Extracts from the book 'Small Boat Against The
Sea' by Derek King and Peter Bird
Derek, Carol and Pete, October 1973
Rowing around Ireland.
Can't be more than a thirty-yard swim, I thought. With the water as rough
as it was, against the tide and holding a bag of clothes above my head, I
reckoned it would take about ten minutes. It would be worth it. I needed
to get off the boat, go for a walk, talk to people. My body ached from the
cramped, soaking existence. My mind was beginning to ramble. For seventy
days I had been alone, struggling to row round Ireland's magnificent and
brutal coastline. Just over half-way, I felt that the nightmarish events
which had occurred with terrible regularity must be over. I'd had more
than my share of gales, headwinds, adverse tides, collisions, injury,
swamping, even whirlpools. So a short trip ashore would be a little
I stripped off, bundled my already damp clothes into a nylon bag, and
alter checking the anchors, slid into the chilly water. I kicked off from
the weed-slimy hull and began to swim strongly — with one arm raised to
keep the bag dry. Suddenly the wind gusted and knocked it into the water.
The rhythm of my strokes went wrong as I tried to lift the bag up. It was
wet and became heavy. A spiteful bitch sea slapped me in the face. My eyes
stung. 'Keep that bag up. Keep swimming,' I repeated to myself. Again the
bag blew down. I got worried. I glanced back at the boat. The wind had
taken her away from me, in an arc around the mooring.
I gauged the distance to the shore: 15 yards. I was growing weaker, the
bag was sapping my energy. What a fool I was to attempt such a swim! A
startling mouthful of burning salt water made my heart jump. Waves hurtled
over me. Filthy salt scorched my throat. I sucked mucus in as I gasped for
The bag got heavier, I got lower. I thought I should rest a few seconds
only. Very low in the water, I stopped swimming. The hissing of the water
around me abruptly stopped as I sank. No spray or slaps, but a quiet,
pressing sensation around my ears. My eyes opened and I saw a green void.
My mouth was open, a cold heaviness flowed into my body. Then a calmness
took over all my feelings. A perfect peace for one long second. I wasn't
frightened, rather extra-alert and curious. I felt part of the watery
emptiness. 'What's happening?' asked the inner voice, the surviving
instinct. 'I am drowning!'
My thoughts cleared. I kicked my way to the surface. My head nearly
exploded after the quietness below. I re-entered the world of gurglings
and bubbling sounds. Coughing up foulness, I cried for help-but there was
no one, just rocks one way and my boat the other. I threw away the bag of
My eye fixed on a rock as I crawled through the evil sea. A wave humped
and obscured the black rock, then foam cascaded off it in white ribbons.
'I-must-make-it,' I told myself as I dragged myself on. Five yards to go;
three, two. Crunch! The turbulence of the backlash jarred me so severely
that I didn't know if I had hit the rock at all. I groped in the seething
foam and felt sharp limpets and solidness. The next wave spewed me out of
the sea and my body scraped over the sharpness. Sprawled over the rock,
legs dangling in the sea, naked, I was shaking, vomiting-absolutely
'This must be the final warning,' I thought. 'It is now time to give up.
I've tried my best. I mustn't push my luck any further.'
But my life continued its run of contradictions. Later on that day I swam
back to Louise, and set off rowing again. On 3rd October 1971 arrived back
at my place of departure- Donegal: 113 days and 1,500 miles later. Even my
near-drowning hadn't been enough to stop the crazy voyage. Sharks, reefs,
surf, a killer whale and savagely painful salt water sores added
themselves to the list of horrors. I really thought I meant the next day's
Daily Express headline: 'Never again, says first-time oarsman'.
Expedition - Intentions
How strange then, a few months later, that I drew up a detailed prospectus
of my new plans entitled 'British TransWorld Rowing Expedition'. Why could
I not settle down to my trade as a chef and continue a very promising
career? I wasn't really cut out for such hair-brained physical ordeals.
Basically I loved the soft life, a country lad with a passion for animals,
food, comfortable beds and pints at the local. I hated driving, travelling
and meeting new people. Where did my peculiar itchyfootedness come from?
