“What was your scariest moment?” my eldest daughter asked me as we were gathered around the cabin table on a family cruise along the west coast of Ireland. The wind had been steadily strengthening and my questionable skills at anchoring were being put to the test in Inishmore’s somewhat challenging harbour. I was ready for bed but needed to stay awake to make sure the anchor was holding. In the cosiness of the yacht’s cabin we were together for each other – no radio, no computers, no phones, just family and the howling wind in the taut rigging and conversation that often followed a familiar pattern.
I would say, “Did I tell you about . . .? ” A family member would kindly say “No,” and I would launch into one of my well-worn sagas. With my mind on the yacht’s safety and no particular tale asking to be told, I began to recount some of my hairy moments – things that had made my hair stand up – and then wondered whether that was really my “scariest moment”.
There was the time I was abandoned on a coral reef by a skipper who was not keeping count of divers as they emerged from their giant-clam hunting – I still recall how my heart raced and how fear gripped me when I realised the boat had gone.
Or what about the school climb up to the summit of Snowdonia, when I suffered vertigo whilst traversing the final knife-edge ridge, with one foot each side of the vertiginous drops, undecided which side I was most likely to fall.
That reminded me of birdwatching on Bardsey Island off the Lleyn peninsula, in North Wales, where the narrow path that forced a single file, suddenly petered out, demanding a leap across open air of about six feet, with nothing underneath except 300 foot cliffs and the crashing waves.
That set me thinking of how steep slopes were such an anathema to me, and not just those above sea level. What about the descent to almost 300 feet in the Red Sea with my diving buddy Doug Allan. It was only when we hit bottom that I realised we may not have enough air in our single SCUBA tanks to get back to the surface. Fortunately, on that occasion a severe case of narcosis blunted the fear and delivered a thrilling euphoria as we floated back up towards the sunlight, accompanied only by our bubbles and the odd shark.
And I reflected on how fear so often overrides logic. It took several dives for me to conquer the ridiculous fear of falling off an underwater cliff where, one second one was in six feet of water, but over the edge, in crystal clear water, the reef plunged to over 200 feet. Eventually I enjoyed ‘falling’ over the edge and becoming a bird, arms outstretched, no longer afraid of heights.
“Then there were the great white sharks. Did I tell you how one bit at the cage that was supposed to protect me?”
“Well that actually was not all that scary,” I confessed. “It was one of the most uplifting feelings I had ever experienced.”
It was funny, I reflected, on how fear comes after the least likely of shocks. It was accompanied by the unexpected and imagining what might have happened, but generally didn’t.
The yacht’s cosy cabin was in danger of blinding us to the precarious nature of our present situation. A sudden wind-shift resulted in a more distinctive rocking motion and I climbed up on deck to check the boat was not dragging its mooring. Everyone else stayed down below, waiting for the end of my story. It was chilly on deck, thanks to a freshening north-westerly, but the heavy anchor and long chain seemed to have dug in. Back at the cabin table I continued my tale,
“Well I’ll tell you what I think is my scariest moment. It was in Greece, on the island of Chios, where we were camped for a month-long scientific expedition.”
I was pretty sure that I had told them the story before but they all denied it. The scary event that I was recounting had happened when I was walking through long grass in the middle of the field where we were camped. Instead of taking the perimeter path I had just made a beeline for the opposite side of the field. About halfway across, just when I was worrying about snakes – adders were quite common – the ground beneath my feet literally disappeared. I had fallen straight down a deep well.
The story set off a buzz of conversation and I was once again urged to “write a book” about the various adventures that made up my life.
The anchor held through the night, we had an exhilarating sail around Slyne Head and back to Clifden, and I duly forgot about the idea of writing my life story.
At almost the same time as our ‘summer cruise’ was taking place, we had been ‘doing up’ our house in Clifden. The builder, also a friend, had insisted that I save some boxes of letters that dated back to my youth and which he could not stop himself from reading as he cleared out the attic. It was suggested that I sort through the letters to see whether they were worth saving or if they inspired me to write.
I finally put pen to paper with a story about how I had almost sunk a British naval vessel in foreign waters. I had recounted the tale around many family gatherings so the words flowed smoothly onto the page. I knew where it was going and what were my punch lines. What I was unsure about was the accuracy of my memory for events that took place over 50 years ago. After writing the story, I turned to the box of letters and wondered what I would find there. It took almost no time to locate the blue aerogramme in which I recounted the sinking saga to my parents. I was delighted to discover that the two separate accounts, based purely on memory and the written word, complimented each other, with the letter adding interesting detail but no glaring contradictions.
Next I turned to the above mentioned episode of falling into the well in Greece, and how I nearly disappeared without trace. Then I discovered the vessel’s log that I had written during my first summer cruise in 1964 along the welsh coast in our 17 foot mini-yacht, Ljubliana, with brother Andy. I realised that the long forgotten letters and documents, stored in dusty shoe boxes, were irreplaceable affirmations of my ability to recall details of events that happened more than half a century ago. Repeating these anecdotes at regular intervals over the intervening years had rebooted brain cells so that I only needed to remember as far back as the last time that I told the story.
Most readers of my memoirs, Spirorbis – Stories from my Life, assume that I kept a diary, but this is not the case. I was never a disciplined diarist. Instead, I recorded events from my life, as they happened, in letters to my family, or as short stories published in school magazines, in university literary magazines, popular science journals, and in various newspaper articles related to my profession as a marine biologist – both at home in Ireland and along my travels. Despite my doctorate, I saw myself more as a communicator than an academic and there was always something to write about.
Then, later in life, I became busier than ever and my written and photographic archives were assigned to the roof – and almost the rubbish tip!
Once I began writing this disjointed collection of tales from all over the world, covering an eclectic range of experiences, from sailing through a hurricane in the North Sea to being sued for libel by the ex-president of Seychelles, there was no stopping. The book is by no means an autobiography and leaves out huge chunks of my life. Instead, it is a collection of stories that spring to mind when conversation slags around the dinner table and guests come up with statements like: “You should write a book.”
Clifden, 29 March, 2021