Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

How was Bill Tilman lost at sea?

What happened to Bill Tilman – the greatest adventure sailor of the 20th century?

Tilman1It’s no mystery that Bill Tilman was lost at sea, but when and where and under what circumstances?

In reading Tilman’s eight sailing/mountaineering this winter, I became more and more intrigued to know more about the man before he took up sailing at the age of 55. So I got hold of a copy of Tim Madge’s excellent “The Last Hero, Bill Tilman, A Biography of Bill Tilman” and read about his family, his experiences in both the First World War and with the partisans in Albania and Italy in the Second World War. Tilman made almost a dozen voyages to Greenland, sailed around Africa, to Patagonian Chile and to the South Shetland Islands in Antarctica. He and the other sailors were lost at sea in late 1977. Madge published his book in 1995.

As one might expect, Madge goes into considerable detail of the facts and circumstances of Tilman’s last voyage and sets out several hypotheses about what most likely happened. The foundering of any vessel can provide valuable lessons for anyone who goes to sea; Tilman’s  tragedy is no exception.

In the spring of 1977, Tilman and a crew brought his third Bristol Cutter “Baroque” back from Iceland after a nearly disastrous summer there the year before. He’d already lost his two previous Bristol Cutter’s in earlier years in Greenland (striking an isolated rock pinnacle and going aground on an iceberg). By then Tilman was 79 and, though he’d hoped to celebrate his 80th birthday (in February) at sea in 1978, he recognized that “Baroque’s” return to England must be his last passage due to his failing strength.

Then, out of the blue, came an invitation from a 20-year old man called Simon Richardson to sail with him to Smith Island in the South Shetlands in Antarctica.  Richardson had crewed with Tilman to Greenland in 1973 and he was an “arrogant, self-willed and self-styled adventurer”,  according to biographer Madge.

“Simon Richardson espoused some of Bill’s philosophy; one can surmise too, that in his own slipshod arrogance, he appealed to Bill: the devil take the hindmost belief in his own ability to get the Smith Island expedition together and to make it….The evidence is that Bill might well have seen something of himself in Simon’s attitudes, if not directly his character, ” according to Madge.

To make the voyage south Richardson bought the most unlikely vessel imaginable – a semi-wrecked Dutch tug boat. “She had been involved in a serious marine accident which had left her temporarily sunk and with one crew dead; more cautious buyers might have pondered long and hard about this, and the possible structural damage to the ship’s frame,” writes Madge. The tug, which he named “En Avant” was 18 metres long, with 3 metre beam, and draught 1.75 metres forward and 2.5 metres aft.

Richardson soon set about attempting to turn a lemon into a mango. He added a mast for a gaff-rigged sail, welded a hollow steel box keel to the mainly flat bottom and installed a large marine diesel engine. Everything was done on the cheap; even Tilman was surprised that guard rails were not fitted along her low sides. When the compass could not be swung correctly near the steering position, it was installed far away on the bow and required an extra crew to shout out the bearings. Even after her conversion, the vessel remained extremely tender – she rolled excessively.

“En Avant” departed Southampton, England, on August 9th 1977 after barely a day of sea trials following her transformation into a sailboat. The question arises as to why Tilman would go to sea in such a seemingly unseaworthy vessel. He did not write about it, so what Madge proposes must be taken as conjecture; but his ideas are at least plausible, even if any man’s motivations can never be fully known.

Tilman’s favourite niece, Pam Davis, made her opposition to Tilman going clear to him. He was an old man with many of the limitations of strength, stamina and mental agility that Nature imposes on us with increasing age. It seems very likely that Tilman simply wanted to celebrate his 80th birthday at sea on an expedition to Antarctica. What better way to celebrate his extraordinary life? And if he ever thought about the state of their vessel, maybe he was willingly to accept the risk of a Viking funeral for the reward to one last great adventure.

“Simon (Richardson) had already expressed the view that Bill might not survive the whole trip…It is not too fanciful to suggest, then, that between the old and tired explorer and the young adventurer a plot had been hatched in both their minds,” writes Madge.

“En Avant” reached the Canaries after an easy passage with following winds (which did not test the boat’s windward sailing abilities). From there they sailed downwind to Rio de Janeiro. Tilman was on board as crew, without responsibilities beyond watch-keeping. He wrote of the passage, “I begin to doubt whether I am really worth the run of my teeth. The gear is too heavy for me and I find it difficult getting about the wide deck with nothing to hang on to…Still it would have been a mistake to refuse Simon’s pressing invitation.”

From Rio, “En Avant” set sail for the South Shetland Islands via the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). Sadly neither the vessel nor her crew, nor any wreckage has ever been found.

Four theories for the cause of the loss have been put forward.

First, that the vessel was sound but simply “overwhelmed” by adverse conditions.

