Celebrated and celebrity

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

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?

Timothy Spall and the Call of the Sea

Timothy and Shane Spall image for Seafarer Magazine, courtesy Paul Crompton


I’m amazed to find it’s two years since I interviewed the character actor Timothy Spall as he circumnavigated Britain. His wife, Shane has since published a book about their adventures. I caught up with them in a noisy pub at the end of a busy day.

Timothy Spall turned down the opportunity to play a Pirate of the Caribbean so he could circumnavigate Britain in a converted Dutch barge, the Princess Matilda, with his wife, Shane.
Interview by Sandra Kessell for Seafarer Magazine

Why did you take up boating and what inspired you to take to the sea?
I don’t really know. It was a thing that happened when I was ill [with leukaemia]. I said to my wife: ‘When I get over this we can get a narrow boat and do the canals.’ It was our initial plan to get across to France but we decided we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to discover our own country. When we started I couldn’t even read a tide table, I learned to navigate by reading books, but this wasn’t an epiphany. I started to feel the call to the sea and I still feel it – but now I fear it and feel it – though I’m enjoying myself – it’s called life, pleasure.

Who’s the captain and who’s first mate?
I’m the captain and the skipper, my wife Shane is the chief purser, ship’s figurehead and ship’s sorceress. When I lose my bottle she reminds me she believes I can do it. We’ve done 1500 miles so far, the more you know the more there is to find out.

Which is your favourite port?
Everywhere is lovely. One of the nicest feelings was arriving in Douglas as that’s the furthest we’ve been out to sea. When we arrived in Peel on the west coast of the Isle of Man, with its very quaint and beautiful castle, we had to wait on the harbour wall for the tide to come in – it was a microcosm of everything that we have seen, in a way. There were kids playing on the beach, and it was hard to tell whether it was seagulls or the kids screeching as the fishing boats were bringing in their haul of queenies [queen scallops]  – it was absolutely idyllic.

Where would you most like to visit?
Wherever we’re next heading is where I want to be. We’re off to the Caledonian Canal, but we don’t plan more than 50 to 100 miles ahead. I hope we can see the Mull of Kintyre, Oban and Loch Ness. We keep a general idea of where we are going, but that’s also dictated by the wind and tide and weather conditions. If we get trapped, we get trapped. we don’t have a timetable. Sometimes I have to go off to work, so we find a safe harbour and leave the boat in purdah. One of the great things about the British Isles is they’re nautical isles with good facilities – though the Princess Matilda is 54 feet long and we pay for our moorings by the foot!

Do you have any seafaring ancestry?
I’d lived in London all my life until recently, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool 100 per cent urbanite. The call of the sea came from out of the blue, there’s absolutely no recent seafaring history in my family. My wife looked my background up and found I’ve got links to the East Coast, to Suffolk, 100 to 150 years ago. Perhaps some were mariners then.

Would you consider sailing a yacht, rather than your barge?
I don’t think so. Having played a hangman [Albert Pierrepoint] I’m well aware of what a rope can do! I can’t see myself running up and down a yacht, unless I could press buttons in and make the sails do what I wanted them to do. I know how hard life must have been before the internal combustion engine and I’m a lazy so-and-so who would rather dictate it all from the wheelhouse.

Could you combine your love of the sea with acting – playing a part in Pirates of the Caribbean, for example?
That did come my way recently, I’d have loved it, but it didn’t work out. I would have been in the Caribbean rather than being on my own boat. I worked with Mr Depp on Sweeney Todd – if I had another opportunity to repeat that experience, I would take it, he’s very, very good to work with.

Which mariner would you like to play?
Captain Bligh or Nelson – or the last person to invade Britain by sea – John Paul Jones. He invaded Whitehaven in the 18th century – they call him a pirate there, but the US Navy think he’s a hero. Sailing the coast you find wonderful things out about your own country!

If the Princess Matilda sank, what would you save?
A bottle of wine and Shane – and hopefully the lifeboat!

Timothy and Shane Spall’s adventures are documented in a book The Voyages of the Princess Matilda and on their blog, www.spallsatsea.com. Their seagoing Dutch barge was built by Peter Nicholls Yacht Builders Ltd.

Original text here: Tim Spall

Four-times Olympic Gold Yachtsman Ben Ainslie

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class.

I’m so thrilled for Ben Ainslie – he’s just won his fourth Olympic Gold sailing medal. Hats off to the gentleman assassin.

Fifteen years after bursting on to our sporting sightlines as a fresh-faced 19-year-old chasing a podium place in the Olympic Laser class, yachtsman Ben Ainslie is aiming for his fourth consecutive gold medal in his fifth games and a place among the world’s greatest-ever Olympians. Sandra Kessell caught up with him for Seafarer Magazine.

Yachtsman Ben Ainslie talks like a gentleman on a mission – he has fast, firm, decisive, soft-spoken replies for every question – until I ask him about qualifying for next year’s Olympics. It’s not that he stops in his verbal tracks, just his answers become very considered and measured.