For I had a terrific desire to row off again. This time, The Big One! My
decision was made while John Fairfax and Sylvia Cook were still rowing
across the Pacific: there could be only one voyage to cap that. I thought
I could do it; I was young and strong and daft enough; I could row a good
stroke; I could survive the life. And someone would surely sponsor my
effort. I could think of no reason why I shouldn't have a go. So I got
organised for the trip of a lifetime. Why? What for? asked my friends and
The frequently voiced but nevertheless dubious clichés rolled off my
tongue: 'Because it's there!' 'Man's desire to better himself,' 'Because
I'm British!' But I wasn't sure about them. Perhaps it was far
simpler-selfishness, egotism, escapism, shirking my responsibilities. But
I knew what was involved. It would demand more of me than I had ever given
to anything before.
At twenty-four I had time and youth on my side-no ties, and the doggedness
to transform dreams into realities. I had also nurtured an insensitivity
to other people's comments. Ever since the Atlantic rowers came into the
limelight in the Sixties, 'rowing round the world' has for many come to be
a jocular expression of impossibility mingled with pointlessness. I
certainly needed all my ability to ignore those who told me what not to do
with my life.
After six months of initial planning I began to look around for two
companions to make up a team; one of them was to be a girl. After Louise
had been destroyed by a lire in Northern Ireland two days before she was
due to be shipped to England for exhibition purposes, my idea of raising
money to build anew boat quickly fell through. I had therefore to make
quick money to keep up with the planning costs while I tried to raise
' Heads and freaks — daily bread. Call Wendy on...' pronounced an
advertisement I saw in a paper. With visions of easy cash I investigated
further. As I suspected, the job was selling. Chalk drawings on
velvet-type backgrounds were certainly not my style. I collected a bundle
of the horrible things and waited to be allocated to a group who would be
driven out of London to pollute the artistic atmosphere of unfortunate
'Derek meet Peter Bird, your supervisor,' said the sales manager. A
bespectacled character, over six foot tall, topped by a huge mass of curls
and ending in bright blue boots, swung towards me. He proffered a great
ham of a hand and said:
The reason why I was standing in an office surrounded by twenty or so
hairy salesmen was because I was a refugee of the times at twenty-six
years of age. I had left school at fifteen and, completely unqualified,
gone straight into an advertising agency as
tea-boy-cum-production-assistant. Happy and independent, I had then begun
my education. Nearly a year later, the agency went bust. I snatched the
opportunity of this sudden freedom, bought a sleeping bag and hitched off
around Europe. Like many of the young of that time, I had been influenced
by Jack Kerouac's holy book for misfits, On the Road. It was the beginning
of a way of life-travel. Any time the urge came I dropped whatever I was
doing-from advertising to photography and scores of jobs in between-and
went: driving, hitching, walking, sailing. I made two round-the-world
trips as a ship's photographer. My horizons extended.
Always I kept my one creed-never to be committed. Commitment, I saw, was a
ball and chain. It meant responsibilities and ties that would make it
difficult to stick two fingers up at the boss if he got unreasonable.
Why not work for yourself? I tried it. Peter Bird Photography came and
went. For unreasonable boss read unreasonable Bank Manager.
I felt totally unemployable, so the only answer was to duck and weave more
quickly-in, out and away. My wanderings brought me back home to London and
the velvet painting business. I was soon promoted to Supervisor and
financially I was doing quite well. I intended to stay in the job for the
summer of 1972 and with the proceeds hoped to build a catamaran and become
even more mobile.
Then I met a tough, compact-looking man who wore a black leather jacket
and smoked a cigar. He didn't look like the rest of the casual types
assembled around us in the sales office. In fact, he appeared to be the
odd one. As I shook hands with Derek King, a searing pain shot up from my
fingers. I hoped he wouldn't shake hands with a customer before trying to
As we drove up the Ì1 I began the 'get' the newcomer comfortable'
technique by asking a bit about him. With three others in the car I tried
to make him feel part of the family. He told us he was doing some writing.
'Like what about, man?' asked a voice
from the back seat.
