In the past few years, I have been on two great voyages.
The first, this one
to Cape Horn, was now becoming a dream finally realised; the other, coming
to terms with the death of my son, Nicholas, at the age of just 23, and by
his own hand, was something I would have given anything to avoid.
I was at sea in 2006, off the coast of Nova Scotia after a single-handed
passage across the North Atlantic, when, in a bleak spot, I took the
bleakest possible call by satellite phone.
I was home within 24 hours.
Although my wife, daughter and I were awash in grief, I soon found a force
more powerful took control.
There was a sense of deep peace and
understanding, and no desire to play the pointless game of “what if…?”
guilt, no blame.
Such things seemed disrespectful to Nicholas.
He had made his choice.
His startling mind, honed by the great love of poetry
that took him through Oxford, had started to crumble, and an avalanche of
profound mental illness was about to overtake him.
He knew that, he sensed
it coming at him like a rogue wave and chose to step aside.
We could not
The coroner declared: “He took his life while the balance of his
mind was disturbed.”
There is nothing more to say.
As a family, we refused to be crushed.
I determined that some good must emerge
from the loss.
Small things can become great comforts: we discovered –
scribbled in secret and only pieced together after his death – a rich legacy
of poems and reflections that were later published under the title, The
Silence at the Song’s End, a book that has given comfort to many who contact
us, inspired music, a short film, and a radio play.
Much of those writings
were reflections on being at sea gathered while on tall ships in the
Atlantic and Pacific oceans, both of which he had crossed by the age of 21.
He was a proper sailor.
Over the passing years, after I had read and reread it, I decided it was time
to make a grand voyage of my own.
It had to be a dramatic one and a testing
And what presents more of a challenge than Cape Horn?
I could have
chosen any of the great adventurers whose books I had devoured and taken
them as role models, but instead I chose Nicholas.
The way he conducted
himself at sea was something to which I now aspired.
It is not unusual for
sons to be inspired by their fathers, but in this case it would be exactly
Paul Heiney and his yacht, WIld Song, set sail for distant places.
Our boat would not look out of place on the Solent on a sunny, Sunday
afternoon but I judged it up to the job.
Whether I was fit for the task
remained to be seen.
For the intricate coastal passages, I would try and
persuade a crew to sail with me, but on the open ocean I would sail alone.
was eventually to achieve 11,000 solo miles over the course of two years,
with brief periods back home.
Of course, I was never truly alone.
lurked, always in the shadows but ready to share a joke, to warn, often to
That it was only in my mind seemed not to matter.
Heading south is not difficult: the north-east trade winds are your best
friends, until just north of the equator when they evaporate and leave you
wallowing, idle as that painted ship upon a painted ocean. Calms are every
bit as testing as storms.
The boat rattles with no wind to fill the sails,
there is no progress, and the cabin temperature rises as your temper
For days I watched heavy squalls scuttling by but leaving me in
peace. I didn’t want peace; I wanted out of this.
Calm weather brings other dangers.
It is easy to relax your guard and walk the
side deck without clipping on your safety line.
All it takes is a badly
timed swing of the boom and you are over the side, and if there is any
breeze at all the boat will be moving away faster than I could swim.
In the tropics, food goes rotten fast.
I would throw stuff into the pressure
cooker, enough for two days, but it never lasted past the first.
Even in the
comparative cool of the night, a stew packed with luscious vegetables turned
to putrid mush in hours.
When the calms finally release you, and a fair wind
blows, it feels like a true escape.
I marvelled at the intensity of tropical night skies.
I would switch off all
the lights, even the dim glow of the electronics, till my eyes adjusted to
the heavens, and sit for hours in wonder.
Sometimes, at dusk, when the
horizon was still visible, I would take out my sextant and take measurements
and plot my position.
Some say the sight of such vastness makes them feel
insignificant, but I felt the reverse.
When you are navigating by the stars,
the universe is working for you.
You feel at the very centre of it.
Landfall soon breaks the magic.
Salvador, in Brazil, is a violent city and my
joining crew and I spent hours walking the dimly lit and threatening
docksides expecting every footfall to be our last.
Life on land is far
harder than life at sea, and many times I had to invoke the memory of
Nicholas, and remember how bravely he faced the places he voyaged to –
Mexico, Korea and Japan – often alone and still in his teens.
With his help,
I escaped Salvador unscathed.
But not in Rio, where we were neatly mugged by
a gang who pulled knives and shouted, “Money!”. Twenty quid and a small
camera bought our escape.
We told the police.
“We get mugged,
too!” they said.
But this voyage was about being at sea, not on land, and I was soon ready to
leave the tropics for colder and stormier waters.
In the Roaring Forties,
the winds blow with malice.
Often we would heave-to while the worst blew
through by stopping the boat dead in the water and just sitting there,
nervously bobbing up and down like a plastic duck.
It grew colder and diesel was now in short supply and the cabin heater was
We shivered a lot.
The fresh food was finished and in the cold air
I could not get the dough to rise in order to bake fresh bread.
dank, grey days.
Off the south-eastern tip of South America is Staten Island.
It has seen many
Beset by fast tides, violent winds and poor shelter, the old
square-riggers gave it a wide berth. I chose, cautiously, to sail into the
heart of it, however, to an anchorage like no other.
Sailing through the
narrowest of gaps between snow-topped mountains, surrounded by a dozen
tumbling waterfalls, you find peace.
It was like entering Narnia.
verse of one of Nicholas’s poems flooded my mind.
Some kind of song inside myself rose at the sight of the beauty of this lonely
If I saw nothing else, this would be reward enough.
But the beguiling Beagle Channel was soon to follow, and then a dash in
carefully chosen weather to Cape Horn itself: navigating in the dark,
fearing every gust of wind that might hint at a pouncing storm.
has a majesty, too, and others have chosen to pop the champagne at the sight
It seemed more like a battlefield where thousands lost their
lives: a memorial, not a tourist attraction.
I gave it due respect and
Cape Horn, strangely, no longer seemed the most important
part of this journey.
It was now 9,000 miles back to Devon.
My last crew departed in Uruguay and I
faced the remaining 7,000 miles alone.
It was not easy.
The winds failed to
follow their predicted behaviour.
The boat was becoming tired and so was I.
North of the equator I met strong headwinds that tormented me for the
remaining 3,000 miles.
It was the toughest slog of the whole trip.
Tired, mentally and physically, I made for the Azores, where I could take a
But the weather only worsened and I found myself in a poor position
with gales blowing, no diesel so no engine, water low, batteries almost flat
and, eventually, a mainsail that was ripped in half by a violent gust of
After a monumental effort from which it took my arms months to
recover, I sailed into sufficient shelter to make my first contact with land
for 66 days, and was towed from there to safety by the helpful harbour staff
on the island of Flores.
In his last six years Nicholas Heiney sailed widely, crossing both the Atlantic and the Pacific as a deckhand aboard the square-rigged barque Europa, and training young Koreans in seamanship.
Had I lived up to the example my dear boy had set?
I hope so.
In my head I
could hear him telling me I had “done OK, Dad”.
That will have to do.
how I wished he could have said it face to face.
And now I am gathering my thoughts on paper, as he did, hoping they might come
close to the intensity of his.
If they should ever find a publisher, you
will read how I have become certain that none of us voyage alone.
guided by those we have loved whether they are with us in body or not.
know he wasn’t there, wasn’t in the cabin, wasn’t at the wheel.
But that is
not to say that he was nowhere.
He is out there somewhere, amongst his ocean
And for a brief while I was able to be with him.