbing. Shepton even got to climb himself and the route was named “Never again”. 

A highly experienced Arctic explorer who has led several Sailing and Climbing Expeditions to Greenland and Arctic Canada in his yacht, a Westerly 33 called 'Dodo's Delight', Shepton is an inspiration and a storyteller of magnitude. Leading expert on the waters around Greenland, he won the Tilman Medal twice for his exploits. 

When not out on a expedition in colder climates, he is living with his wife in Scotland. ExWeb caught up with him for a email interview. 

Exweb: You must be one of the most experienced Greenland sailors around: What is the fascination about the area that makes you return year after year? 

Shepton: Yes, casting modesty aside I probably am by now the most experienced Greenland sailor, for the west coast, except perhaps for Willy Kerr who edits the Faroe, Iceland and Greenland Pilot but he is retiring now being even older than me! 
- Yes, what is the fascination? Difficult to put in a few words: But sailing, and climbing, for me has always been about challenge. I have written somewhere, 'I really must try this sailing for pleasure sometime', which sort of sums it up. So it is the challenge: the ice, the unknown, the remoteness, the getting furthest north in Greenland (not Svalbard of course) in a production fiberglass boat, and the fact that there are unclimbed mountains and rock routes awaiting first ascents in Greenland is perhaps part of this. And as I have written somewhere 'I can not begin to describe the feeling that you are treading somewhere where nobody has ever been before on God's good earth'. There are still places in Greenland and arctic Canada where that is so. And then there is the totally illogical fact that it is desolate, barren, glacial, dramatic, which in some peculiar way is part of the attraction. The call of the wild, or at least of the desolate. 

Exweb: Was it Tillman that inspired you to sail and climb in the area? 

Shepton: Well, when I retired and circumnavigated the world, with 'school leavers' from the school where I had been Chaplain, (the First School Group to sail Round the World was the splurge) we went via Antarctica and Cape Horn (being ex-Royal Marines I couldn't go the easy way, is the party line). Antarctica, desolate, dramatic, majestic was one of the highlights of the trip. I don't know whether I read Tilman during the trip or later, But when I got back I quickly realized that Antarctic was a very long way away whilst, as Tilman realized, Greenland could be done in a summer. So I started commuting across to Greenland and climbing from the boat as per Tilman. And whereas it is touch and go whether you can get in by boat on the east coast, and this was perhaps especially so in the past, the west by and large is always open. All my expeditions have had this Tilman handle in the title. I have rather lost count but I have made some 25 personal first ascents and my expeditions well over 50 or 60 in Greenland and arctic Canada to date, by ski, mountaineering, and rock climbing. 

ExWeb: You are sticking to the Westerly when it comes to cruising in the high latitudes. What do you think is the most important features of a cruising yacht that is sailing in cold climates? 

Shepton: Oh dear, difficult question, in that my boat would not qualify as an ideal boat for high latitudes. Rather have I had to start from the other end. With very limited means I found myself with a Westerly 33ft Discus which we had bought in 1981as a family thing to do, when we sold the house in Scotland and moved into school property. I began to use it more and more for the school and on retirement circumnavigated in it with the lads, not at the time thinking it was small for that (smaller boats have circumnavigated) but nowadays it would be considered small. But that's all I had, so that's all I had for sailing across the Atlantic, again (1986 First School to sail across the Atlantic and Back - Portland UK to Portland USA), and to Greenland, so that's what we did. Nowadays all boats are bigger, except my friend Willy Ker's 32ft Contessa!, and most are steel (or aluminum), well insulated, with heaters and back-up systems. 

- So it is not an ideal boat; but it's all I have got, and can afford. But having said that, the lay up in fiberglass boats was much stronger in those days, and I have found in experience that it is remarkable what fibreglass will take. I have scraped through frazil, brash and floes and hit sizable chunks all without damage. I would not want to get into a position where we were going to be squeezed by pressure ice, but reading the account of my Irish friends who did the North West Passage and North East in Northabout neither were they willing for that, even in their specially built aluminum boat. So the brief answer to your question is that the hull should be strongly built. Also you do need a reliable engine as owing to the high pressure over the ice cap (e.g. in Greenland) there is often little or no wind (or too much!), and you sometimes have to do a lot of motoring. 

ExWeb: Or is it the people on board that makes all the difference? 

Shepton: Not necessarily for the safety of the boat, but the crew on board do make a tremendous difference. Over the years I have been lucky - of course it has always been groups of friends or acquaintances, private expeditions, not commercial with fee paying clients which can be disastrous (as I have found elsewhere). But there were/are Bob's Angels (Polly, first Scots girl to climb Everest - I had the privilege of marrying her and Rich of High Latitudes two or three years ago, Tashy (halfway across the Atlantic at the moment skippering Chris Tiso's new boat, and Jesse (disappeared into the blue somewhere; I remember we had lively discussions about God whilst waiting to pick up Polly and Tash after their 30k ski traverse of Herbert Island at 77 25N!) who called themselves Bob's Angels and whom I love to bits, and then there was this last summer's crew. If you have read the stuff, and I am sure you haven't, then you will know I had dubbed them the 'Wild Bunch' long before meeting up with them, owing to the high fives and yells at the tops of their climbs on their website, but in fact I couldn't have had a nicer, more friendly, more cooperative bunch on my boat. 

I know they wondered what it was going to be like sailing with this old 'priest' (being mainly Belgian they were from a Catholic background) and I suppose I wondered what a group of crack modern climbers were going to be like. But I suppose too that they had respect for someone who had done a lot of hard sailing, had done some climbing stuff in the past, and had been to Greenland 6 or 7 times, and of course I had great respect for their incredible climbing abilities and record. But it was just great that we got on so well together and it made such a difference. 

Reading between the lines in the accounts of some of the other expeditions (and again there is no reason why you would have seen them, unless you are a member of the Ocean Cruising Club or whatever) you might have picked up that it has not always been so. It has not necessarily affected the success of the expeditions, but it has meant some have been less enjoyable than others. 

ExWeb: As the nautical mile in high latitudes rack up it usually means that the near disaster incidents also increases. Any pointers/happenings you want to tell us about? 

Shepton: After a very successful summer in 2004 when we made a number of first ascents up there and Polly and Tash completed their 30k traverse of Herbert Island in the far north, and we had got the boat to the furthest north of a production yacht in Greenland, I wintered alone in the boat near Upernavik. The aim was to be the first fiberglass boat to winter in the Arctic. All was going well, much better since we were properly iced in, came back from an afternoon skiing across and along the fjords, 'oh yes I must refill the diesel tank for the heater', picked up the diesel container, took the plug out of the deck head and started to pour in the diesel. Only when I saw the red flames through the hole did I realize that I had forgotten (after months of doing it) to put in the vital connecting funnel down below. I rushed round to the hatch and started to go down below to fight it, took one breath and instinctively knew I must not go down there. Even in those few seconds the fumes were so noxious. 

- Then it was hopeless. Nothing to fight it with, all extinguishers down below (lesson learnt, too late) tried to scrape snow up in a bucket and throw that on, hopeless, and to cut a long story short the boat burnt and sank through the ice. I was left virtually with what I was standing up in, with a third of the mast sticking up out of the ice next day. 

- Fortunately, again a long insurers played completely straight and I was able to obtain a replacement boat. I soon came to the conclusion that for what I wanted to do and for the money available (i.e. the insurance money), I couldn't do better than what I had had previously. So I have got another Westerly 33 Discus and the Registrar of Shipping allowed me to carry the name over as the other one was no longer in existence. Dodo's Delight was reborn. 

Exweb: How was it to skipper the Wild Bunch? 

Shepton: It was fortuitous that two of them had done a lot of sailing before, even if only in the Mediterranean. The other two had done virtually none. We soon broke it down from two on watch at a time to one on his own and me on permanent call, and this worked well even across the Atlantic. There were hairy moments in a sense, but not because of the crew. I am fond of saying about this passage, 'and this is the meanest Atlantic crossing of them all' (from Scotland to Greenland or vice versa). We had a lot of headwinds (it was meant to be the downwind passage) and we were caught in the tail end of Post Tropical Storm Danielle, and another vigorous double depression joining up together. But being a bit older now I do tend to heave-to a bit earlier, and was rather pleased to hear Ben say on one occasion 'I suppose Bob with his experience knows when to heave-to and then the storm comes' No, actually just getting a bit older... 

The only minor problem was that the experienced Mediterranean sailors always wanted to sail whatever the conditions, and would surreptitiously pull sail out when really it was better to motor if they wanted to get to their climbs with time enough left to climb. But we soon got over that - Royal Marines Officer you understand...! 

ExWeb: Tillman was know for his very relaxed cruising style. How is yours? 

Shepton: Tilman's cruising style - yes I am relaxed as I said. I hope the crucial difference is that as far as one can make out Tilman communicated with his crew very little. Whereas I do chat and hopefully remember to tell them what I want done and pull their legs etc. 

Approach on the water the same. Yes I hope so, free, friendly, jokey, quite happy as long as I've got corned beef and condensed milk for the coffee - hence the names of two of the climbs on Shepton Spire (their name, very kind) in the Cape Farewell area! 
On the other hand, this does not mean I run a tight ship. In fact I am probably too relaxed. I like the watch keeper to run the ship, but I do like to be informed of what's going on. And I cannot be accused of running a tidy ship, except perhaps for the sailing systems! But down below many would think we live in a shambles. I think this was one of the things this last crew were afraid of. Was this so-called seasoned sailor and boat owner going to insist we kept everything tidy and in its place? I think it was a relief when they realized we could live in the usual comfortable shambles down below (my view; I have got into trouble in other people's boats in the past!). 

ExWeb: Sorry for mentioned the age-issue, but at 76 you are pretty fit and ready for more adventures than most your age. Any formula I can follow? 

Shepton: No great secrets to pass on here, I'm afraid. I have always been very fortunate, nothing broken yet, and I seem to keep pretty fit. I did stop breathing when ski instructing in Germany a few years ago and spent some time in intensive care, but that's another story, another time. Maybe it was well that I went down south again and away from the mountains and instructing virtually every day at about 45, so that life was more paced and not so wearying. Somebody looks after me.... 

- I have just written a short article for our mountaineering Instructors' magazine - I am/was a Mountaineering Instructor - where I say 'What do you do if you think you are now too old for instructing? You get a team of world class climbers on your boat in Greenland and get them to climb for you' - or words to that affect. But that doesn't help you. 

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