A Life Changing Odyssey

2cac9d6d5b3309f676fe655baa5b58543ad6525a-thumbThirty years ago I quit my job in science and engineering. Even in my late 20’s I was tired and disgruntled with the world and my place in it. I wanted to get off the treadmill, and experience the beauty of Planet Earth, or at least my little corner of it.

With my partner at that time, Jill Brown, we looked to the world of sailing for travel and adventure. We sold our home, built a small Polynesian-style catamaran and moved to the ocean. We struggled to make a living in Cornwall, one of the most beautiful counties in the British Isles. I built boats and wrote books and magazine articles. It took a few years but the dream eventually became reality and culminated in an extraordinary voyage around the west coast of Britain in the summer of 1990.

Suilven’s Travels: A Life Changing Celtic Odyssey is my account of this 3 month cruise which was packed with adventure and challenge. Suilven II departed Plymouth in July and headed to the Hebrides, stopping in Scilly, Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. The story brings to life the landscape and culture of western Britain and in particular Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. It also shows what is possible on a minimal budget if the desire to succeed is strong enough. I was alone for most of the outbound trip, giving me plenty of time to reflect on the world and my place in it. Jill Brown was with me on the demanding return trip when we struggled against gales and rough seas and came close to losing our small boat on a couple of occasions.

Looking back nearly 25 years it’s obvious there has been dramatic change in our world – especially in technology. But the human spirit and the search for meaning in life is growing stronger as more of us realize it is becoming impossible to thrive in a system which essentially alienates us from our Earth, and our true selves. Suilven’s Travels was written to inspire others to step outside the box and live closer to the Earth. It is available for $3.99 as an eBook on Amazon, Smashwords and many other outlets.

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Baya Exotica

Sunset in Baya Exotica.

The grey haired man approaching with the wheelbarrow smiled and said, “Hi.” We were on a secluded forest trail and a wheelbarrow didn’t seem too out of place, even though it contained what I believed to be a guitar in a black case. After all, this was Baya Exotica. I turned a few seconds after we passed and looked back. He strode purposefully across the planks that spanned a small creek, his tall body flickered in the sunlight permeating the lush spring foliage. Suddenly he veered off the path and descended a steep dirt track down to the rocky foreshore.

An hour later, as the Vancouver Island’s mountains cast their long shadows deep into the bay, I heard a lonesome melody wafting on the breeze accompanied by a guitar. Not unusual I mused. Only last night I had been entertained by a djembe beating out a jungle rhythm. It appeared to be coming from a group ashore huddled around a fire. And earlier today I was shaken by wild buglings, eerily bounced around by mighty cliffs surrounding the bay, that seemed to come from nowhere. Who are these wonderful people? Where do they come from? Thank goodness there are still some left!

Here in Baya Exotica it didn’t seem to matter that Rainbird was surrounded by a collection of decaying vessels, some already half sunk and one in particular a hazard to navigation. Others were works in progress, or more appropriately, works in regress. With boats, as with other material things in life, entropy always wins.

I had felt the need to be back on the water. This time I was alone except for Maio my faithful Portuguese Water Dog. First Mate, Juliana, departed this world last December. She had fought many battles in her life but she was never going to beat the cancer that invaded her body.

Rainbird was as much her boat as mine and I wondered how I would fare. Would the memories held in her cedar hull be too painful to endure? I’ll admit to being fearful a few days earlier, when I untied Rainbird from her dock and headed out into the brisk southeasterly breeze. But the wind and the sunshine soon worked their magic and quickly settled my mind.

I was heading for Baya Exotica. I love its eccentric charm and always marvel at the surrounding hills and forest, which hold lush hay meadows. With unseasonal spring warmth and sunshine, everything was bursting into life. Birdsong permeated the air. Eagles and ospreys soared and swooped. Seals went leisurely about their business.

I was crossing a meadow with Maio; no houses, no people, no noise. We stood in the brilliant sunshine, feeling fully part of our surroundings. I had to remind myself that it really doesn’t get better than this.

Juliana’s vision and determination to get back in touch with nature led her to Rainbird. She has now gone, but for me, Rainbird is helping me do what Juliana had wanted for us both.

