A Sporting Chance?
Risk, Sport and Personal Responsibility
By Farwell Forrest
A Note to the Reader
day on the Battenkill hit Ed, Brenna and the rest of the gang
pretty hard last week, so we've given everybody some time off to rest
and recuperate. No, it's not the end of the trailour "Trip of a
Lifetime" will return on February 6th. This week, however, we thought
we'd look at one man's real-life trip of a lifetime, and at the
questions it raises about risk, sport and personal responsibility.
January 30, 2001
As I write this, a 57-year-old
grandfather is making preparations to sail a much-modified 14-foot
aluminum workboat around Great Britaina non-stop voyage of more
than 2,000 nautical miles. His name is Stuart Hill. He's the
operations director of an Internet portal company based in the United
Kingdom, and, yes, so far as I can tell, he's completely sane.
What does this have to do with paddlesport? More than I'd have
thought, as it turns out. Like canoeists and kayakers, small-boat
sailors rely on skill and stamina to get from one place to another
across the world's waters. Most of us, most of the time, regard motors
in the same light as we regard unasked-for adviceunnecessary, at
best; at worst, undesirable. And, just as is the case with whitewater
paddlers, sailors in tidal waters must go with the flow or suffer the
consequences. Tidal currents, like rivers, are driven by gravity. All
smart boaters travel "downhill" whenever they can, whether they're
relying on wind or muscle for their primary motive power.
There are historical ties, too. When, in late April or early May of
this year, Stuart launches his boat, fittingly christened Maximum
Exposure, and embarks on his marathon circumnavigation, he'll be
following in the wake of John "Rob Roy" MacGregor, the British
barrister who was the father of modern recreational canoeing.
MacGregor's exploits in a succession of decked "canoes"today,
all Americans and even many Britons would call them
kayakssparked off an international canoeing craze that lasted
until the end of the nineteenth century. (I've written more about this
elsewhere.) But MacGregor was a sailor, as well as a canoeist. In
1867, after learning that a "Boat Exhibition" and regatta were to be
held in Paris, he commissioned a 21-foot yawl* from the boatyard that
built his little canoes, and then proceeded to sail this diminutive
yacht across the Channel and up the Seine to Paris, without any help
from either crew or pilot.
MacGregor was as good a publicist as he was a sailor. The book he
wrote about his cross-Channel exploit, The Voyage Alone in the Yawl
Rob Roy, enjoyed the same success as his earlier canoeing tales,
A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe and The Rob Roy on the
Baltic: it was an instant best-seller. But MacGregor didn't need
the money. He was a gentleman of independent means and a noted
philanthropist. Much of the income from the sale of his books and the
subsequent lecture tours was therefore divided among the many
charities which he supported. It was no small sum. MacGregor kept
careful records of his earnings. Before many years had passed, his
royalties and lecture fees added up to more than £10,000, at a
time when a skilled laborer might feel himself lucky to earn £50
Among the many people who purchased a copy of The Voyage
Alone was one Empson Edward Middleton. He, too, was a gentleman of
means. This was indeed fortunate, since he was also sufficiently
eccentric to have been thought mad if he'd been unlucky enough to be
born poor. Happily, though, Middleton's eccentricities were innocent
ones. He believed himself possessed of "a great store of electricity."
This, he asserted, helped him control any sailing vessel's wheel or
tiller and gave him supernatural skill in steering and holding a
course. He may just have been right, I suppose. He was certainly a
good helmsman. But he was also convinced that the earth was both
stationary and flat (or, at least, not round), and that the sun was
"but a very moderate remove from the surface of the Earth."
Understandably enough, this was not a view that won him much support
from Britain's Astronomer Royal, who replied to Middleton's many
letters on the subject with the "defiant contempt which is the
the dishonest and ungodly in all walks of life." Or
such, at least, was Middleton's view.
Nor was his fruitless battle with the intransigent Astronomer Royal
his only frustration. When Middleton happened upon a copy of
MacGregor's newly-published book in a circulating library, he'd been
laboring over a translation of the Æneid for several years,
attemptingwith a singular lack of success, it must be
saidto transform Virgil's epic Latin hexameters into "truly
artistic" rhymed English pentameters. Middleton was clearly a man in
need of rest and recreation. Sleepless and sore-eyed, he was ready for
a change of scene, and he found just what he was looking for in
MacGregor's muscular prose.
