Recognition for one the most remarkable voyagers of our times, a modern day Bill Tilman

Congratulations to the truly inspiring Rev Bob Shepton, who yesterday won the Apollo/Yachting Journalists’ Association Yachtsman of the Year Award. It is many years since an amateur and self-funded sailor has won this historic award, and Bob Shepton is certainly one of the most worthy and impressive of any, amateur or professional, in its 69-year history.

The citation goes as follows:

‘The Rev Bob Shepton, now living in Argyll in Scotland, completed the unique feat of sailing his 33ft sloop through hostile Arctic conditions of the North West Passage in both directions in successive years. His latest voyage west to east, last July, aged 78, was in particularly bleak conditions and the feat was managed by only three boats this year.

‘The adventure youth leader, who was chaplain at two London schools, cruises extensively in the Arctic on his 33ft Westerly, Dodo’s Delight, and last year faced extremely harsh conditions with 30-40 per cent more ice than usual and strong headwinds.

‘This led to no spring at all in Alaska and rivers frozen later than at any time in 96 years. Yet, as well as completing the passage successively, he also found time to carry out underwater filming for a Scottish marine biology consultancy to analyse the Arctic seabed flora.’

However, the award snapshot of Shepton’s achievements is, if you’ll excuse the pun, only the tip of the iceberg. This ex-Royal Marine and retired school chaplain is by any standards one of the most remarkable voyagers and explorers of our times – a modern day H. W. (Bill) Tilman.

Over the past 25 years he has circumnavigated several times, sailing over 130,000 miles in every latitude from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In the 1990s, he took a crew of underprivileged schoolboys to the Antarctic and back across the Atlantic.

He has sailed to, and climbed in, high latitudes on numerous occasions and scaled previously unclimbed Arctic mountains. To give but two examples:

In 2001 Bob sailed through the Davis Strait to Baffin Bay where, at its northernmost point, he made a crossing on skis of the remote and hostile Bylot Island (a land mass of 11,000km2, with no settlements). This epic traverse took 10 days and involved the ascent of eight peaks.

In 2004, he sailed to Greenland with a crew of skiiers and climbers, encountering a storm in which he had to heave to for 26 hours. At Kangerdlugssuaq, Bob made a personal ascent of a peak of 1,650m over 30km of distance (some of it on loose and difficult terrain), taking 28 hours.

Later, he rounded Kap Alexander and continued until being stopped by pack ice at 78°32’N, probably the furthest north that a glassfibre yacht has ever been in Greenland.

Unfortunately, while overwintering in the ice in 2005, a fire from the boat’s diesel heater consumed Dodo’s Delight and she burned to the waterline and sank in the ice. Undeterred, Shepton sought out and bought another similar Westerly Discus, and he has continued voyaging to the far north since.

I asked him yesterday where his boat was, and he replied “Greenland”, so no need to ask his cruise plans this year, or probably next either as he continues sailing into his ninth decade.

Bravo Bob.

At the same time, the Apollo/YJA Young Yachtsman of the Year award was given to Natasha Lambert, a 16-year old from Cowes, who despite suffering from cerebral palsy was able to sail arose the Channel this year in a specially converted Mini 6.50 yacht.  

She controls her yacht Miss Isle Too from her wheelchair with a ‘sip and puff’ system designed by her father. The crossing from Boulogne to Dover took four-and-a-half hours and raised funds for various disabled sailing charities. Through sailing Natasha says she is able to take an active part in the community and achieve her dreams.

Mike Golding was given a special award for his lifetime of racing and record-setting, which encompasses six circumnavigations. Read more about another of this era’s most determined sailors in my profile of the remarkable Golding following his Vendée Globe finish last year.

Another special award was given to 13-year-old power boater Ben Jelf who became the youngest ever powerboat champion at age 11.