Worse Things Happen at Sea

Growing up in the little port of Teignmouth on the English south coast I was somehow able to persuade my Art teacher that the comings and goings of ships would be a good topic for my O Level. So, I spent quite a bit of time down by the docks. I never met or knew anyone who worked on a ship but I wondered who they might be, where they were going, where they came from. It all seemed very romantic.

At around the same time, with a bunch of my school mates, I completed Ten Tors – a gruelling 2-day event across Dartmoor run by the Army. It was one of those things I did without thinking as a teenager but now I realise that it gave me a deep attachment to the outdoors.

More than 30 years later I started to think about shipping again. After leaving school (with an Art O Level!) I was lucky enough to work in all sorts of exciting innovation projects – launching mobile phones, Formula One teams, financial information systems, offshore yacht racing and renewable energy. The possibility for renewable energy in commercial shipping is an untapped opportunity and one I’m now developing now in an industry collaboration. In discovering how the shipping industry works I’ve started learning more about the remarkable people who have responsibility for keeping global trade moving.  Some of it’s not good.

All sailors will have to endure, to varying degrees, horrific conditions – foul weather, dangerous sea states, risk of hi-jacking, long absences from loved ones with little or no contact (internet just isn’t a regular feature on many a merchant ship), long distances from any medical care, poor pay and working conditions in badly managed ships, and, sometimes, being abandoned in a foreign country when a ship owner goes bust with no means of getting paid or even water, food, heat, or returning home.

And meanwhile all of us blithely go about our consuming with little regard for how our stuff gets to us. Look around you – where did that phone/laptop/jacket/avocado come from? How did it get here? Who suffered?

The Sailors Society look out for some of the people whose invisible labours make our lives what it is.

I’ve always enjoyed a walk. But when I turned 50 and discovered middle-aged spread I took up running. A first, not very far and very slowly. But I completed the Bath Half Marathon three years later…and hated almost every minute of it. I had, however, enjoyed the training for it. By good fortune – and the internet – I stumbled across Climb South West’s inaugural 'Dartmoor in a Day' challenge. Last September I walked the 50k from the North to the South of the moor in an event as close to Ten Tors for Grown Ups as I could have wished to have discovered. I loved it.

And so it was that when Climb South West announced that they were running an event in Snowdonia called the Welsh3000s I signed up. It was after all only 50k in 24 hours and I had already done 50k in 11 hours – how hard could it be?

A few weeks later I read the small print and that was when the two words “brutally tough” hit me between the eyes and then my stomach, which turned to water. It’s taken me a while to pluck up the courage to find out what the ‘3000’ means. I’d hoped it was feet; turns out it’s metres.

This challenge was going to demand more of me than I had imagined. I couldn’t do it alone. A good friend (@sailorbaejon) had just signed up to do the London Marathon to raise money for the Sailors Society and so I copied him. After all, a marathon is just an unimaginably awful thing to do voluntarily.

For the last 2 months, for 5 or 6 days a week I’ve been in training: lifting weights; learning about a whole new world of burpees, crunches and squat jumps and performing multiple ‘sets’ of ‘reps’. I’ve been scrambling up cliffs on holiday, running as fast as I can up really steep hills, jogging as far as I can over undulating terrain, walking for hours in searing heat and, more recently, pouring rain; I’ve been pedalling a stationary exercise bike in my garden. And I’ve been dancing for hours with a gang from my village - practicing and participating in (and winning!) our local Carnival.  

In the moments when it hurts, when I just can’t be ar*ed, when I think I’ll never breathe again, when I don’t want to get wet, when it's too hot, then I remember that I made this choice. So many seafarers don’t get to choose – it’s the only career that can generate enough money to support their families – and they have to endure so much more day in, day out.

I remember that worse things really do happen at sea.

Please support me in supporting the Sailors Society. https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/diane-gilpin3