"All hail The Voyage Alone," Middleton wrote of his
discovery. And he lost no time in setting out to make his own mark in
the boating world. First, he commissioned a near-copy of MacGregor's
yawl from the same builders, "to be ready on the 15th May." He had
already worked out what he would do with her: "I immediately
determined to sail around England, choosing that course as the most
difficult one I could think of, on account of its powerful tides."
To reduce a long and fascinating story to its barest essentials, he
succeeded. Starting from Ramsgate Harbour on Friday, June 18th, 1869,
"sailing alone in a boat for the first time in [his] life," Middleton
circumnavigated England. He was the first to do so single-handed. On
September 24th, he left The KateMiddleton had named the
little yacht after his sisterat Victoria Dock, confident that
his place in history was now secure.
What then remains for Stuart Hill to do, 132 years later? Two
things. Though Middleton sailed across the Irish Sea and "coasted" up
Ireland from Courtown to Donaghadee before sailing back across to
Britain, he did not venture around Scotland, choosing instead to cross
from west to east by way of the Crinan (now Forth & Clyde) Canal. He
also broke his journey every evening, preferring, in the words of
Arthur Ransome, "to sleep and feed ashore."
Hill has other plans. He hopes to circumnavigate all of Great
Britain, and he intends to do so without stopping even oncethis
in a 14-foot open aluminum boat, driven by a rig cannibalized from a
Will he succeed? I've no idea, I'm afraid, though I won't say I'm
overly optimistic. The difficulties standing in his way are
formidable. Not only will he have to contend with the vagaries of wind
and tide, to say nothing of the limitations of the human frame, but
for part of his voyage he will also be sailing through Dover
Strait"the busiest of all the straits used for international
navigation," in the words of The Times Atlas and Encyclopedia of
the Sea. Middleton's voyage ended with The Kate "a wreck,"
her bowsprit smashed in a collision with a steamer. Hill will have to
contend with far more than river steamers, however. He can expect to
encounter ferries, hydrofoils, and high-speed hovercraft, not to
mention 250,000-ton Very Large Crude Carriers. The narrow sea between
Great Britain and the continent can be a mighty crowded place.
Still, it's hard not to be caught up in the excitement of such an
adventure. Whether canoeist, kayaker, or small-boat sailorthese
weren't mutually-exclusive labels in MacGregor's and Middleton's time,
of course, and they needn't be today, eithermost of us harbor a
secret wish to attempt some "impossible" feat or other at least one
time before we die. As Napoleon once wryly observed, "Every private
carries a field-marshal's baton in his cartridge pouch." It's simply
But what of the risk? Is it fairis it even morally
rightfor anyone to risk his life in pursuit of something so
ephemeral as a sporting "first"? What if it all goes terribly wrong?
What, then, of the grief born by those who stayed at home? The grief
of wives and children. The grief of widowed husbands, or of lovers,
suddenly finding themselves alone again. What of the perils that our
folliesor even our innocent errorscompel total strangers
to bear? What of water-rescue personnel, for example, or helicopter
crew, or lifeboatmen? Are we justified in expecting them to accept,
willy-nilly, the dangers that we have chosen to defy?
These are difficult and troubling questions, all of them. And I
won't pretend to have any answers, save only to note that we all risk
our lives every day for far more mundane ends. One person in every
eighty born in the United States will die in a car wreck, and
thousands of people will risk their lives to save total strangers from
heaps of twisted metal and gasoline-fed flames. Yet we jump in our
cars without a thought, often for no better reason than to drive down
to the convenience store to pick up a six-pack (or a half-gallon of
milk) that we forgot to buy on our way home from work. How pointless
such trips are, really. Imagine risking your life for a six-pack!
Could anything be more foolish, or more irresponsible? Yet we all do
it. And many thousands of us will die needlessly as a result.
Whether we accept it or not, canoeing and kayaking, like dinghy
sailing, are necessarily "risk sports." Prudence, experience, and
skill can minimize the risks we run, to be sure, but nothing can
eliminate them entirely. And death waits even in familiar places. You
needn't sail a small boat on the North Sea to run the risk of
drowning. You can die in a farm pond just as easily. I
almost did, in fact. That being the case, what then is a
"sporting chance"? How much riskto both ourselves and to
othersshould we accept in our pursuit of sport? I don't know the
answer to this, either, but I know I'll be thinking a lot more about
the question as I watch Stuart Hill prepare to set sail.
* A yawl is a two-masted sailing boat with the smaller
mizzen mast stepped right aft, behind the rudder post.
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights