VICE Long Reads

The 73-Year-Old Adventurer Sailing a 60ft Steel Whale Across the Atlantic Ocean

Tom McClean left the SAS to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean, a feat he's achieved five times. Now, at 73, he's ready to do it again – in a giant steel sperm whale.

by Joe Banks
18 February 2016, 2:00pm


Tom McClean and "Moby" the whale. All photos by Luke Montgomery.

I'm standing at the edge of a sea loch in the West Highlands of Scotland staring at a 60ft sperm whale, its huge tail rising up from the hillside of rock and heather across the water. Moving closer, I can see the painted foam that forms its skin and the ¾ inch steel panels that curve round its belly. It's a boat, but not like any other you've seen before.

Its creator, Tom McClean, is standing next to me. We're staying with Tom at the outdoor adventure centre he's been running on a remote shore of Loch Nevis, near the Isle of Skye, for over four decades. During that time he's been having adventures of his own: this extraordinary boat is just the latest enterprise in a lifetime of turning the excesses of his imagination into brute reality.

"I stayed an adventurer," he says. "Coming up with original ideas. Having a go at this and having a go at that."

Mainly Tom's been having a go at the Atlantic Ocean. In 1969, while a soldier in the SAS, he was the first person to row alone across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland, a journey of over 2,000 miles, battling for 71 days through monstrous storms, waves the size of houses, freezing temperatures and a capsizing. After that there were four more solo Atlantic crossings, in crafts of various sizes and degrees of eccentricity. In 1982 he set the record for the smallest boat to ever cross the Atlantic, a 9ft 9in yacht called Giltspur. When the American Bill Dunlop crossed three weeks later in a boat 8 inches smaller, McClean sawed two feet off his with a chainsaw, went again, and reclaimed the record.

In 1985, he spent 40 days living alone on Rockall, the pillar of granite rock sticking out of the Atlantic a couple of hundred miles west of the Hebrides, in a self-directed (and largely fruitless) attempt to assert Britain's territorial claim to the islet. A couple of years later, aged 44, he was rowing the North Atlantic once more, crossing in 50 days to set the record for the fastest time. Then, looking for a marketing opportunity to get him on the ocean again, he went across the Atlantic from New York in a boat the shape of a beer bottle. Sponsored, oddly enough, by Typhoo Tea.

His latest project is "Moby", a 65-ton boat the size and shape of a sperm whale, complete with painted mouth and eyes and a blow-hole that shoots water high into the air. Again, he wants to cross the Atlantic: "I've put a big, big, effort into it all," he says. "A lot of people have a great pipe dream and of course they run out of money and it all fizzles out and stops. But we kept going. All we want now is someone to make good use of it."

The whale-boat was dreamed up when, home again from his adventuring in the mid-1990s, Tom found his thoughts returning to another attention-grabbing ocean crossing. "Moby" was Tom's nickname in the army because he was always "spouting off".

He designed the boat himself, after a nautical engineer he approached to draw up plans told him he was crazy. Work took place at a fabricating yard. "Why would you go to a boat-builder when they'll charge you 10 times?" he says breezily.

Since a successful inaugural trip round the British coast in the late 90s, Moby has been stranded in the Highlands. Tom's vision for giving her new life now is based on clean energy – he's replacing the "reliable, but noisy and smelly" diesel engines that power the whale-ship with electric motors to create a publicity vehicle for a zero-carbon environmental campaign: "You haven't got the dirty old diesels thumping around. You've got rid of them and the whale's an example for all boats. I really like the idea of a company getting involved, and saving the planet, and doing good." He hopes an NGO like Greenpeace or a renewable energy business will back the project.

It's surprising that McClean isn't already a national figure, particularly in a nation that so reveres its sailors and explorers. The audaciousness of his achievements seem a match for anything Sir Ranulph Fiennes has pulled off.

But then it's fair to say that adventuring isn't what it used to be. Scientific and technological advance have narrowed the opportunities for today's would-be Ernest Shackletons and Amelia Earharts. Adventuring has never been more popular: Grylls, Cracknell, Fogle, Mears et al. curiously echo the plucky public-school Victorian heroes of G.A. Henty's "books for boys" – yet their popularity is largely from the comfort of the living-room sofa. The world's jungles, mountains and exotic cities have become holiday destinations, available to anyone with a modest amount of money to spend. Even Everest has become a rubbish-strewn tourist trap. We live in unheroic times.

If someone calls me a big-headed bastard or tells me I'm fucking mad, I just feel good.

Ocean-rowing is now a sport. There's an annual sponsored race to cross the Atlantic with 30 rowing boats taking part, all equipped with GPS navigation, radio, solar panels and satellite-phones. It's still a huge challenge, but it's a long way from the leap into the unknown undertaken by adventurers like McClean, who played an important role in showing us that there are human qualities gained through adversity, difficulty and risk; virtues perhaps under threat in a cosseted technological age.

As Tom gives us a tour of the boat, he scrambles up Moby's tail. A short, stocky figure – he's only 5' 6" but gives the impression of huge physical strength and vitality. He's 73 years old but as eager for his next adventure as someone a tenth of his age.

When we sit down in the sitting room of the stone cottage he built himself, I ask him how he built the inner strength to get through the challenges he's taken on. "It's not a case that you're gritting your teeth and saying, 'I'm not gonna give in'," he says. "It's in your body, it's in your being. I don't think you can train for that... And that comes from when I was in the junior orphanage, Fegan's Homes at Yardley Gobion."

Born out of wedlock in Ireland during the Second World War, McClean was first put into foster care in Dublin and then brought to an English orphanage in Northamptonshire in 1947. Fegan's was a Dickensian institution of the sort that no longer exists: hundreds of boys, all with their own number, Bible classes every day, gruel. Fighting between the boys was a way of life, and so were the beatings he received from the adults in charge. His arrival there as a three-year-old was, he writes in his autobiography Rough Passage, "the start of what was to be almost 12 years of constant battle for survival."

"The staff used to hold my nose and shove gristle down my mouth," he tells me. "I'd bite their fingers and then they'd get the cane out and beat me, saying, 'You will cry!' And I'd say, 'I'm not fucking crying'. Well, I wouldn't swear, I didn't know what swearing was then."

There's no sense of anger or bitterness in his voice. He talks about his time in the orphanage with wry amusement, crediting the experience with shaping his stubbornness. "That's where it comes from," he says matter-of-factly. "You can cut my head off but I won't do it, you know?"

Most people, I suggest – let alone a small boy without a mother or father – would have been left traumatised. "They would completely flip," he says. "And they'd be saying, 'Why me?' So somewhere down the line it's just in me. I'm not saying I'm good. I'm just saying it is me. We're all different."

Tom left the orphanage at 15 and got a series of jobs on farms and building sites before he joined the army. He signed up with the Parachute Regiment and soon found himself in the Borneo jungle fighting Indonesian Communists: "We were doing four-man patrols, going over the border and doing 20 grid squares, making sure there wasn't anybody there you could shoot."

He quickly adapted to his environment. A bout of tonsillitis towards the end of the tour meant he was stationed as a liaison in a local village, where he learned to hunt monkeys with a local tribe, using a blowpipe that now rests in the corner of the sitting-room: "I enjoyed Borneo," he says. "I used to drink their drink. Rice and birds and things all fermented in a big pot. And you'd pass this bowl around and get pissed on it."

After further tours of Aden and Malaya, he returned to the UK to give civilian life a go. But it wasn't long before he was hankering for action again. A couple of months later, he drove to the SAS base at Hereford in his van and simply asked to go on the selection course.

Those who serve in "The Regiment", as former members like Tom call it, are self-motivated and self-sufficient, capable of surviving alone in the most hostile environments. They are also ruthlessly efficient killers. The selection course is famously brutal. Then as now, it involves gruelling marches across the Brecon Beacons, lone survival exercises that go on for weeks, and a nasty resistance-to-interrogation section.