'About a trip I made last summer.'
'Where to, man?' came the back seat.
'I rowed round Ireland,' came the nonchalant reply.
I was astonished. I asked questions. How long? What boat?
He certainly didn't expect so much enthusiasm from me. As I plied him
with pints of Guinness ('my training,' he said) in a
wayside pub, he dropped another bombshell.
'I'm planning to row round the world,' he declared with the greatest
'I asked Uffa Fox to design a 40-foot row-boat, based on the lines of
Britannia II. You know, the one that-'
'Yes' I interrupted, 'the Pacific rowboat.'
'Well, last week Uffa sent me the blueprints. She's going to be a
beautiful boat.' He stared into his pint and smiled.
'What route?' I was intrigued.
'I think the best place to start from is Gibraltar. You can't row
against the headwinds farther north, if you leave from the U.K. for
example. Gib is the nearest British colony to the beginnings of the
north-east trade winds which will be in my favour across the Atlantic.
Then through the West Indies, Panama, the Pacific, North Australia,
Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Suez and back to the Rock.' He downed his drink.
'26,000 miles. Probably take about three years in all with stopovers for
repairs, food and water.'
Surely he'll need a crew, my mind raced. He won't go alone. Not in a
'Er - going with you?' I ventured.
'Well, actually I haven't got a crew together yet. I'm hoping to find
another bloke and a girl.'
I heard a tiny alarm bell ringing in my head. A girl. Two men.
'Why a girl?' I enquired. I didn't fancy the idea of sharing.
'Why not,' he laughed. 'I don't like the idea of all that time at sea
without a bit of female company. And there's the personality difference
which I think is important. If three men went- well, I think there'd be
more problems. Limited subjects of talk, possible rivalry for
leadership, and so on.'
'Why not a twosome then?' I suggested.
'Three people ñaï work more efficiently than two. Don't forget it's not
like sailing. If you stop rowing-you stop moving, except for a
wind-drift. So the boat's got to be moving most of the time, or it'll
take years. And there's so much to do on top of the rowing. There's
cooking, navigating, sleeping, maintenance and all that. With three
people, all the jobs are looked after without affecting the performance
of the boat.'
Derek sounded very knowledgeable. It was obvious that he'd put in a lot
of research. The route was unusual for round-the-world voyages-but then,
this wasn't a usual voyage. As rowing can't be done against winds, it
was the obvious choice. The well-known routeing by clipper ships and,
more latterly, eccentric yachtsmen would I knew be impossible for a
rowboat-the seas would be too rough, the weather too cold for an open
boat, and there would be a lack of suitable landing places in the
Southern Ocean-the arsehole of the world, as Derek succinctly put it.
'But,' he added, 'don't think I haven't considered that route.'
I admitted that he must have considered everything.
'As far as I can see, there is only one weak point in the route. Suez,'
he said. 'But I reckon that by the time I'm up the Red Sea, it will be
open, officially. Though I've heard of small boats going through
The two days that followed were drastic as far as selling went. Derek
and I yarned for hours about his venture and the more we spoke, the more
I wanted to join him. Derek set the ball rolling by talking about the
qualifications needed in the crew.
'Neither of them need know how to row-they'll get enough practice.
They've just got to be keen, with plenty of stamina and nerve, and be
'I'm your man!' I blurted out.
'I think you are,' he said.
Would we get on for three
years? I thought. I thought so- hut obviously there would be a few
arguments. Yet it seemed we complemented one another. The big question
was the girl. That alarm bell still rang. But I felt confident in my
ability, both mentally and physically. I also had a very real need to
go; call it a need to fulfil, I don't know, but it was the first time in
mylife that I had committed myself for more than a month ahead. From
that day on, the sales of velvet paintings plunged.
Derek suggested we work on a demolition site to toughen ourselves up. As
great steel roofs crashed around us, I couldn't help thinking ~ on earth
have I let myself in for?'
As soon as we started
talking, I decided that Pete Bird sounded very much like the man I was
looking for. It was obvious he would have a go at anything, and his
traveller's tales convinced me that he would appreciate the experience.
