Jack's big trip: Two summers ago the Helga Maria and her motley crew set sail for the Arctic Circle. What started as a romantic mission ended in mutiny, prison, and million-pound movie deals struck in Whitby hotel rooms

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IN THE beginning, before the film-makers came, the men with big chequebooks, it was Captain Jack's Great Voyage, an inspiring tale of a tough old sea dog defying the petulant penpushers of government bureaucracy. It is, and remains, a wondrous story of English heroism. It stars Jack Lammiman - a middle-aged pleasure boat operator, a Yorkshireman whose adventures evoked the amateurish bravado of Scott of the Antarctic, the buccaneering style of Drake and the accident-prone dash of Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, the lisping plasterer from Cheltenham who kept falling off his skis.

The month-long voyage from Captain Jack's home port, Whitby on the Yorkshire coast, could have ended in tears but, miraculously, did not; the battles which followed have been, by comparison, Byzantine, leaving those who sailed with Captain Jack - and anyone else unwise enough to throw themselves into a tangle of small-town vituperation - limp, exhausted and embittered.

It began in 1991 with Captain Jack's Big Idea - to lead a flotilla of Whitby boats deep inside the Arctic Circle to the Norwegian island of Jan Mayen and erect a plaque to Jack's heroes, the great Whitby whalers and explorers, William Scorseby (1760-1829), inventor of the crow's nest, and his son William (1789-1857), a pioneering seaman who became vicar of Bradford and a world expert in the development of compasses in iron ships.

Captain Jack's Big Idea cost him pounds 3,000 in glossy promotional brochures circulated around the sailing and tall ships community. The Big Idea foundered on indifference and scepticism. The Big Idea became the Small but Magnificent Idea; Captain Jack would do the voyage on his own - clapping a crow's nest to the mast of his old Danish-built seiner, the 65 ft Helga Maria, in tribute to its inventor.

But Lammiman had reckoned without the Ministry of Transport. In July 1991, it threw its rule book at the Helga Maria. Captain Brian McAree, its majestically correct Principal Surveyor, North East, was dispatched to Whitby from his office in Middlesbrough to make lists of the old boat's defects. Captain McAree decided that the Helga Maria was not fit to go to sea until certain modifications had been made.

He 'detained' the old vessel - effectively arresting it until the work was done. This included the provision of six fire buckets (three for water, three for sand), fluorescent tape for the life belts, posters directing passengers to disembarkation points and work on the life-jacket tapes which had become frayed. Captain McAree was particularly concerned about the ship's bell, which was 2cm too small, and the inadequacy of its whistle which, like the boat, was 62 years old.

Captain McAree was also concerned to hear, from mischievous harbour gossip, that Captain Jack would have passengers on his 3,000-mile round trip to the Arctic region. Lammiman refused to tell him, then or later, who they were; officially the schooner should have been sailing with a qualified master and three deck officers. Had McAree known that the complement of five would include three old-age pensioners, a country parson and a former Edinburgh traffic policeman - a last-minute recruit from the quayside - he would have had a fit.

Captain Jack and his crew laboured to meet the Ministry requirements. The lifejacket tapes were stitched, and three buckets were filled with sand from Whitby beach. More than pounds 1,000 was spent, and when it was done the skipper telephoned McAree's office and asked him for clearance.

'I'd come in the office,' Captain McAree recalls, 'and the secretary would say: 'Old Jack's been on the phone. He wants you to go down there.' So I called him and said: 'Have you done everything on the list, Jack?' He said: 'Well, virtually everything. Except the whistle.' I said: 'Jack, there's no point me coming over till you've done everything. It'll cost you pounds 35 an hour, and that's pounds 75 just to travel . . .' If only he'd gone out and bought the whistle. I couldn't just ignore the whistle.

'Then there was another phone call. But you can't expect people just to drop everything and go - because there's a requirement to give us three days' notice before any survey. He said something, I can't remember what. Next thing I heard he'd had a little mental aberration and gone.'

On 31 July 1991, Captain Jack had indeed had enough. A flurry of activity drew a small crowd to the quayside as the Helga Maria was loaded with stores. 'They must be going a long way,' one of the onlookers said. 'Look how many toilet rolls they're taking.'

Lammiman summoned his crew and gave them the option to quit. 'I've always tried to be straight and have never knowingly or deliberately hurt anyone,' he said. 'If we don't set off now the ice will have closed round Jan Mayen and it'll be too late. I'm a man of my word and if I don't go I shall lose my credibility and maybe become a laughing stock. I leave it to you to decide whether you want to go with me. Most of my life I've lived by a good law and now I've had enough of this silliness.'

That evening, with a blast of its unofficial whistle that shook the pantiles of old Whitby, the Helga Maria slipped out of port.

CAPTAIN JACK AND HIS CREW

CAPTAIN Jack Lammiman, aged 54 or thereabouts, was born on a farm near Whitby, like Scoresby senior. He is trimly bearded, pipe-smoking, twice married - women tend to jostle each other for his attention. Captain McAree told me: 'He's got no recorded marine qualifications except the University of Life,' yet everyone who sailed with him through the Arctic gales testified to his seamanship. Apart from a spell in the Spanish Foreign Legion and another as a postman in Whitby, he has knocked around the North Sea in boats since boyhood. Yarning about 'freedom' is a constant theme. He once described the sea as his living-room. The crew he selected for his four-week voyage (three of them them paying pounds 20 a day as passenger-deckhands) might have suggested a skipper more concerned with the going than getting there.

The Reverend Paul Burkitt, 43, vicar of Egton and Grosmont on the moors above Whitby, had spent his earlier life working with aborigines in Australia and as a psychiatric nurse in Labrador. He first met Captain Jack when he became vicar of Whitby 10 years ago. A tense man who struggled with the 'spiritual ethics' of going on an illegal voyage, he 'mutinied' several times during the trip, once when Captain Jack proposed to land on Jan Mayen without permission and again when the skipper painted his white boat black to disguise it on the way home. Even so he admired the sea dog's 'big sense of spirituality', saying: 'He's a rogue and I've seen him being roguish, but I've also seen him praying when he walks up and down the deck . . . his time of silence, call it what you like.'

Pat Stubbs, 72, took up sailing after her husband's death 12 years ago. A wartime MI5 clerk at Wormwood Scrubs and then a lieutenant in the ATS, she describes herself as 'a very straightforward woman'. She now lives at Cawsands Bay in Devon and read about Captain Jack's voyage in one of his brochures when it was a Big Idea about flotillas. She signed on as the Helga Maria's passenger-cook and paid to be aboard.

'I got the shock of my life when I saw the boat in Whitby,' she says. 'It was very primitive. What I call a 'bucket and chuck-it' boat so far as hygiene was concerned. But what could I do? Everyone in Cawsands had been saying 'What the hell d'you want to go to the Arctic for at your age?' It would have been a bit wet going back, wouldn't it? I'd lose face, wouldn't I? If I'm commited to something, OK, I'll do it.'

David Gray, 40, the last-minute recruit, is a philosophical drifter, ex- most things (policeman, soldier, deckhand on Scottish ferries and French grain boats) and, following the voyage, the most enigmatic of the Helga Maria's motley crew. He poked fun at Pat Stubbs behind her back but he had no doubt about her steely qualities. 'An absolutely wonderful person to have aboard,' he says today. 'She'd sailed under canvas before and was as tough as nails. We never missed a hot meal, even in a force 10 gale.'

Eric Smith, 69, retired in 1981 as an ICI worker and welder on North Sea oil rigs. He met Captain Jack six months before the voyage while messing about on the sailing boat he built himself in Whitby. 'He was tied up by me, telling me about this trip, and I said: 'I wouldn't mind going on that; I've taken a course with navigation', and he said 'Come along, like'.'

Hugely opinionated, he is unsparing in his criticism of his fellow-travellers to the Arctic, raging against the idea that old people should settle for slippers by the fire and bingo. He and David Gray shared watches together and giggled about the ship's cook. They called her TBA, short for Tug Boat Annie.

He is not surprised that Captain Jack ended up with the oddest crew ever to sail to the frozen North. 'When we started off Jack was going to have a crew of 10,' he says. 'But rumours got around Whitby about the thing being caulked up with concrete and it put people off. It was just a concrete coffin as far as they were concerned.'

Mr Smith is less than matey about his ship mates. 'Parsons and women on ships is a load of rubbish,' he told me. 'Parsons are social workers that think they're something special. It sounds superstitious but they're also unlucky at sea. They all like to go down on their knees at the wrong time; and they probably spend too much time around graves. Women on boats - they think there's a place for everything. There is, but not where they put it. Put a torch down and they'll shift it.'