Wild as this image may seem, it actually originated as a reflection in a creek. The "sky" is the creek bed viewed through flowing water. The image was flipped horizontally and the colour enhanced. Taken on location in Baya Exotica.

Wild as this image may seem, it actually originated as a reflection in a creek. The “sky” is the creek bed viewed through flowing water. The image was flipped horizontally and the colour enhanced. Taken on location in Baya Exotica.

Man Over Board!

Putting on a Personal Flotation Device should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Here’s why!

Wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) or a life jacket is important even on a good day.

Summer is here and many of us love messing about in boats. Do you wear a personal floatation device (PFD) when you are on the water, even when it’s flat calm, or you are just making a short trip from the dock? Maybe you are strong swimmer and don’t see the need? If you are one of the many people who don’t then this true story might make you pause and think, because accidents are, by their very nature, unforeseen and unpredictable.

After several years of living on a sailboat, I must admit I had become quite blasé about water safety. Then one day, about 20 years ago, three of us could have died, and only a bizarre second “accident” prevented a tragedy. Here is the story and some of the lessons learnt.

It was a beautiful, late spring day and I was sailing along the UK’s south-west coast. A light breeze was blowing as I dropped anchor off the sleepy Cornish village of Cawsands. I was about 500 meters from the beach which, at this time of year, was only lightly populated with tourists. The only other boat in the area was a small sailboat, about 15 feet in length and crewed by a man and a child.

I was preoccupied with setting the anchor when I heard a distant splash. It was obviously a little more significant than a fish jumping from the water and it distracted me enough to look up. I was alarmed to see that the little sailboat, about 200 metres distant, now only had one occupant, a small child, who sat perfectly still at the rear of the boat, which was still moving under sail.

When I saw an arm rise from the water, some distance behind the boat, then disappear again below the waves the shocking reality of the situation I was becoming involved in started to sink in. Figuring that it would take too long to pull up the anchor and get underway, I threw my very small, inflatable tender over the side of my boat, grabbed a paddle and headed towards a struggling figure in the water.

As I headed towards him, I noticed that the sailboat, its sails full in the light breeze, was starting to turn out to sea. As it passed nearby I realised that its traumatised occupant was probably only 4 or 5 years old. “Do you know how to steer?” I shouted. No response came – he was frozen with fear and I was concerned that a gust of wind could capsize his boat at any moment. There was no way I could paddle fast enough to catch up with him so I concentrated a reaching the swimmer, who unlike the child, was not wearing a PFD and was clearly in considerable difficulty. At least, I thought, somebody ashore must have seen what happened and initiated a rescue.

After an exhausting few minutes of paddling I pulled alongside the man in the water. He was a big man, very overweight, exhausted and frightened. I could see blood in the water from a gash in his side. His knuckles whitened as his stiff hands gripped the line that ran alongside my little inflatable. I realised that pulling him aboard was going to be impossible, as he was already too weak to assist. A combination of shock and hypothermia in the cold Atlantic waters were taking hold. “OK, I want you to hold on and I’m going to paddle us ashore,”I said realising at the same time I was being very optimistic as wind and tide where conspiring to push us further out to sea. He was too exhausted to answer but made a feeble attempt to pull himself out of the water. I instinctively reached out to help him and tried in vain to heave him aboard, but I became alarmed as the tender started to buckle under the load, leading to a situation that could quite easily end up with both of us in the water.

At this point, a bizarre piece of luck occurred which probably saved lives. In the struggle with the swimmer I had lost track of the sailboat, which thanks to mother nature and some random sail settings, had come around in a wide circle and was now moving at a brisk pace and on collision course with us. The first I knew about it was when my tender was stuck with a dull thud from behind, nearly catapulting me into the water. Somehow in the confusion I managed to grab hold of the sailboat’s rigging and hold on for dear life. It turned out to be our salvation, as I managed to clamber on board, find some rope and put it around the man in the water. It was still impossible to pull him aboard so I set sail for the beach, dragging him and my inflatable alongside us.