“This theory, of course, does not answer the awkward question as to why a well-found appropriately converted and equipped yacht should be overwhelmed in anything other than a huge storm. There is no concrete evidence to suggest that En Avant was far enough south to have encountered the worst of Southern Ocean weather.”

Second, that the boat’s huge batteries broke free in a storm and burst the hull, or had leaked and corrosion led to a catastrophic failure.

Third, “that the yacht was rolled by a large sea and that, given her build and high centre of gravity, she did not roll back, having been turned over. Such a roll could have been initiated by a breaking sea, combined with high winds.

“What lends weight to this theory is that Simon (Richardson) had himself welded a hollow steel keel to the mainly flat bottom, and that he had welded this on himself. That is to say, the keel…was not bolted through the hull (an important safety consideration). Further, Simon had installed a very heavy and large marine diesel engine, whose upper works intruded above deck level, raising the yacht’s centre of gravity.”

Four, did the keel fail, flipping over the boat, or did a breaking sea cause the vessel to roll so much that the keel fractured where it was welded to the old hull? Richardson had intended to fill his hollow box steel keel with pig iron but this was never done.  Sandy Lee, who helped Richardson during the refit, is quoted by Madge in his Tilman biography:

“It is clear that the idea of fitting the keel with pigs was too ambitious, even given unlimited time. What I can only visualize, with the greatest admiration, is Simon’s ability to weld overhead seams with the hull up on dunnage. It raises the question of whether he had to content himself with spot welds; and that brings us round to the question: did the keel tear away from the hull?”

Searches were made in the area using ships and a helicopter but no wreckage of any kind has ever been found.  If the vessel foundered at night the crew would have had little chance of escaping or launching their life raft (something Tilman never carried on his boats).

Tragic though the loss of the “En Avant” was for families, her young skipper and her crew, Tilman at least was granted his wish not to die in his bed.


4 comments on “How was Bill Tilman lost at sea?

  1. treescaper
    February 16, 2015

    A useful account.

    Tilman did, on one famous occasion, carry a life raft on one of his cutters. At the insistence of one of his crew, a life raft was carried on Mischief on her final voyage.


  2. Jonno Barrett
    May 4, 2015

    I sailed with Bill Tilman and Simon Richardson on Baroque. They had similarities, and the skipper certainly appreciated. But Simon was something of a bodger, tending to rush into things somewhat half cocked (and no doubt I erred in the other direction). He had a belief in the inherent strength of steel, but not a great sympathy for boats and their working in the sea: I have great respect for both his and the skippers ability to cope with the toughest situations, but where the skipper was sympathetic to the limitations of the kit he worked with (hence not carrying a topsail on his aged gaffers), Simon charged on like the young bull he was. I would only add a further thought. The loss of Marques and enquiry focussed all our minds on downflooding problems to an awareness that wasn’t there in the days of En Avant. With the low freeboard of a harbour tug, and the very iffy Gz curve involved in Simon’s half cocked conversion, one wonders if she simply flooded and foundered. Despite Simon’s limitations he was a great loss, as for the skipper it’s always been my feeling that it was a better end then a decline would have been. But what a seriously great man.


  3. Ben Lovegrove (@BensBookmarks)
    November 26, 2016

    You might be interested in the gallery I created using photos and sketches from the 1957-1958 voyage of Mischief from Lymington to Brazil, South Africa, Seychelles, Suez, Gibraltar, and home to Lymington – http://lovegrovefamilyhistory.org.uk/james-william-lovegrove-1922-1997/aboard-mischief-with-bill-tilman/


  4. Bob Comlay
    December 21, 2016

    The ‘notify’ checkbox I filled when originally posting a comment in Feb 2015 is clearly working; Ben’s comment seems to have just triggered an email!

    Jonno Barrett’s comment provides a rare first hand observation on Simon Richardson. My only meeting with Simon was rather short, at the yard on the Itchen where he was ‘converting’ En Avant. The sight of the hull and the questionable sanity of the conversion had already put me off before Simon’s insistence that he wanted £500 as a contribution to the expeditions funds drew a line under it. I know of two other former Tilman crew members who were also too short of cash to make the cut – there are probably more out there.

    You might be interested to know that I’ve been helping out with new editions of all of Tilman’s books, a series of 16 including the original biography ‘High Mountains, Cold Seas’ by JRL Anderson. Kicked into life by a couple of speaking engagements last month, my content of my 18 year old website on the subject was finally dusted off and relaunched after a many years in the boatshed.

    You might find something of interest here: http://comlay.net/tilman/
    Follow the menu options under ‘Travels with Tilman’ and the half baked Blog.


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This entry was posted on March 17, 2013 by in Book Reviews, Sailboats, Sailing, Voyages.
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