TWELVE: THE ATLANTIC (1) and BJORN

Previous chapter: Eleven: Paris wedding and Ethiopia

1966

One reason for going to England was to buy a boat. A proper, fully fledged sailing boat of fibreglass that would not leak. For Arthur, Nicole, Sigyn and I had decided to pool our resources, buy a sturdy little vessel, and sail round the world. To add a theme to this voyage, already ambitious, we decided to do some research into the many historic sites which were (and still are) being destroyed by erosion, earthquakes, tourists, vegetation, so-called “developers” and – latterly – terrorist groups. We would write a book entitled Wasting Wonders.

We looked at boats costing around £2,000 in South Wales, near Chichester and finally at Brightlingsea in Suffolk – where we found “Olwena” a two year old, MacWester 26 foot, bilge keel, sloop. New, she had cost much more than we had paid and her owner had spent lavishly improving her further, but he then grew tired of sailing and wanted a property in France. We came along at just the right time. Twenty six feet was small for a round the world voyage with four people on board, but she seemed sturdy and well designed.

Amitie in Puddle Dock London

Amitié in Puddle Dock, London

 

Sigyn and I sailed her up the Thames to London and moored her in Puddle Dock – the very same little dock where I had once planned to live during my last year at the London School of Economics. We became friends with two stevedores, Frank and Bert who gave us half a sack of tea that had “fallen off the back of a lorry”

painting on the new name

Painting on the new name

 

I also used the time to register her in the British Register of Shipping, but changed her name to Amitié which is, of course, French for friendship. I painted the new name on her stern and carved it onto a piece of mahogany to fit above the forward hatch.

My mother and father came down from Manchester to join us for a week. I hoped that our days together would persuade them of the joys of boating, and might even reassure them that an Atlantic crossing would be somewhat like a trip up and down the Thames, only further. Neither was an enthusiastic sailor, but my father valiantly cooked a meal and we motored upstream as far as Windsor. There, we slept on board and then headed back to the Albert Bridge, where we spent an uncomfortable night moored to a pontoon, rocking violently on the changing tide. Mum and Dad both felt sea-sick, and when at last we dropped them off near the Tower of London, they staggered up the gang plank and disappeared among the tourists without once looking back.

moored albert bridge, ruth, glyn, sigyn, bob

Moored below the Albert Bridge – Ruth, Glyn, Sigyn and Bob

 

Sigyn wasn’t a natural sailor either, but it is amazing what love can do and she braved her fears for my sake, which made me love and admire her all the more. She, too, had been sick now and again, but the two of us headed off down the Thames and rounded the North Foreland to Ramsgate. There, two important things happened. Arthur and Nicole joined Amitié – the start of a long partnership on board that would see them across the Mediterranean to Africa and from there over the Atlantic to the West Indies, where their little girl, Elise, would be born. Secondly, Sigyn’s mal de mer proved to have nothing to do with sailing and everything to do with babies. We didn’t know him by name, but at that joyful moment – after the 1968 Chelsea Flower Show – Björn, too, came aboard. He started his life racing down the English Channel before an Easterly Force 6, Amitié touching ten knots as she surfed the bottle-green waves and the helmsman ever wary of causing a disastrous gybe.

Hungry and tired from our eighteen-hour trip, we made fast to posts in the River Medina (Isle of Wight) as the light was fading on the 9th July 1968, rowed ashore and were deeply grateful to the staff at the Folly Inn for serving us hot food even though it was nearly closing time.

A day or two later, Sigyn said au revoir and headed back to Gothenburg to start teaching again until the baby was born. Secretly, I think she was glad to withdraw from our round-the-world trip. I, too, had to consider my position, now I was to become a father. Certainly, Arthur wanted me to stay on board with Nicole until Amitié was through the French canals, as he needed several weeks off to conduct some UNESCO business on the Pacific island of Nouméa. I promised to stay with them until we reached North Africa in November, but then I must rejoin Sigyn in Sweden, as our baby was due in late January / early February, 1969.