As we approached the shore, the young boy sat opposite me, shaking and speechless, tears rolling down his cheeks. Looking towards the village the realisation dawned on me that the frantic running about and launching of boats I had expected to see just wasn’t happening. Life was going on totally oblivious to the drama on the water.

As I later paddled back to my boat, I patted myself on the back for a job well done with one hand, and hit myself over the head with the other for not wearing a PFD myself. Putting on a PFD should be as automatic as fastening a seat belt in a car. Remember, being a great swimmer isn’t any help if you are injured or knocked unconscious during a fall overboard – only a PFD is likely to save you!

There were other lessons to be learnt too.

  • Two or more adults should be available when taking young children onto the water.
  • Have flares or other signalling devices readily at hand and know how to use them. Looking back, if I had taken 30 seconds to fire off a flare or sound the horn before jumping into the tender, I would have alerted people ashore and made a successful outcome more certain.
  •  Understand that if some one falls overboard you may not be able to get them back on board easily. This is where a floating line, lifebuoys, and boarding ladders become important together with a predetermined plan that everyone on board understands.
  •  Briefing your crew about the location and operation of safety devices, as well as man overboard procedures, is an essential responsibility of the skipper. Putting it off because it “might alarm the crew” or set a sombre tone is misguided. Ultimately, remember, it may be the skipper who needs rescuing!

Change of Tack

It’s 15 years since I gained my commercial pilot’s license and I started my aviation career as a flight instructor a few years later. I had fun teaching others to fly and especially enjoyed helping amateur aircraft builders complete their projects. These projects often concluded with some challenging test flying and problem solving, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After clocking up some 1500 hours of instruction, and flying some exotic aircraft, I turned to the world of bush flying.

For me, bush flying wasn’t the positive experience I expected. The work was seasonal and I had to juggle with other jobs to make it happen. It also quickly became clear that the dangers involved are considerable. When I pulled myself out of the wreck of a Cessna 206 in June 2011, I clearly recall thinking to myself, “I guess it’s all over.” There was barely a pang of sadness; in fact, I felt an upwelling of relief. Relief that neither I or my passengers were hurt and also that I had now acquired the perfect excuse to quit.

I may do some recreational flying from time to time or some aerial photography, but as for flying people and supplies into remote mountain strips, I’m done with it. Aviation at this level is way too underpaid considering the level of risk, and the current gold rush is leading to corner-cutting with potentially lethal consequences. Also, as a colleague once remarked, “aviation is ego driven.” That remark stuck with me and as I reflected on it long and hard I realised he was spot-on. As with other ego driven occupations, aviation tends to bring out the worst in people more frequently that the best.

Financially, a career in aviation – certainly at the seasonal bush flying level – is best suited to young, unattached men. My wife has suffered immeasurably and no doubt she was as relieved as I am that a career change is in the making!

On the other hand I had enjoyed the opportunity to fly in the north and see a little of the Arctic and meet some wonderful, inspiring individuals. This is something difficult to do as a tourist and to see this remote beauty is one of the reasons I chose to come to Canada in the first place.

So what does a newly unemployed bush pilot turn his hand to?

Well, I love boats and sailing. Twenty years ago I set out on a three-month voyage around Britain in a 26 foot sailboat that I had built myself. It was a wonderful, fulfilling experience and as I sailed home for Plymouth in the fall of 1991 it felt as if the journey would continue for the rest of my life.

That journey, however, has taken a rather long pause as other neglected aspects of my life demanded my attention. Although its nature has changed there is still a longing to get back to the ocean and a simpler life and this has been somewhat shared by my wife. After all, I did propose to her on a sailboat so I figure she knew what she was getting in to!

Back in the late eighties and nineties I made my living building and refitting boats. It paid the bills and I also made a name for myself as a freelance sailing writer and photographer. I’m naturally reluctant to go backwards but I considered that if I could find a niche somewhere I would make a go of it. That opportunity came quickly and I’m now on Vancouver Island building and restoring wooden boats.

The world of wooden boats moves at a slower, more humane pace than aviation. Boats, and wooden boats in particular, are driven by aesthetics rather than ego or money.

I’m looking forward to getting back onto an even keel. I’ll keep you posted.

To see my unique aerial photography go to davidskelhon.photoshelter.com