Celebrated and celebrity

Sir James Weatherall and Dan Snow – both celebrated former Sea Cadets

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Historian and BBC presenter Dan Snow on the front cover of Seafarer magazine

“Have you ever interviewed anyone famous?”

That’s a question I’m frequently asked when I say that I’m a journalist and editor, and when I reply yes, the follow-up is invariably, “Who?”

Olympians, actors, MPs

At that point I usually list a handful of personalities who make regular headlines – MPs, Olympians, actors… then I blank. You’ll find a few of them listed in my character interview pages on this blogsite.

The truth is, I’ve interviewed so many people in the course of 30 years in the business that I’ve forgotten more of my interviewees than I can remember.

That’s not what my offspring would call a humble-brag. Genuinely, I can’t name names when put on the spot and in the early days of my career (when I interviewed the likes of composer Sir Malcolm Arnold, Monkees lead singer Davy Jones and Dr Who actor Jon Pertwee) it never occurred to me to keep a record. I can’t for the life of me remember the author I interviewed when I was in my first few weeks as a professional journalist. I do recall that it was at a barn conversion near Diss and I was especially impressed by his floor-to-rafters bookshelves.

On Saturday then, flipping through the Register section of my paper copy of The Times, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye, but an image. Sandwiched between the obituaries of The Earl of Plymouth and actor Bill Maynard was a third, that of a man standing on the deck of a ship wearing naval uniform and looking both proud and pleased – and I knew I’d seen the photograph before.

He went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods

Vice-Admiral Sir James Weatherall considered his time as Captain of HMS Ark Royal as a boyhood dream come true, he told me. But despite the fact he went on to receive not one, but two knighthoods, the first after a distinguished 37-year-long career in the Royal Navy, the second after serving in the Diplomatic Corps, our interview didn’t even make the front page of the magazine that had commissioned me for members of the Marine Society & Sea Cadets (MSSC).

Not even the Sir James Weatherall’s status as a former chairman of the Sea Cadets and a series of interests and distinguished appointments that made me wonder when he had time to sleep gave him the cover slot of Seafarer.

The Winter 2009 issue that featured him also carried an interview I’d done with poster-boy television broadcaster and now much-respected historian Dan Snow. So perhaps understandably, it was Dan who made the cover, his steadfast gaze and crumpled shirt a contrast to the super-smart uniform of a Naval officer standing on the deck of one of the most famous ships of the modern age.

Celebrated, not famous

Of course I also remember the interview I conducted with Dan. It was done over the phone as he shuttled between terminals at Heathrow, competing with so much background noise from baggage trolleys and tannoy announcements that I was fearful that I would not have enough material to create the feature I’d been commissioned to write.

On Saturday, I couldn’t help reflecting on a life well-served but not in the spotlight. To the wider public, Sir James Weatherall wasn’t a celebrity, and if I told anyone I’d interviewed him, I’m not sure they would have a clue who he was or be impressed.

You can read the obituary in The Times, March 31, 2018 (paywall) and a pdf of my original article in Seafarer is available to view here.

My career in journalism has led to brief connections with the hugely respected and celebrated, as well as the feted and famous, and for that privilege I’m grateful.

But it’s a funny old concept, celebrity – isn’t it?

Dee Caffari – sailing beyond boundaries

Dee Caffari

You’re more likely to find record-setting yachtswoman Dee Caffari wearing Dubarry sailing boots than high fashion Jimmy Choo sandals. Despite her life on the open sea she’s a woman who is firmly grounded. She doesn’t mind the lack of glamour in her wardrobe and she jokes she spends half her time dressed in bright “Teletubby” colours having swapped life as a PE teacher for life as a sailor.

“I wanted to have adventures and go travelling and I thought, ‘If I don’t go now I won’t be able to get up and go when I’ve got commitments’,” she says of her decision to seek fresh challenges after five years in front of secondary school pupils.
She re-trained as a water sports instructor, then gained offshore sailing qualifications and worked in the yacht charter business. It was different from a day in the school gym or on a playing field, but how did she make the giant leap from the genteel world of the yacht charter business to becoming a round-the-world pioneer?
“It was a bit extreme,” admits Dee, explaining that she was working for Mike Golding Yacht Racing when it dawned on her that she could reach for a fresh high. Newly immersed in the sailing world she watched competitors returning from Sir Chay Blyth’s inspiring Global Challenge – a race between a fleet of matching yachts crewed by amateurs sailing the 29,000 nautical miles (54,000km) around the world, taking in Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean against the prevailing winds and currents.
“They were having a big party. I knew they were everyday people and I thought ‘That’s really cool’,” says Dee. “I wished there was a crowd of people celebrating my achievements.”

Four years later, having honed her skills further, Dee found herself part of the party crowd as the only female skipper in the race, supporting and being responsible for a crew of amateur sailors on the craft, Imagine It. Done. It was Chay Blyth himself who encouraged Dee to take on her next challenge – again sailing around the world “the wrong way” or “westabout” but this time non-stop and single-handed.
“When you get somebody like that, someone of that calibre and experience, suggesting things to you and saying, ‘Why don’t you go and do that?’ and, ‘You can achieve so much more,’ it gives you confidence in yourself to step outside your boundaries,” says Dee.

The way Dee describes it sounds so straightforward, yet she still had to manage the logistics of planning her record-setting attempt and overcome the not inconsiderable hurdle of funding her dream. She found a sponsor in insurance and investment giant Aviva and by November 20, 2005, she was setting off in a Challenge 72ft Class yacht, the same boat she had skippered just four months earlier in the Global Challenge. It speaks volumes about her charisma that Aviva had never before sponsored an individual endeavour of this kind.

“I became the first female to do it,” she says of the voyage that took her 178 days and put her name in the history books as well as the front page of most national newspapers. “But I wondered what else was possible, and I thought maybe I should go round the other way.” True to form, she signed up for the Vendee Globe, a round-the-world solo challenge that is known as the Everest of racing because it’s so hard to complete. Of the 30 yachts that started only 11 finished, with Dee coming home sixth, despite having trouble with her mainsail – the powerhouse of the boat.

“If anyone had offered me sixth place at the start I would have been delighted,” she says. “I learned so much along the way and I want to do it again. I’d like to compete in 2012 and finish on the podium, if I can find the sponsorship,” she says, adding that she will have gained more experience and know-how by that date. So does Dee consider herself tough, or extraordinary?
“I would not that long ago have said, ‘Not at all’,” she says, without a hint of false modesty.

“When I talk to my family and friends they tell me I have attributes and traits that I never felt I had as a kid,” she continues. “I went to ballet school and did tap dancing, and in my head I thought I was going to be a dancer. As I grew older I played more and more sport, particularly volleyball at quite a high level, and I was very happy teaching. I didn’t have a burning ambition as a youngster to be a record-breaking sailor,” she says.
When not out on the water competing she really enjoys time at home and maintains good links with her local community, particularly at St Mary’s Junior Sailing Club, in Alverstoke, Hampshire.
“It’s a privilege to have that ability to inspire and encourage,” Dee says. “I think sailing in itself is quite unique. You can push as hard as you feel comfortable doing. If your confidence grows you can challenge yourself a bit more and stretch your limits. If the worst that can happen is that you get a bit wet it’s not a bad way to learn,” says Dee. “At its worst being wet and cold can be a bit miserable, but you do get through it and you do get to good bits, the bad stuff doesn’t last forever.”
So what does she find the worst thing about her solo sailing challenges?
“I do miss the interaction with people. It’s a lonely environment but I’ve learnt all about myself, I’ve learnt to get on with myself,” she says.
Dee would like her feats to inspire other people, older, as well as young, and to give them the courage to try something they’ve always longed to do.
“When you meet someone who has done something quite extreme you do think, ‘Maybe I could do it. How could I manage, how could I get around things?’ I consider myself very lucky to work in the environment I do; to see oceans uninterrupted by land or humans and watch amazing sunsets and sunrises, or a whale or a dolphin and feel as if I’m intruding on their environment. In the Southern Ocean you see albatrosses and icebergs,” she adds.

Her idea of a relaxing break would be to go island-hopping in the Pacific. It’s hard to imagine Dee Caffari ever feeling like retiring, but she acknowledges that one day she may just hang up her Teletubby outfits.
“But for now all my focus is round-the-world sailing,” she says.
You can get news and information about Dee’s exploits at her website www.deecaffari.co.uk. She also has a Twitter account and Facebook page where she posts regular updates.

Facts about Dee

  • October 2004 Sets off on the 10-month Global Challenge Race.
  • November 2005 Starts her solo “westabout” non-stop voyage.
  • May 2006 Completes her record-setting solo voyage
  • April 2007 Completes the Flora London Marathon.
  • June 2007 Awarded an MBE.
  • September 2007 Publishes “Against the Flow” her autobiography.
  • February 2009 Completes the Vendee Globe race becoming the first woman to sail solo, non-stop around the world in both directions.
  • June 2009 Sets a new speed record for circumnavigating Britain and Ireland of 6 days 11 hours 30 minutes and 53 seconds, knocking 17 hours off the existing time.

Click here to view the full magazine article in pdf form Dee Caffari magazine pdf

This article appears in the current issue of the MSSC Seafarer Magazine.

The young adventurer

Here’s a recent interview I did with Mike Perham for Seafarer Magazine.

In common with most lads his age, Mike Perham is studying and has homework to fit into his schedule. Unlike most 17-year-olds, he has distinguished himself as a headline-grabbing world-class solo yachtsman, not once, but twice, before being old enough to vote.

“I do fit it all in because I have to fit it in,” he explains, though one suspects his college tutors are happy to give him an extension on a late essay when he’s setting world records.

If you’ve heard of Mike or watched internet video clips of him preparing to climb a mast in an approaching squall while telling the camera that he hates heights, you’ve probably wondered what makes him tick. The fact is, Mike’s an ordinary teenager with an extraordinary passion for sailing and that has meant, when facing the latest worst-case scenario he could have imagined, he’s just had to get on with it to succeed – or, possibly, to survive.

It’s a testament to Mike’s courage, determination and skill, that though none of the unfortunate events that beset his solo round-the-world record last year were unimagined, he set out anyway. If something could go wrong, Mike and his team of supporters had thought about how it could be dealt with. If the first watchword of being a record-breaking yachtsman is determination, the second is surely preparation. So how did Mike start sailing?
“I think I got into sailing when I was about six or seven. I loved it. My dad ran a boat building business and seeing them design and build a boat, then launch it into the water gave me a great understanding of boats,” explains Mike.

Sailing is all things to this youngster, who lives in Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, and who is studying for a Sports Performance and Excellence Diploma at Oaklands College Athletics Academy in St Albans.

“I love the freedom of sailing. I love the freedom of getting away from everything. I love being in control,” he says.
To an outsider, the “being in control” Mike has in mind might be a loose term, since on his round-the-world challenge Mike faced 50ft waves in 50-knot winds. His yacht TotallyMoney.com was knocked over, battered and damaged and Mike had to overcome months of sleep deprivation, keeping himself focussed and eating 5000 calories a day to maintain his strength. He also had to dive under the boat to free up a rudder as well as the aforementioned climb up the mast to replace a torn sail – a little different to sitting in front of an X-Box.

“You do question why on earth you’re there a lot of the time,” admits Mike, “but I’ve always had a positive attitude… I set out knowing that it wasn’t going to be easy.”

So what does sailing, even something as relatively safe as sailing around the harbour with your local club, do for your life-skills?
“It teaches you perseverance, it makes you self-sufficient,” says Mike, who adds that it also teaches you patience and enables you to meet and befriend a broad spectrum of people from all age-groups and backgrounds.
Mike’s father Peter has been his champion and support, along with his mum Heather. They have sometimes been criticised by well-meaning parent groups who at best have seen their encouragement as misplaced, at worst, reckless and irresponsible. Not everyone thinks it is a good idea to allow a young teenager to take on vast challenges, as a recent court case involving Dutch youngster Laura Dekker has shown. Aged 14, she was barred from attempting to beat Mike’s round-the-world record, despite being backed by her father, Dick Dekker.
Mike remains diplomatic about the wisdom of allowing, or banning, such dreams to become reality, saying only that there are three pre-requisites for sailing solo under such circumstances, physical strength, technical know-how and mental toughness. Mike recognises his own development as he has become older and he expects to continue on his path of self-knowledge and expertise throughout his sailing career. Though sailing is his future, he also has a plan to go to university and study film production, an idea fired by the the film he pitched for Channel 4’s “Cutting Edge” documentary series. “Dangerous Seas For Boys” followed Mike’s struggle at sea and his family and friends’ lives at home throughout last year, with Mike shooting the footage on the boat.

“That’s quite different, of course,” he says, “but I really enjoyed making the documentary.”

So what other events is Mike looking forward to now he’s had his eighteenth birthday?
“I’d love to go to the Polynesian Islands,” he says. “I want to see Tahiti, that would be great fun.”
He may get his wish sooner, rather than later. It’s not even a year since Mike triumphantly crossed the round-the-world finish line, accompanied by Royal Navy’s Fishery Patrol Vehicle HMS Mersey and a Royal Navy helicopter, yet already he is on the brink of his next challenge. On April 28th, 221 years to the day since Captain William Bligh was cast adrift after the mutiny on the Bounty, Mike is scheduled to set sail and emulate the historic voyage. Along with Australian Don MacIntyre and two other adventurers, they will sail 4000 miles in an open boat, with no charts and not enough food, making their way from Tonga to Timor to raise funds for research into Motor Neurone Diisease at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN). As a recently-appointed ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, Mike hopes his exploits will inspire other youngsters to try sailing.
“It gives you a sense of adventure while you’re having fun,” he says.

Michael Perham Facts and Figures.

  • Born March 16th, 1992.
  • Sailed the Atlantic Ocean single-handed in January 2007, the youngest person to make the 3,500-mile journey – he was 14 years old.
  • Sailed single-handed around the world, finishing on August 27, 2009, making him the youngest person to complete the 30,000 nautical mile journey solo. He had his 17th birthday during the voyage.
  • Invited to become a Prince’s Trust Ambassador, September 28, 2009.
  • You can follow Mike’s further adventures here. www.challengemike.com

This interview appears in the Summer 2010 edition of Seafarer Magazine, published for The Marine Society & Sea Cadets.

Dan Snow – hot property

Dan Snow

I was asked to interview Dan Snow and finally caught up with him between flights (his, not mine) for a lightning chat. Here’s how it turned out…

Though Dan Snow’s rise to television presenter celebrity status seems to have been meteoric, his pedigree for the job couldn’t be finer. Here he reveals he might well have pursued a Royal Navy career. Interview by Sandra Fraser (Kessell).

Dan Snow is rushing between airport terminals. He’s flown overnight from Canada, it’s Monday morning and he is in the process of catching another plane to Malta. In true jet-setting style he’s conducting this interview in-between. Behind his familiar voice is the noise of tannoy announcements and baggage trolleys and he sounds a little tired as he negotiates other travellers but he’s a seasoned campaigner and used to pushing himself beyond his limits.

The son of journalists Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan, he’s often announced as The Historian Dan Snow, along with the biographical detail that he’s a 6ft 6in Oxford Blue rower. He admits his interest in rowing and sailing could have seen him end up in a number of other careers, had life taken a different turn. Dan grew up in London, the perfect base for his parents’ careers, and living by the River Thames made it natural that water pleasures should beckon. He learned both to row and to sail while still a schoolboy.

“I got into sailing because I had a family who sailed – Mum and Dad sailed,” he says, walking between terminals, as bleeps and announcements go off in the background. Like so many keen sailors, he started with Optimists and Wayfarers, honing his skills as he went along.

“Sailing teaches you patience. It teaches you to think in a certain way – how to use the elements efficiently – you can’t will the boat to go faster – all good life lessons. It teaches you self-reliance,” he says. “And sailing with a crew teaches you great teamwork.”

Dan went to school at St Paul’s, which offered rowing on its curriculum.  He was encouraged by teachers to use his long arms and legs – efficient levers – to good effect, though he jokes it was because he wasn’t much use at other sports. He joined the Sea Cadets around the age of 12 as an extra-curricular activity.

Young Dan would hop on his bike and cycle to meetings, or parades, as they are more formally known.

“I loved the discipline and learning things about the water – well all sorts of things really – hostage situations, first aid – on a Friday night in Putney. I like to think I learned a huge amount. You have your limits stretched by the Sea Cadets,” he says.

“I could have ended up in the Navy, it’s funny how life goes,” he says.

From St Paul’s, Dan went on to Oxford University, where he studied Modern History and became a member of the Oxford rowing squad, earning a Blue for rowing in the Cambridge-Oxford boat race three years running. He also became the boat club President, though his crew lost in a year he has described as both his best and his worst. His break into television came when the BBC asked if he and his father, best remembered for his Newsnight presentations on election nights, but also a serious journalist of long-standing and distinction, would make a programme together. Though Snow Senior was initially reluctant, the programme was made and Snow Junior’s career path was set.

Combining Dan’s twin interests of history and water pursuits is his idea of double pleasure and he has plenty of ideas up his sleeve if programme-makers have budgets to pursue them. He has already made many programmes about seafaring and ships, including the sinking of the Ark Royal in 1941, the history of the Spanish Armada and a soon-to-be-screened series about the D-Day landings. There have been times during his programme-making career, he reveals, when his Sea Cadet training has come in handy.

“You join the Sea Cadets and you push your own limits. You discover things about yourself. It opens up options and whether you go on to command an air craft carrier or anything else you can use those lessons,” says Dan, recalling trip to St Kilda in stormy weather.

“We were on a little rig heading to St Kilda, going towards the Hebrides, when a big Atlantic storm blew up,” he says. “I remember thinking, this is just like being in the Sea Cadets!”

He loves his job and enjoys being busy, taking all the tiring travelling in his stride.

“No two days are the same,” he says, “I’m off to Malta today and the next day I might be in a library.”

It’s a description that could have matched his seafaring career, had he pursued one.

“I could definitely have gone into the Royal Navy proper or the Marines,” says Dan. “I often look back and wonder what life would have been like.”

He recently joined the crew of the TS Royalist and put his skills to the test once more, posting Tweets on the social networking site, Twitter. In fact, his followers will see many of his posts revolve around his water adventures, and he mentions Trafalgar, HMS Caroline and rowing a boat down the Thames, retracing Nelson’s young footsteps.

Dan Snow’s passport may have him down as an historian, but while young men may grow out the Sea Cadets, you can’t take the Sea Cadets out of the grown man.

Dan appears regularly on The BBC programme, The One Show and has a Twitter page. http://twitter.com/thehistoryGuy

His latest book DEATH OR VICTORY: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire is published by HarperPress, price £25.

Dan’s BBC2 programme Empire of the Seas is being screened in November.