Sir James Weatherall and Dan Snow – both celebrated former Sea Cadets
“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.
International professional surfer James Pribram became a world environmental campaigner for the sea after contracting a serious illness through surfing in polluted waters. Besides appearing on television, he has written for the LA Times and many other publications, raising awareness of his EcoWarrior clean-up project. He also runs the Aloha School of Surfing.
What’s the best thing about life as a surfer? Going to the beach. For me, growing up on Laguna Beach, I would wake up in the morning as a little kid, open up the sliding glass door, go out on the deck and look at the beach and the ocean. Besides my parents, surfing’s always been my everything in life; it kept me from making some of the wrong decisions that some of my friends, unfortunately, made when we were kids.
And the worst? Do you know I’m not really sure there’s anything too terrible about being a surfer. Perhaps the worst thing is, if you’re like me and you love our oceans and beaches, to see pollution affecting them.
How does an American surfer boy from Orange County become a man tackling worldwide ocean ecology issues? It is just something that has happened naturally. In 1997 I was teaching a surfing lesson in Doheny Beach [made famous by sixties pop group The Beach Boys]. I had a tiny scratch on my wrist and two hours later I was in the emergency room with IVs [intravenous drips] stuck in my arms and the doctors said: ‘Had you not come in within eight hours, you could have died.’ That was something that changed my overall view of our oceans and beaches and really was the beginning of a major change in the person I was.
What advice would you give an environmentally-conscious seafarer? If you want to do something positive, participate, take that first step. Whether it’s attending a local Surfrider Chapter meeting, or Heal the Bay, or Reef Check, or Surfers Against Sewage or even your local city council. Get out there and voice your opinion and get involved.
You tackle some huge worldwide issues through your EcoWarrior project. Last year it was the Mexican Gulf oil spill – this year it’s radiation pollution around Fukushima. How do you keep motivated? It’s easy to be motivated. There’s always a new issue, a new crisis, a new something going on in the world. I feel like I have a responsibility to those people and kids who look up to me as a role model so, being motivated, that’s the easy part. The most difficult part is finding better solutions and compromises in our world.
If you hadn’t become a surfer what would you be doing now? For a school assignment we had to make a coat of arms and answer the question ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ and mine said ‘A professional surfer.’ That was 1977 and I was six years old. The first professional surfing champion was crowned in 1976. Let’s just say I was destined to be a pro-surfer and to be this person, I think.
Your EcoWarrior project has the wonderful tagline “We are all connected by one ocean.” How do you unite all who use the ocean? For me, the ocean represents so many different things. Obviously, I’ve made a living from it, but I feel a deeper connection to the ocean and the beaches. I think everyone can relate to the beauty of the sea – a sunrise or sunset, or watching the dolphins playing in the ocean – seeing whales.
Where’s the most beautiful place you’ve been or surfed? Home – Laguna Beach Pearl Street. It shaped me to become who I am today.
And the most dire? Grand Isle, Louisiana [which bore the brunt of the BP Mexican Gulf oil spill disaster last year]. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. It smelt so bad and was like something out of a sci-fi movie. The ocean is dead there. The colour of it, the smell of it – it’s not blue, there’s no oxygen in it. It was something that I could never fathom happening within our own country – and let’s not forget, 11 people lost their lives there.
When you’re too old to surf what will you be doing? I don’t know – maybe I’ll be in politics!
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.