When Bill Tilman was lost in the stormy South Atlantic seas in 1977, with the entire crew of the the En Avant, en route to Smith Island, where several of the crew intended to launch a mountaineering expedition, the world lost a remarkable adventurer and irrepressible free spirit. In his 80th year, an age when most people-even those with a climbing and sailing background-have gracefully retired from the activity and content themselves with books and gardening, Tilman found it impossible to let go of the reins. Pushing his elderly body as far as possible. Never for one moment entertaining the possibility that he could not still play a hand’s on roll on an expedition.
Now Vertebrate Publishing-best known as one of the UK’s premier mountaineering book publishers, have teamed up with sailing publishing house, Lodestar Books- to bring Tilman’s adventure books back into the spotlight. With over half of the reprint run already in the bookshops, its a good time for those unfamiliar with this fascinating and iconic figure from the world of mountaineering and ocean sailing, to acquaint themselves with the Tilman oeuvre.
Born at the very end of the 19th century, just as Queen Victoria was leaving the stage, the Merseysider who was born in Wallasey on the Wirral was the son of a successful sugar merchant. Tilman would have looked out to the Liverpool docks across the busy waterway, where he would see the commodity which funded his somewhat privileged life, unloaded into the great warehouses which lined the then thriving Liverpool docklands. Perhaps it was being born at the mouth of a great river which stimulated an interest in all things nautical?
Sent off for a private education at Berkhamstead, after completing his education, the young Tilman soon found himself caught up in the carnage of the first world war. Surviving amongst other campaigns, the battle of the Somme. Ten years after the war, Tilman met up with Eric Shipton who like himself was engaged in the coffee trade of East Africa. Early forays upon Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro and Ruwenzori cemented a highly successful and long lasting climbing partnership.
Between the wars,Tilman was involved in two of the 1930s Mount Everest expeditions. The 1935 Reconnaissance Expedition, and as leader of the 1938 expedition when he reached 27200 feet without oxygen. With Shipton, he ventured into the previously unexplored Nanda Devi sanctuary in 1934 and two years later he returned and led a UK/US expedition which mounted a successful attempt on the summit. A mountain which until 1950, remained the highest yet climbed.
Despite his age, Tillman volunteered for service in the WW2 and served in North Africa and Dunkirk. Later in the campaign he saw action behind enemy lines and fought with Albanian and Italian partisans in their bloody campaign in southern Europe and was awarded the DSO for his sterling work with the partisans.
After the war and now approaching his 50‘s, he began an impressive ocean sailing career to which complimented his mountaineering activities by enabling him to visit far flung and previously inaccessible areas. Initially setting sail in his famous Pilot Cutter ‘Mischief’ and visiting the Arctic regions and several remote Atlantic and Pacific islands, Tilman went on to skipper two more pilot cutters; ‘Sea Breeze’ and ‘Baroque’, before setting out on his fateful final voyage as a crew member of the Simon Richardson skippered ‘En Avant’.
With regard to the ill fated vessel, its worth quoting from a Yachting and Boating forum where a contributor’s diligent research had turned up the following information.....
“En Avant was a wartime tugboat hull constructed by slave labour. She was a semi-wreck and had been sunk more than once, Richardson himself fitted a Deutz marine engine, large battery banks and a welded keel. She had good stability but low freeboard. There have been differing views of the boat, Colin Putt wrote: "En Avant proved to be a good sea boat and the crew turned up trumps" elsewhere she was described as a "sorry sight" and was thought to be unsuitable for the trip. Conditions on board would have been stark.
I suspect the trip was funded by Richardson's own resources perhaps with contributions from the crew. He bought the boat for £750 and was given the engine. He was keen on Tilman's concept of small, low cost, expeditions. His Mother's writings (which I have not seen) would no doubt flesh this out.....There were seven on the trip: Tilman, Richardson, Coatman, Toombs, Williams (contacted by advert), Johnson (old school friend) and Dittamore (American Climber)....I guess some of the three brought in by advert would be sailors.’.
Bill Tilman spent the last 30 years of his life here in North Wales.Living in the beautifully situated traditional stone country house of Bod Owen, above the Malltraeth Estuary near Barmouth in Gwynedd.Ironically, a quiet and peaceful stretch of water compared to the incomparably wild and stormy waters of the South Atlantic which took his life.
The Adventure Archive..
The Tilman Series of adventure books are available from Vertebrate Publishers.
Tilman Archive: Yachting and Boating forum