I thought that what he would go for would be the journeying rather than
the achievement. He certainly looked fit enough; I could think of ïo
argument against him. And that outrageous sense of humour: very useful
for the long, long days on the ocean.
Both of us set out to find our number three, though I detected Pete had
certain reservations about a female being involved in such an
enterprise. Nevertheless, he thought it proper for both of us to have a
crack at her on the casting couch before any decision was made! I was
totally aware of the possibility that there would be a sexual problem:
namely, the old familiar of 'Òwo into one won't go'. Pete just saw black
and white on this point.
There was another reason
for the inclusion of a girl in this project: pure publicity. We needed
publicity to pay for the voyage; #
But I was aware of the
very real problems that publicity can bring.
The first pressures came
from the press, sponsors and friends:
'Where', they asked, 'is the girl?' We desperately needed a girl. Of the
few who asked to join the team, all were enthusiastic and certainly
would have been physically able to endure the rigours of such a voyage.
Unfortunately, these fine women were built like Charlton Heston and did
not possess the feminine charm that I wanted to live with for three
One evening, in Dartford, Kent, I met an old college friend of my
younger brother's. I had known Carol Maystone slightly and we chatted.
She asked what I was doing for a living and I told her about the voyage.
Jokingly I asked her if she'd like to come. Her dark-brown eyes looked
serious. She thought for a minute and said: 'Tell me more'. Carol was a very
attractive twenty-year-old. She was dressed in a track suit that evening
as she had been playing badminton at the local YMCA where she worked.
She told me she had left the Army after her basic training to get
married-but later she had broken off her engagement. She wanted to
travel and she appeared genuinely enthusiastic about the voyage and said
she understood the dangers and problems of the trip. She wanted to think
about it for a week.
Three days later she rang up and said she wanted to go.
Carol was attractive, enthusiastic and she looked as if she could handle
interviews quite well-thereby promising to add plausibility to our
image. She was a sweet, pleasant-natured girl, giggly, cheerful and
self-confident. But would she really be able to cope with a boat, the
sea and two men? How could I be sure she wasn't kidding herself and us?
Indeed, how could I be sure about Pete or even myself? The answer could
only be-try it.
We decided to accept Carol as a member of the crew
Then in April 1973,
following a talk with Peter Tappenden, our contact at British Petroleum,
John Fairfax phoned me. He had heard from Peter that we were having no
luck trying to raise the money to build the boat. Would we like to borrow
Britannia II for the project? She was on exhibition in Australia at the
moment but would be coming to England in June. Very gratefully we
accepted. And then everything began to slot neatly in place. The attitude
of potential backers warmed at the news of the expedition's latest asset,
namely one boat.
Casablanca. April - May
The relationship between Carol, Pete and me has almost broken down. Let's
try to analyse it. First, I have been stubborn and tried to convince
myself and Pete that the girl would change once we were at sea. All the
glamour, posing for photos, TV, etc, would no longer distract her from her
job. Pete, now it seems quite rightly, refused to believe this would
happen. The situation between those two soon became very strained-
especially on the Barbate-Casa run. I soon found I was in total agreement
with Pete. It became apparent that Carol's seamanship was inadequate to
our tasks, despite our laborious instruction in even simple things such as
knots. She realised this inadequacy and then seemed to get worse. And when
she smiled for the first time when I announced we were going in to Casa, I
realised that ever since the idea of the row had been suggested to her she
had been completely deceiving herself on her capabilities.
The gales are still blowing-we'll no doubt be here a few days more. I
think I know what will happen, but I do baulk at losing a crew member.
Pete understood well and said it was my decision. He, like me, agreed that
the cooking would be a hated job if we had to do it ourselves. And
something else that both of us didn't fancy doing
-the awfully painful job of telling Carol we didn't want her.
On 5th May, Carol returned after vanishing for nearly two days. I was
sitting in the boat repairing a broken foot board. Pete crouched on the
pontoon next to the boat sawing a piece of batten. Carol sat down between
us. The problem of who would tell her to leave was resolved. She looked me
in the eye and said:
'I've decided not to go on.'