Most of my adventures have been very eclectic. I get a fascination for something I hear about, like someone rowing across the Atlantic, and think ‘God, it would be interesting to do that!’
I’m not a particular expert in any aspect of adventure, but I tend to go for things I’ve never done before. When I was a young army officer I climbed Popocatépetl, a volcano in Mexico, never having climbed anything like that before. I then went on to climb in the Alps and ultimately ended up taking an expedition to the Garhwal Himalayas.
A lot of this stuff has taken place during the latter part of my life. I’m 70 now and quite a bit happened around the age of 60 such as rowing across the Atlantic or running the Marathon des Sables. I think in a sense it’s from a kind of panic: ‘Oh my god I’m getting old, I’d better do this stuff while I still can.’
Most of the stories in Restless are not very glorious. Hopefully people will find them amusing because most of it is about the cock-ups I’ve made. Early on, one of my supervisors in the army said in my annual report: ‘This man works well in crises, but the trouble is he creates most of them himself.’
When I was a policeman, I took a yacht across the Channel with a few other officers. On the way back we got hit by a Force 10 gale. The waves were thirty feet high, the lights had all been smashed, guys were getting their heads bashed on the mainsail, blood was everywhere, the skipper had lost his marbles and was going into severe shock. I just thought it was really quite exhilarating. Eventually the lifeboat came alongside, shouting at us to abandon the boat. The skipper told me to take the helm, told me to keep it in a straight line and then, when the lifeboat came roaring up alongside on the same wave and bashed into the side of us, he jumped over to it and left me to it.
When I was preparing to row the Atlantic, a friend asked me if I was going on my own and I said no, I’d feel better with someone else. He said that the most dangerous thing in the Atlantic is not the waves or the sharks or things like that. It’s the bloke who’s with you. At some stage you’ll want to kill him and he’ll want to kill you and the only thing that will stop you is thought of being found out!
“Early on, one of my supervisors in the army said in my annual report: ‘This man works well in crises, but the trouble is he creates most of them himself’”
I tend to hear about something then wonder if it’s possible to go there and because I’m a fairly extroverted personality I tend to involve other people. I run a company that works with quite senior business people who want to get away for a quick adventure but haven’t got time to plan it themselves. So we get a little posse of people together who want to do something then work out how we’re going to do it. I coach them to make sure they’re organised, fit enough and that their mental coping strategies are going to be strong enough to see them through the bad times.
We spent quite a bit of time on the Brandberg mountain (Namibia’s highest peak) which is very desolate. If you’re lucky you’ll find some water holes but you can’t be sure that any will be there. So you tend to have to carry huge loads – we were carrying 20 litres of water on some of these expeditions, 30-35kg up a mountain where a lot of it is a scramble. The medic with me there was a very strong guy but he got an infection, became dehydrated and had to give himself a drip which was quite something. Then later on somebody else went down so we gave him a drip. So recently I’ve been trained to put a catheter into someone’s arm and get some fluid into them. At the end of the day I’m accountable for bringing the people with me back alive.
For the past few years, we’ve been involved in taking gang leaders and youth workers away to remote Scottish islands. Part of me is thinking ‘how do we deal with this, what happens if these guys start to panic?’ They’re on an island, there’s no escape, they can’t go anywhere. What happens if we don’t get it right? But it gives you a lot of courage to do things, to take a lot of chances.
The gang leaders usually struggle on the morning of day two. They wake up and find they didn’t put their tarpaulins up properly or hadn’t cooked their meal and they’re hungry and they can get very fed up with it all. But that’s a pivotal moment for them. We ask how are we going to make this happen? Let’s go back and think through what happened and get the tarpaulins up again so they don’t blow away and how are we going to find food. And they grow and develop and come out the other end and you really see the best in them.
1945 Born in London
1965 Joined the army, posted to British Honduras (now Belize)
1966 Climbed Popocatépetl volcano in Mexico
1969 Joined Metropolitan Police
1975 Was rescued from English Channel by RNLI
1984 Climbed the Matterhorn
1985 Ran police station in Stoke Newington during the riots
1986 Led a British/Indian police team up unclimbed peaks in Garhwal Himalayas
2004 Became the oldest British person to row across the Atlantic Ocean
2010 Trekked to the North Pole as part of an annual team race
2016 Published Restless
This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.