Ben recently came second by a single point, after picking up penalties, to former training partner Giles Scott in the Olympic Classes Regatta in Miami. Giles is a man who acknowledges he has looked up to, and sailed in the wake of, Ben for a number of years. Ben, meanwhile, is very sporting in his praise for fellow British competitors, but there’s no hiding the quiet resolve in his voice when he’s talking about the crucial qualification regattas the squad will be competing in later this year.

Courteous and generous, Ben’s very far from being over-confident but he leaves you feeling you’ve just spoken to a highly-trained, extremely professional assassin – ruthless, clinical and effective with laser-beam sights. It’s these qualities he’s brought to bear while winning three successive Olympic golds as well as the silver medal he took in his first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. With all that Olympic success heading his list of accolades, it’s often overlooked that he’s also a nine-times world champion and nine-times European champion.

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class. Ben and Giles will be up against Wales’s current World Champion Ed Wright as they vie to wear the red, white and blue lion of Team GB in the Olympic Finn class 2012. Which means some excellent sailors will have to watch from the marina at Weymouth and Portland, the venue for the Olympic 2012 sailing events.

“There are three or four in the UK who head the current world championship rankings – including Mark Andrews and Andrew Mills. It’s nice to see younger names coming through but it’s going to be very difficult to qualify and very tough on the guys who don’t qualify – any one of them could take a medal,” says Ben.

So we won’t be seeing three Britons filling the podium, as happened in February at the Miami Regatta, or three Union flags raised while the national anthem rings out over British waters. In the next few months heart-rending, life-changing decisions will have to be made and you don’t envy the selectors the task.

No longer the young whipper-snapper, Ben, at 34, is the old man of the Olympic sailing squad. He had been concentrating on America’s Cup sailing, but the withdrawal of his team, whilst a disappointment, has also meant Ben can switch his focus to individual matters. That means more time on the water, more time in the gym and surprisingly, much, much more to eat. Naturally lighter, he has had to put on 10 kilos to make the right weight for sailing in the Finn, but he’s been here before, and been successful in peaking at the right time in the right place, as his record shows.

Though sailing is highly skilful, and the equipment has to be world-class, physical fitness is a key factor in success and hard training part of the preparation, he emphasises. But with all that work in prospect you can’t help wondering if he still finds sailing fun, the way he did 15 years ago.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I love the sport, obviously, but I also love just being able to go out sailing with family and friends, going on sailing holidays and cruising boats,” he says. He also gets a thrill from sailing alone – something he’s been able to do since he was eight or nine, when he used to go out a little dinghy in Restronguet in Cornwall.

“It was a real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ experience. I loved being in control,” he says. And whilst he’s an advocate for safety he adds that it’s important for youngsters not to be too scared of doing exciting things.

“Back then, I wasn’t even wearing a life jacket. I had an old duffle coat and wellies on. There’s no way any parent these days would let you do that, but we are talking 25 years ago!” he says.

He’s credits his amateur sailor parents, Roddy and Susan, for imbuing him with his love of the sea and says he’s grateful for the huge amount of support they’ve given him in every way imaginable throughout his career. Roddy skippered at the first Whitbread Round the World Race in the Seventies.

Ben took his first Laser world championship title at the age of 16 and hasn’t looked back since. Though he says he’s lucky to have the backing of his sponsors, in the current financial climate he takes nothing for granted and names a hatful of them for good measure.

Other key players in his life have been his coach David Howlett as well as Jim Saltsonstall and John Derbyshire. He goes on to praise the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and UK Sport for the way competitive sailing has been developed in Britain, showing he’s not only a man who commands respect, but who gives it too. His heroes include legendary Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrøm, F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and tennis player Pete Sampras and when the 2012 Olympics come around, he hopes he’ll be in a position to watch some of the athletics.

“I was lucky, in Atlanta, I was able to see some of the other sports. I think any Olympic sport at that level is worth watching,” he says, adding that the British cycling and swimming squads have excellent medal prospects.

“It’s really exciting. Every day you meet someone new talking about the games coming up next year. Training towards it as a potential competitor has obviously been very different this time around. It’s very different being able to race in your home waters but there’s the added pressure of hoping you’ll be there with your friends and family among the spectators. More than ever before it’s a challenge!”

There will be life after the Olympics and, he hopes, a future with a family of his own once he’s stopped living out of a suitcase, but till then his focus is the 2012 Olympics, his gold medal tally and the task of joining the legends of competitive sailing.

You can keep up-to-date with Ben Ainslie’s progress by visiting his website www.benainslie.com

Ben Ainslie – facts and stats:

Born: February 5, 1977.

Olympic successes:

1996 Atlanta, Silver (Laser class)

2000 Sydney, Gold (Finn Class)

2004 Athens, Gold (Finn Class)

2008 Beijing, Gold (Finn Class)

2012 London, Gold (Finn Class)

Other awards:

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

Three-times ISAF World Sailor of the Year (1999, 2002 & 2008)

Five-times British Yachtsman of the Year (1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008)

To subscribe to Seafarer Magazine and find out more about the MSSC click here

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.

%d bloggers like this: