Our columnist reports from the deep blue sea.


I’m writing this on a boat off the coast of Scotland. We’re heading to Ireland, around the north coast towards the Atlantic, then down the west coast towards Sligo. A group of us do a sailing adventure like this every year. Nothing can touch the calm of seeing a sail bulbous in the wind as the boat slips smoothly through the water.

Although my career was conducted in the sky, I’ve always had an affinity with the water. The first memory I have of being on a boat is when I was eight years old and living in Hong Kong. It was a small Sanpan propelled by a single oarsman standing at the back like a Venetian gondolier.

My most life-changing sea voyage was as a 13-year-old on the New Zealand Shipping Company ship Rangitane, travelling from the London Docks to Auckland. We stopped to pick up survivors from an earthquake in the Azores, then passed through Curaçao, a colourful and buzzing Dutch Caribbean colony. An exciting transit through the Panama Canal took us out to the Pacific Ocean.

Long days at sea were enjoyed playing deck games and listening to 45rpm records of bands like The Swinging Blue Jeans. We had two heady days in Tahiti, where I remember showing off my schoolboy French to my dad in a clothes shop by asking for a chemin (path) instead of chemise (shirt). Then to my new home and the start of a lifelong love affair with New Zealand. My first sight of Rangitoto Island silhouetted by the setting sun in the Hauraki Gulf has stayed with me. Auckland was a happy home for the rest of my teen years before I joined the Royal Air Force back in the UK.

Spending 18 months on HMS Ark Royal in the 1970s also left an indelible impression on me. As well as the flying experiences, living in a large, complicated steel box with 2500 men forever changed my views on privacy, tolerance, teamwork and comradeship. 

The ship was like a massive maze. On day one, we did an aircraft crash drill. As the new boy, I was the designated casualty. Having been lifted by the fire crew from the cockpit, Arthur (my ever-trusting navigator) and I were wheeled on stretcher trolleys via the massive aircraft lift into the bowels of the ship to the operating theatre. “Emergency drill terminated” rang out from the ship’s loudspeaker and we were informed by the surgeon commander that we could now return to our quarters. It took us an hour to get to the other end, where we found our room by accident.

Taking off from HMS Ark Royal, I’d fly 12m above the water at 1100km/h in my Blackburn Buccaneer navy fighter bomber. You feel intimately connected to the environment at that very high speed. It was easy to creep up on unsuspecting enemy warships undetected by radar over the smooth blue waters of the Caribbean or the massive Arctic waves north of Norway. Then we’d return to the aircraft carrier and land on her postage stamp-sized runway. It could be in the serene Gulf of Mexico or on a black, wet night in the Atlantic Ocean with the ship pitching and rolling all over the place. It was technology, training and a focused mind that made every landing calm and controlled.

My more relaxing nautical experiences include a sailing holiday in the Florida Keys with my wife, Jane. Having left our young children to the tender mercy of their grandparents for a fortnight, we sailed together in the roles of skipper and crew. I rather enjoyed my role as skipper but it became clear that Jane did not consider herself to be crew! Sailing went on to become a big part of my life, especially after I retired (less so for my excellent but reluctant crew).

Back to the current vessel. While I’ve been writing, someone’s found out about a pub with a reputation for lively music nights just down the coast. Let’s set sail.