Sigyn loved teaching, even in a run-down school on Hissingen, a rather poor district of Gothenburg. One incident there while we were away, spoke much of Sigyn’s character and also something of Swedish bureaucracy. Towards the end of school term, several days occurred with little happening and children in her class complained about the poor state of their desks. Sigyn suggested that they could renovate their desks themselves, and brought in sandpaper, tools and screws, and several cans of paint. The children loved the project and worked well, proud that their desks looked so colourful as they left on holiday. As the new term started, though, Sigyn was reprimanded by the Head for acting without authority. ‘If desks are unsatisfactory, we must requisition new ones,’ he said. He then did just that, and all the desks on which the children had worked so hard were destroyed.

honfleur

Meanwhile, Arthur, Nicole and I had crossed the Channel to the delightful little port of Honfleur, where we witnessed the 14th July celebrations with marching bands and every boat in the harbour dressed in bunting and tricolors. We also saw a lovely British boat, much bigger than Amity, flying the flag of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was spick and span, beautifully varnished and had the strange name, “SUPPOSING THEY CALLED A WAR AND NOBODY CAME” painted on each side in rainbow colours. The men and women on board were about our age, had formed a band five years earlier and sung several top hits that brought in a vast amount of money. They believed that a disastrous nuclear war might start between the USA and the Soviet Union (Russia), so they had bought this fine boat, though they knew nothing about sailing, and were travelling from country to country urging people to protest against nuclear weapons.

We then motored up the Seine to Caudebec en Caux where Nicole’s family lived, tying up that night to a jetty overshadowed by limestone cliffs. In the small hours, I woke up – or, rather, half woke – and saw these cliffs. Imagining that we were still out at sea and within yards of disaster, I scrambled into the cockpit, started the motor and powered the throttle to full-astern, though we were held fast by our mooring lines. The engine roared, the boat shook and my ship mates tumbled out of their bunks to find me babbling, ‘the rocks, for God’s sake, the rocks!’

We tied up again at Rouen, to unstep our mast and lash it fore-and-aft along the cabin roof, one end held securely in a wooden cradle. We also needed to show our ship’s papers at the office for Inland Waterways and give details of our planned route through France. Formalities complete, we motored out into the Seine and began to enjoy the scenery on either side of this beautiful river. Poplars swayed in a gentle breeze, cows looked up as we passed and the occasional angler raised his hand in silent greeting. Another onlooker, who seemed to take an interest in our progress, was a cyclist on the tow path, pedalling hard and waving from time to time. We waved too, and then cut lengths of baguette and chunks of cheese, for we were peckish and the morning was well advanced. Half-way through his baguette, Arthur remarked, ‘That cyclist, he’s still keeping up with us – oh, and still waving. Nice chap,’ he said, and waved back. A glass or two of wine later, we were all watching the cyclist, when he braked, let his bike fall to the ground and made very definite signals to us. He seemed exhausted. ‘Better steer in closer to the bank,’ I proposed, ‘Maybe he wants a lift’.

Nicole steered us in, and for the first time we could make out his words: ‘Messieurs, messieurs – vos papiers – vous avez oublié vos papiers!’ And then we recognised the clerk from the Inland Waterways office in Rouen and understood that we had left several key documents on his desk. Many are the stories of unhelpful French officialdom, but this man will for ever stand as an honourable exception, one who acted far beyond his call of duty, and our thanks – and indeed apologies – to him were profuse.

The journey upstream was beautiful, the landscape varied and peaceful, and our excitement grew as we neared Paris with its happy memories and many friends expecting us. We motored up the last few kilometres with one or two on board who couldn’t even wait for us to arrive, and joyfully tied up at Place de la Concorde, only metres from the spot where Geneviève was once moored. Nothing seemed to have changed: the same views, the same river floating past, the same tourists peering down at us from the bridge above.

We stayed some weeks in Paris and for much of the time I used a friend’s apartment and typewriter. There, I wrote a small book Volunteers and Neo-colonialism which drew on my Ethiopian experiences and outlined my criticisms of governments corrupting the integrity of the volunteer spirit. It was a fairly powerful indictment but the language was too strong for the Coordinating Committee to put out, so I sent it off to a printer’s in Manchester and published it myself.

Summer was turning to autumn as Nicole, her brother Jackie and I climbed aboard Amity once more and started our journey by river and canal to Marseilles. Arthur had left for a UNESCO project in the South Pacific and we were to meet up again in Lyon five weeks later. We motored along the Seine and then up the River Yonne until we reached a lock that led into the Canal de Bourgone. This is one of the older and narrower canal options for crossing France from the Channel to the Mediterranean. It is also the shallowest, so only small boats can pass, and even they may find their propellers fouled by aquatic weeds. On the other hand, it is tranquil, passing through idyllic countryside and charming little towns and at one point a tunnel, 3,333 metres long. But then again, the canal itself is a fair length at 242 kilometres and in 1968 it had 191 locks, nearly all their sluices and gates to be opened and closed by hand. But we were young and fit and had a sharp knife. For every lock we passed we cut a line across the teak edging of Amity’s cockpit, with a diagonal to mark the fifth, after each group of IIII. By the end, we had etched 38 such symbols – quite a talking point for subsequent visitors on board.

Migennes, St Florentin, Flogny-la-Chapelle, Tonnerre, Venarey-les-Laumes – wonderful French names – and finally Pouilly-en-Auxois where you reach the highest point of the canal, well over 1,000 feet above sea level. It is here that you enter the long tunnel (only with permission of a lock keeper) and motor on in pitch darkness for a nearly an hour. Emerging into the daylight, the heart leaps up, the colours are so vivid and you know that it’s down-hill from now on, all the way the Mediterranean Sea.

But we still had many, many locks to get through. Rather than go into detail here, let me say, ‘Go on, do it yourselves someday. Canal travel is a wonderful way to see France’. When we finally came to the Saone, all 191 locks behind us, the river felt vast compared to the narrow waterway behind, and the landscape felt different too. The green, “Atlantic” countryside we had known ever since crossing the English Channel, now turned drier and brown, with hints in both vegetation and architecture of sun-baked Provence ahead. On the hills to our right stood placards with the names of vineyards producing some of the world’s finest wines: Gevret-Chambertin, Nuits St George and others.

A day’s easy motoring, with the current to help, and we reached the city of Lyon, second in size only to Paris, where the rivers Saone and Rhone converge. While the former is large, but gentle, the Rhone pours down from the Alps at great speed and when we moored against the quay in Lyon it was in flood. Nicole’s brother left us at that point, but Arthur soon arrived and we bought a chart of the river down to the sea. But other boat people urged us not to rely on this alone, especially with the Rhone in flood; we should engage a pilot, at least as far as Arles. Services of a pilot did not come cheap and we were just discussing the matter when a Swedish boat came alongside, also wanting to hire a pilot and we agreed to share the cost.

And well it was, for the Rhone in spate is very different from anything the chart shows. Along considerable stretches, the river had topped its banks and flooded the fields for hundreds of yards on either side. With no idea of where the channel lay we would soon have run aground. At one point we swept past a camp site where tents, waist deep, lurched and bulged as the current tore at them. The brown flood poured through hedgerows, which acted as sieves, with all manner of debris piling up – tents, branches, logs, boxes, plastic bottles and bags – before breaking loose and drifting off in clumps: another navigational hazard. If our propeller had ever snarled up, we too would have become flotsam swept along by the stream

campsite rhone in flood

Camp site: the Rhone in flood.

Bridges were the most critical, and it was here we most appreciated our pilot, for the water piled up and roared through several arches, some of which were barred to navigation, so it was vital to aim for the right opening in good time. There were white knuckle moments as the current sucked our little vessel towards the masonry, drew us into the chill and gloom of a dripping arch, and then spewed us out again downstream. Only one bridge was easy to identify and navigate – le Pont d’Avignon – for part of it had collapsed centuries ago and we simply aimed for the missing section with its deep water channel.

Another dramatic moment had been the mighty Donzère-Mondragon hydroelectric barrage, with its lock 23 metres deep. Going down felt like being lowered into the gloomy vault of some great, dripping cathedral and when the huge lock gates opened to let us out, some 50,000 tons of water had poured through to allow the passage of one barge and two sailing boats.

23 metre lock

Donzère-Mondragon – the lock

 

At Arles, we sought the calm waters of a small canal, rested for a week and raised the mast on Amitié. We also added a bowsprit, so she could carry an extra foresail and hammered out a length of steel to make an emergency tiller, just in case our wooden one should break. Then it was back onto the Rhone and down to the estuary town of Port-Saint-Louis with its short canal leading to Port de Bouc. We tied up and then, in the low light of a setting sun, saw a dismal sight: at a nearby jetty, damaged and forlorn, rainbow colours faded and ropes dangling lay “SUPPOSING THEY CALLED A WAR AND NOBODY CAME”. We went over to ask what had happened, but the three chaps on board, who were not at Honfleur when we first met up, could not or would not give any details. Mystified and rather saddened, we crawled into our sleeping bags, slept soundly and early next morning sailed across the sparkling bay and into the old harbour of France’s third city: Marseille.

The old port at Marseille is a long rectangle of water packed with boats, stationary and bustling, surrounded on three sides by old warehouses, shipping agents, cafés and ships’ chandlers. It will have changed today, but when we tied up in November 1967 it was not so very different from the port filmed many years earlier for the movie Marius by Marcel Pagnol. We should really have spent time there, for it was so rich in character, but after weeks on inland waterways we were eager to get onto the high seas again. We spent a busy three days tanking up with fresh water, buying fruit and vegetables, bread, sausages, beans, wine, oil, tea, coffee and chocolate (for the long night watches, steering alone in the open cockpit – the nights being already quite chilly) and on the afternoon of 4 November we motored out of the harbour mouth and laid a course for Sardinia.

Within hours, the wind freshened, turned northerly and became cold and violent. The powerful Mistral was pouring down the Rhone valley and sweeping us out to sea, more or less in the right direction, but with such force that Amitié was straining every sinew and we too had to grip tight for hours on end to sheets (ropes), the tiller and to any hand-holds within reach. Night fell and we surged along towards the south east towing behind us a log – a device on a cord that revolved in the water and told us roughly how far we had travelled since we last checked it.

Using the three measures of time, compass direction and log, we plotted our progress on our chart of the Western Mediterranean. This technique is known as “Dead (Deductive) Reckoning” but is little used today as nearly every yacht of any size has a SatNav or G.P.S. which gives your position accurate to a few metres. Crude though our navigation was, we reached the southern point of Sardinia after three days and a couple of evenings later sighted, and smelled, the north coast of Tunisia. From the shore, a sweet, earthy odour came floating across the water to greet us: Africa – in our little boat we had reached a new continent!

In the port of Tunis we tied up quite close to some British navy vessels on a NATO exercise and, in solidarity with those on “SUPPOSING THEY CALLED A WAR AND NOBODY CAME”, whose voyage had been so cruelly cut short, we hoisted our own little CND flag at the forestay. I did an oil painting of the scene, slightly cubist in style, which I still have somewhere.

amitie takes on nato in tunis harbour

Amitié takes on NATO in Tunis Harbour

 

Recalling that the theme for our trip (“Wasting Wonders”) was to visit archaeological sites threatened with destruction, we visited the remains of a Roman city south of Tunis and found it entirely unguarded and rapidly deteriorating. Arches and pillars, walls and paved streets, the foundations of houses, all lay exposed, and sticking out of the soil were pieces of Roman pottery and large fragments of beautiful green-blue glassware. I have forgotten the name of these ruins, but I do hope that someone has taken them in hand and protected them in recent years.

We also visited Carthage – the city destroyed by the Romans in the 3rd Punic War after Senator Marcus Cato demanded repeatedly, ‘Carthago delenda est’ (Carthage must be destroyed). It is said that the Romans also ploughed salt into the fields so that nothing would again grow there. Happily, it looked both green and prosperous to us, with our little boat now moored at nearby Sidi Bou Said.

sidi bou said

A corner of Sidi Bou Said

 

When it came to leaving Sidi Bou Said, we lunched on a bowl of lamb couscous given us by local acquaintances the day before and then pushed off into a pretty rough Bay of Tunis. Within an hour, we all felt very sick and Nicole and took seasick tablets. Arthur allowed himself to throw up over the side. Soon, Nicole and I were seriously ill, possibly due to food poisoning, but now could not vomit as the tablets had paralysed our stomachs. Nausea and dizziness overwhelmed us and we both collapsed on bunks, too feeble to lift a finger. I passed out several times and was paralysed all up my side, even to my face muscles. Powerful gusts of wind swept down the valleys and out across the bay, knocking Amitié over onto her side, while Arthur steered – hour after hour, up and down – until sunset when the winds abated, Nicole and I finally rid ourselves of the couscous and we anchored in the shelter of Cap Farina and slept soundly all three.

A day or two later, we were sheltering again, at the Galite archipelago, semi-desert volcanic islands rising 360 metres straight out of the water, some miles off the north coast of Tunisia. We scrambled ashore and met a 97 year old lady whose father had brought her to La Galite as a child to escape the plague in Algeria (as described by Albert Camus?). We hoped to meet other island inhabitants (population: 48) but ominous clouds built up in the west and it seemed wise to get the boat well out to sea. Our fears proved prescient as a full-scale storm then raged for four days and nights; far away from land we simply dropped all the sails, closed the hatch and bobbed up and down like a cork. Of course we scanned the horizon from time to time, though there was little we could have done in all that tumult of wind and water had a ship been bearing down on us.

Our next port of call was Annaba in Algeria and here I said good bye to my two ship mates – having promised Sigyn to be home well in time for the baby – took a bus to the capital city, Algiers and a ship over to Marseille. Arthur and Nicole were determined to continue the voyage, at least to cross the Atlantic, and I must admit that I felt rather envious of them even though I had more important duties in Sweden.

On route to Gothenburg, though, I stopped off in Geneva to take part in an important conference on voluntary service. Others besides myself had become concerned by governments setting up Peace Corps and sending out thousands of volunteers with little concern for – what we considered to be – the finer principles behind volunteering. Also, my small book, Volunteers and Neo-colonialism, had now been printed and I wanted it to be widely read. This gathering seemed ideal. The conference ended by producing a Universal Charter of Voluntary Service and I was glad that it included many of my own ideas, partly perhaps because I was on the editorial team.

During one session, Frank Judd, later to become UK Minister for Overseas Development, publicly challenged me to go beyond writing books and try putting some of my principles into practice. ‘Start an organisation,’ he prophesied, and you will find that keeping to ideals is not so easy. You too will have to make compromises.’ Little did I know it, but this challenge was to needle me for ten years, like the grain of sand in an oyster shell, until Tools for Self Reliance came to be.

Then it was back to Gothenburg and a wonderful reunion with Sigyn, shining with happiness with only a few weeks to go before the big day. She was living with a friend, Dagny, in a small flat on Fjärdingsgatan and I squeezed in too, though there was very little room. Christmas over, we had even less space as I bought wood, glue, sand-paper, a saw, drill and a Morakniv (a sharp, curved Swedish craft knife) and set about making a cradle in our bedroom. Our child was to sleep in something unique!

1969

First, I went to a museum to look at cradles from bygone days. Nothing seemed perfect, so I took ideas from several and designed one that felt strong and elegant, high enough up from the floor to avoid draughts, but with rockers so formed that it could not tip over. Then I set to work. There would be no metal parts, not even screws: all would be held tight by wedges or dowels, firmly glued.

Hebden Bridge (l) and Bidarhem (r) – Sigyn’s family farm

 

cradle later on

The cradle some years later, after use by Björn, Dan, Adam, Linnea, Magnus, Edvard and Jim

 

The basic woodwork completed, I carved into the sides two cats with balls of wool, a flower and an owl (for beauty and wisdom). On one side I painted a snowy scene depicting Sigyn’s old farm in the forest, the Northern Lights flickering above; and on the other Hebden Bridge with its smoking factory chimneys and the green hills above. On the front, I painted Sigyn and me in Paris, she holding a baby (a little premature, that) and me with a guitar. At the head of the cradle I carved a heart for kindness and love and inside I painted three possible scenes of the future: an urban chaos of noise and pollution, an empty, arid Third World landscape, and an idealised rural scene – perhaps on the Isle of Wight? – with cottage, orchard, and boat moored on a stream flowing gently under a bridge and out to sea.

cradle wedding

Paris meeting & wedding

 

Sigyn found bedding of the right size for the cradle, including a fine horse-hair mattress – as only the best was good enough for our little one – and, when a hundred and one other preparations had been made, we sat back and waited for Nature to take its course: which it did, early on the morning of 4th February 1969.  I was with Sigyn the whole time and everything went smoothly and pretty quickly, three hours from entering the hospital to admiring a fine baby boy.  We named him Björn after a very kind friend in Stockholm and Axel after my father’s equally decent Icelander. I remember walking home that morning from the tram, the sun shining, the sky blue and the white snow sparkling feeling such joy in my heart at Bjorn’s safe arrival.

sigyn and bjorn

Sigyn – tired, but joyful

 

Once home, though, the problems started. So long as he was up, he was fine, but when we laid him in the cradle he cried and cried. He also had terrible eczema which no creams seemed to cure. His nights were terrible, and so were ours. The weeks passed and nothing helped. We felt so sorry for the mite. Sigyn asked everyone for advice and finally spoke to a midwife whom she had known at the hospital. ‘It could be the mattress,’ she said. ‘Oh no,’ responded Sigyn, We got him the very best. Real horse hair.’ ‘That’s probably it,’ came the reply – and the midwife was right: Bjorn proved to be allergic to horses, even sneezing when they were far off in a field. Once we replaced it with a cheap foam alternative, his problems ceased and we finally got a decent night’s rest, all three.

cradle bjorn and glyn

Budge up, Dad. You’re taking all the room!

 

For three months or so everything ticked along very nicely, but in April a telegram arrived that created a real dilemma. It came from Arthur and Nicole, now in the Canary Isles and about to cross the Atlantic. It read: FANTASTIC SAILING BORROW REAL SEXTANT AND COME IF YOU CAN … LEAVING LAS PALMAS ABOUT EIGHTEENTH. I was in turmoil: on the one hand, I longed to join them on the Atlantic crossing; on the other, I had a wife and new baby to care for. Nobly, I decided not to go and told Sigyn so. Ignobly, I put off replying to Arthur and – apparently – moped about the flat, sighed, looked longingly out of the window at the distant clouds, sighed, bit my nails, until Sigyn asked, ‘How long would you be away for?’ Me (all innocence): ‘Away? Where do you mean?’ Sigyn: ‘You know quite well where. How long would you need to be away?’  Me: ‘Well the actual crossing should take about four weeks, so allow a week on either side of that and I could be home again in six. You’d hardly notice I’d gone.’ And lovely Sigyn, patient Sigyn, supportive Sigyn said I’d better get on with it, or I’d always mope about missing the chance. And within the hour I had sent a telegram to Arthur to say I’d soon be on my way.

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