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Interview with Bob Comlay

Monday, 13 June 2016

In this blog, Bob Comlay – one of only a handful of crew members to join twentieth-century explorer H. W. 'Bill' Tilman on two voyages to Greenland – tells us about his friendship with Tilman and the talks and events he has planned over the coming months.

Had you been an admirer of Tilman’s before your 1970 expedition to Greenland? How did you hear about the trip?

My first awareness of Tilman came through his brief crew vacancy notice placed in a sailing journal in December 1969. I was seventeen at the time, kicking my heels at home having already secured a university place for the following year. At that age, all I knew of Greenland was the line in the well-known hymn and of Tilman, ‘the Skipper’, I knew nothing whatever. After our first meeting on the boat at Lymington, during one of his infrequent winter visits, I went to my local public library to seek out some information and discovered the Mischief series of books. In all honesty, I knew little of his military or mountaineering history until after I returned home from that first voyage and read The Ulysses Factor by J.R.L. Anderson.

HWT posing after his 'first ascent of the season', beset in ice, 1970. © Bob Comlay

Tilman was well-known for his dry wit and self-effacing character but he was notoriously difficult to get to know. Having sailed on two expeditions with him, what was your impression of him?

A disarmingly shy man, small in stature and quiet, a leader by example rather than by natural authority. Despite my lack of experience, he was happy to take me on providing that I agreed with his condition that I 'pull your weight and take things as they come, the rough with the smooth'. Within the first few days of the voyage, with the two of us the only members of the ship’s crew unaffected by seasickness, I met those conditions and gained his trust. It was clear to me from the outset that he had long experience in handling an old working sailing vessel and at no time did I ever feel he knowingly took unquantifiable risks with either boat or crew. He set a high standard as far as work rate went and simply expected those in his crew to step up to the same exacting level. Since he was covering the costs of the voyage, he believed that the crew had little cause to complain about any perception of hardship.

Why did you decide to accompany Tilman on a second voyage to Greenland in 1971?

The experience of the first voyage had a profound effect on me and I found it impossible to settle down and join the rat race. Part way through my first year at university, reading a subject that I realised I had very little interest in, it was clear that I was going to volunteer for a second voyage. From Bangor, where I made a weak attempt to concentrate on my studies, to Bodowen, Tilman’s home near Barmouth was an easy day of round-trip hitchhiking and I made occasional visits to lunch on his home-baked bread and his home-brewed beer while chewing over ideas for future voyages. My priorities were evidently clear to me when I left partway through my last summer exam in order to catch the train down to Lymington to make a ‘pier-head jump’ onto the boat.    

Sea Breeze at anchor, Sehesteds Fjord, East Greenland, 1971. © Bob Comlay

Can you tell us a couple of your favourite Tilman anecdotes?    

In 1971 while alongside the dock at the Icelandic fishing port of Isafjordhur, an elderly British tourist looked down on the deck where Tilman was quietly stitching a sail, pipe clenched in his mouth, and asked us where we were heading. When I replied ‘Greenland’, the gentleman looked thoughtfully down at the Skipper who was wearing a sweater bearing the name Sea Breeze. After a pause, he remarked 'Ah, following in Tilman’s footsteps, eh?’. The Skipper said nothing and carried on sewing, leaving me to complete the conversation with the single word necessary – ‘Yes’. A typical example of his modesty.

At the end of the 1970 voyage on our arrival at Lymington, the first visitor aboard was the local customs officer, complete with clipboard and pen. With his pipe clenched between his teeth, barely disguising a mischievous grin, the Skipper ticked ‘Nothing to declare’ and signed the forms. The customs officer was the only person present who was blissfully unaware that the locker on which he was sitting contained two-and-a-half cases of unopened spirits destined to supply the winter months at Bodowen. 

Sea Breeze beset in ice off the West coast of Greenland, 1970. HWT in the foreground. © Bob Comlay

You gave a talk at the Dragon Theatre in Barmouth in the run up to the Three Peaks Yacht Race in June and have a few other similar talks coming up. What can the audiences expect from these talks?

That depends on the time available! At Barmouth, I had the luxury of a free reign and was able to take ninety minutes with a brief bar break in the middle. In that time, I covered a brief biography of the man illustrated with a number of photographs from various sources, including the RGS and private collections. The bulk of the talk focused on the 1970 and 1971 voyages illustrated with a large number of original unpublished Kodachrome slides. Throughout the presentation I include a number of private letters written to me by Tilman which provide a unique insight into his character. Using other material from private collections, particularly from the camera of Sandy Lee, I briefly cover the final voyage, ending with a short extract from the unpublished film taken on the 1964 Heard Island expedition.   

Find out more about our Tilman series here.


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