"Yes it is tough, but when you're young you're super fit," he shrugs. "It's like being out on the ocean week in, week out, month in, month out, no radio, no noise. Did I ever give in? No. I didn't want to, I didn't feel under pressure. I don't know why I'm like that... I just have a quiet confidence that I wanna do it and I'm gonna do it. There's a laid-back attitude that comes with that."

Out of 105 applicants, only McClean and two others passed.

"It's not the big tough guy who's the first one to cross the end," he says. "It's his attitude, it's what motivates him. So when he's in a hole for weeks, just laying up, he's not uptight, he's just biding his time.

There is something of the Zen master about Tom. When would-be ocean-rowers ring him up wondering if they've got what it takes, he asks them a simple question: could they sit in a cupboard for three days?

He first decided to row the Atlantic solo after chancing upon a newspaper article in the Borneo jungle about two men he'd known from his parachute regiment who were planning to do it, John Ridgway and Chay Blyth. Rowing the Atlantic was one of the great remaining feats of adventure at the time. And a hugely risky one. That same summer of 1966, two British journalists, David Johnstone and John Hoare, had perished in the attempt after three months at sea when their boat was capsized in a storm.

Still, Tom fancied it: "I thought, 'Mmm I like the idea of that. I could do that'. Not in a big way. I knew I had something on my side with the inner me. Making use of what I am."

Tom was 26 when he set off in his small fishing dory on 17 May 1969. No one at that time had ever successfully rowed alone across an ocean. He had never rowed in open seas and knew almost nothing about ocean navigation. When he first decided to do the crossing, the only rowing experience he had was a couple of afternoons on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

No training could have prepared him for what was in store though. His account of the voyage in his biography is one of unremitting discomfort, uncertainty and isolation. Everything is wet, all the time. Some nights it is only the constant bailing of seawater that prevents him from drowning. He was often tracked by sharks. He rowed on a solid wooden bench for almost two and a half months.

Was he scared that he might die at sea before he left? "The way I look at it is it's how good your boat is. If your boat's not gonna sink, you're gonna stay alive. Well, OK, until you run completely out of food and you don't catch any fish, then you're gonna die. But I suppose I was just 100 percent sure."

One part of the adventure was entirely out of his hands though. The previous year a man called John Fairfax made it known that he also intended to be the first person to row alone across the Atlantic. "A nice guy but a wild guy," reflects Tom. "Even wilder than me. Even madder, maybe."

Fairfax must be one of the most extreme characters ever to pick up a pair of oars. An inveterate gambler who saw out his days playing baccarat in the casinos of Las Vegas, he grew up in Argentina with his Bulgarian mother, spending months at a time as a teenager living in the Amazon jungle and returning to Buenos Aires to sell jaguar skins. Later, after blowing a $10,000 inheritance on a road trip across the US with a Chinese call-girl, he captained a ship for three years smuggling guns, whiskey and cigarettes all over the world. Laying low as a fisherman in Jamaica after the authorities had intervened, he decided to come to England to try and turn a childhood dream of rowing the Atlantic into reality.

Tom with the Giltspur, the smallest boat to cross the Atlantic Ocean, in 1982

By 1968, with Tom receiving permission for unpaid leave from the SAS, both men were making preparations. As soon as Fairfax had got his boat finished that winter, he wanted to be off, and so opted to take the east to west mid-Atlantic route from the Canary Islands to Florida. It meant he had a four-month start over Tom, who was taking the shorter, harsher route from Newfoundland.

The two men were out on the ocean at the same time for several months, but Fairfax finally reached Florida on the 19 July 1969. The very next day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Even among the fanfare of that moment, it was a synchronicity not lost on the Apollo astronauts, who wrote a letter to Fairfax congratulating him on his achievement, concluding that they were "fellow explorers".

Tom landed on the sands of Blacksod Bay in Ireland eight days later. Unlike his rival, he never boarded any of the ships he came across, and never took supplies from them, getting across the surface of the ocean through his expertise in survival, his military discipline and a phenomenal level of determination.

Fairfax had said, 'I'm after a battle with nature, primitive and raw.' Did he feel the same? "If I was going out there to beat the Atlantic – no, no, that's the wrong approach. You can't beat the elements. You'll end in the bloody sea, you'll drown. No, no. I'll bob along with it. Go with it. Bend with the wind. It's more subtle. Your chances are greater."

You can't beat the elements. You'll end in the bloody sea, you'll drown. Go with it. Bend with the wind. It's more subtle.

How did he feel when he did it the first time? "Oh, it's everything, it's everything..." he says. "Of course the danger was, when I went and did it again, that I'd think I was super-duper and get it all wrong. But if you double up the safety, and you're at one with the..." He trails off. "All you've got is the sky, the sea, and a boat. A few bits of kit. You've got to be contented with nothing."

Given that he's thrived in what most would consider to be unbearable situations – does he feel different to most people? "Oh yeah. But we're all special. We're all different, so we're all special. The thing is not to get big-headed. No, I'm quiet with it in a way... Smug, in a sort of way." He laughs. "Because if someone calls me a big-headed bastard or tells me I'm fucking mad – I just feel good. I like that. Bring it on. I know other people admire me for it all, so I'm not mad."

Unlike so many other British sailors, adventurers and record-breakers, Tom has never received an official honour. Maybe he's too eccentric for it. He sees this as an honour in itself. He's a patriot but he's also an outsider who's never played the celebrity game. Although he happily welcomes groups to Loch Nevis and has done after-dinner speaking and motivational talks all over the country.

He characterises his approach to life as "make-do-and-mend," which is an accurate way to describe his lack of pretension, and absence of interest in the upmarket side of the sailing world – the yachting crowd. "I'm not trained in anything. But I'll make the bloody boat move forward," he says. "And that's, really, the way I've been all the way through my life."

It's how he made a home in the Highlands, building the adventure centre himself, making a family life with his wife Jill. Despite all his successes, for 20 years, he earned extra cash diving for clams in the loch: "I'm quite happy being here," he says. "I could be down in Brighton in a flat or somewhere but I'm here. I'd be happy in Brighton. I'd probably be flogging something, I don't know what. Doing a business of some sort."

Does he have a favourite of all his adventures? "The first one is the real adventure. Because you're doing the unknown. Adventure to me is the unknown. Just pushing yourself into the unknown."

Later that day, as I watch him standing in front of Moby for a photograph, the whale boat seems as much a work of art as the simple "marketing idea" Tom says it is. It's mythic dimension resonates with so much of his own life. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung saw the story of Jonah and the whale as an archetypal legend, with the story of an individual being swallowed up by some creature and then spat out recurring in cultures and religions all around the world – whether a whale or a dragon or a wolf. He called it the 'Myth of the Night Sea Journey', with the hero undergoing a descent into darkness or temporary death. When he emerges alive after this encounter with the raw power of nature he's transformed, he has a wholeness he lacked before.

Whales have a powerful hold on the human imagination. You only have to think of the huge crowds drawn to the riverside when one was stranded in the Thames in 2006, or the reach of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. It makes it a potent image for Tom's environmental campaign. But it's also an allegorical representation of his own life – the orphan-boy spewed up by the Atlantic onto an Irish beach. A boy who underwent, in Jung's phrase, "The perilous adventure of the night sea journey, whose end and aim is the restoration of life, resurrection, and the triumph over death." Whether or not it's a symbol of Tom's own journey, Moby is his monument to the spirit of adventure itself.

Tom would, of course, downplay such high-flown talk. In a couple of weeks he's going on a camping trip with his two grown-up sons, crawling round the Peak District for three days in whatever wet and cold an English winter can throw at them: "It's still in me to be basic and simple and straightforward," he says. "I enjoy the simplicity of it all. Nothing grand. I'll be happy. They'll bugger off up the hill and put Radio 4 on and leave me alone and I'll have a kip for three hours. And they say, 'well what a boring fucking thing to do, just lay there and kip'. But I feel quite smug. I don't know. It's just nice."

@JoePBanks

lukemontgomeryphoto.com

More VICE Long Reads:

What It's Like To Be Trafficked Into the UK

An Oral History of Dubstep

Understanding the New British Urban Teenager