Edna Whelan, 73, a widow, former wool-weaver, war-time ATS sergeant and councillor in Skipton, met Captain Jack when she moved to Whitby five years ago. A painter, intensely romantic with a radiant smile, she spent only three days on the boat, most of them seasick in her bunk, before disembarking to visit her sister on Shetland. Her little book about the voyage, based largely on tapes kept by Paul Burkitt and now on sale in Whitby bookshops, is an unabashed eulogy to the Helga Maria's master. Its publisher's blurb describes it as an antidote to 'the many inaccurate journalistic accounts, sometimes verging on the libellous side', meaning the kind of brief report that appeared in the Times, likening Captain Jack and his crew to Edward Lear's Jumblies setting out to sea in a sieve.

She and Mrs Stubbs disliked each other almost on sight. 'Pat's not my kind, really,' Mrs Whelan says. 'She kept herself very much to herself. Then she met the son of the landowner on the island of Foula and you should have seen the way she brightened up. She's very much what I call 'County'. And I'm not your usual working-class woman. I took my O-levels when I was 52. I can mix with all sorts.'

Mrs Stubbs, when asked about her attitude on Foula, looked rather tense: 'I thought Edna was rather fey, a bit mystical,' she said thoughtfully. 'People who worry about being working- class make me feel angry because, really, we work very hard. I think that's her problem.'

CAPTAIN JACK'S GREAT VOYAGE

The voyage - outward to Jan Mayen via the Shetland islands and Faroes, and homeward by Iceland and Shetland - started without Captain McAree's authorisation. Four days out from Whitby, nearing international waters, a Scottish fisheries protection aircraft buzzed the Helga Maria twice, flying so low it rattled the old boat's deck planks. Jack took precautions to avoid detection: the Helga Maria's bowsprit was removed to change the schooner's distinctive lines; if Captain Jack thought a blip on his radar was hostile, he would manoeuvre the boat to alter its profile. When they reached their first stop, Foula, one of the Shetland islands, he slipped ashore and telephoned a friendly boatman to arrange a rendezvous, offshore and at dead of night, to pick up supplies.

Edna Whelan's subsequent book about the voyage made much of Jack's cunning avoidance of an international sea hunt. Visions of HM protection vessels sweeping the cold oceans, of coast guard planes warming up on the tarmac, of island policemen staring seawards on gale-whipped cliff tops, did much to relieve the tedium of a voyage which soon settled down into a dreamy routine of watches and meals dished up by Pat Stubbs in her little galley.

Captain Jack certainly worried about being arrested before his mission was complete but even he, once the voyage was concluded in Whitby, felt the search had been little more than desultory; and for a simple reason. 'Would you chase a thief if you knew where he lived?' he asked when it was all over.

It took two weeks to reach Jan Mayen, 450 miles inside the Arctic Circle. The air was so clear they spotted the island's main peak while 50 miles out. There is a weather station on the island, manned by a small team of Norwegian scientists. It was here, anchored off a bleak volcanic beach, that Captain Jack faced his first ship's mutiny. He had brought with him a bronze plaque (prominently inscribed with the words 'donated by Robert Landers, meat purveyor of Whitby') to honour the Scoresbys' Arctic voyages. Media accounts later described a devout service of dedication led by the parson on Jan Mayen's gritty shingle.

That service never took place. 'We discovered that Captain Jack was not going to go ashore himself and in fact he never set foot on the place,' says Paul Burkitt. 'He intended two of us to go skulking on to this island with bags of cement, climb the mountain and build some sort of cairn for his plaque - all without permission from the Norwegian authorities there. They'd no idea where we'd come from, who the Scoresbys were and, anyway, where was Whitby? Because we'd got green stripes on the boat they even thought for a time we were from Greenpeace, coming up to make a fuss about whaling. It threw Jack into terrible disarray. We insisted on using the radio to get permission and he was really annoyed with us. But we were cold, hungry, running out of supplies and certainly there was a risk of running into polar bears. None of us fancied being chased at 30mph by some woolly mammoth.'

Captain Jack was forced to radio Lynda Jackson, his devoted secretary, who runs a caravan park outside Whitby, and who smoothed the travellers' passage via the Norwegian embassy in London. It was while returning to the Helga Maria, revived by hot showers and smorgasbord, that Eric Smith and Paul Burkitt nearly lost their lives: on landing they had rammed the ship's dinghy into the beach, choking its exhaust with volcanic sand. Heading back to the mother ship, the motor over-heated and conked out. They found themselves being blown away from Jan Mayen in a freezing fog.

'It's like I say about parsons,' Eric Smith recalls. 'Paul wasn't a seaman at all and he's accident-prone, you know. Some people get down on their knees first time anything happens and, of course, Paul was scared. I says 'Righto, paddle', but Paul's a heavy smoker and didn't seem to put much beef into it. Jack threw us a line but it parted for some reason. Paul was more or less down on his knees, but I tried the engine and it started again. Not that it had anything to do with his prayers to God. Jack says nowt but Paul says he's never going ashore again. We'd had to drag him aboard, he was so stiff with cold.'

Burkitt's recollection differs: 'It was a petrifying moment,' he concedes. 'The fog was coming down. We were heading for the open sea. What Eric's conveniently forgotten is that I couldn't paddle very well because I'd got a broken rib. He was the one who was supposed to know about outboard motors and he was totally unable to cope with it.'

Captain Jack's anxiety about being impounded and robbed of his moment of triumph in Whitby persisted throughout the homeward voyage. He arranged another clandestine rendezvous with his friendly Shetland boatman; and he began painting the boat black. Paul Burkitt and Mrs Stubbs refused to take part in this operation, protesting that it was deceitful. 'He even wanted to change Helga Maria back to its original name, the Argus,' Burkitt says. 'I said to him: 'I can't be part of this' and he took it well enough.'

The problem of arrest became almost academic when the Helga Maria berthed at Suddesfjord in Iceland and the skipper found he had run out of cash to pay for refuelling. He was bailed out by Eric Smith with money he had to fly himself home in an emergency. 'They wouldn't have got back except for me,' Mr Smith says. 'You can't buy stuff up in Iceland on the say-so because you're Jack Lammiman. You have to show the colour of your silver up there, haven't you?'

Their second secret rendezvous to pick up supplies off Shetland almost ended in disaster. Once again Captain Jack's friendly boatman had arranged to meet them in the dark and transfer a cargo of food and heavy oil drums.

'It was the most amazing night of my life,' Paul Burkitt says today. 'There we were in the middle of nowhere, with a full moon. I'd said: 'What a lovely night', and Jack said 'It's a terrible night. They'll see us.' Then this friend of his appeared from nowhere, without lights, and knocked straight into the side of us stripping off all the black paint. Then out of the dark came this big Calor gas cylinder. He'd just thrown it and it hit Dave and knocked him right over. This guy was out of his head. We couldn't get any sense out of him. When one of the diesel barrels fell into the sea he was furious. The next thing I saw was this figure leaping - horizontally - across from his boat to ours and landing with a great thud. They say drunks don't feel a thing and there he was, staggering around even though he'd hit his head on the deck.

'And then the next thing was this guy just went right over the side and all I saw was two welly boots up in the air and I just grabbed his legs. It was then I mutinied for the third time. There I was, holding on to him, and Jack was saying 'Go aft' and I said 'You must be joking. I can't leave this guy on his own. He's dangerous.' '

Captain Jack and his little band of adventurers sailed back into Whitby on 26 August to a heroes' welcome from a Bank Holiday crowd. And a different sort of welcome from Captain McAree. 'I wanted to see what he'd done on my list,' he says today, sitting at home in retirement with a well-thumbed book of marine regulations in his lap. 'All he said to me was: 'Hello, Cap' and I still don't know who he had on board because he told me they'd all gone ashore for a bath.'

Eight months later Captain Jack appeared before Teesside Crown Court and was fined pounds 400 with pounds 600 costs for disobeying Captain McAree's detention order. This January, strapped as usual for cash, he served four philosophical days in prison for non-payment.

Eric Smith sums up the great Arctic adventure in his usual style. 'The trouble with this country is we've made heroes of rogues,' he said. 'Dick Turpin was a thief. Drake was a pirate. But they're the people we look up to, and they wonder why the police can't get anything from anybody these days.'

CAPTAIN JACK'S NIGHTMARE

IN APRIL last year a new species of herring gull, raucous film- makers hungry to scoop up the exclusive rights to Captain Jack's Great Voyage, descended on Whitby. They had all read dramatic stories in the newspapers, including an article by Nick Davies in the Guardian, about Captain Jack making a fool of government bureaucracy. The pungent harbour air was soon thick with creative concepts.

The movie men arrived in a recession-hit town, bandying sums of money which made heads reel. They talked loudly in tacky hotel rooms about the stars who might be persuaded to play Captain Jack. Sean Connery was one. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Bob Hoskins and Albert Finney were also mooted; they imagined John Cleese, gibbering on the quayside, as the perfect Captain McAree.

By early summer four rival groups had fallen upon the little port. The first was John Goldschmidt and his London production company Viva, with Jack Rosenthal as potential scriptwriter. On Goldschmidt's heels was Troy Kennedy Martin, writer of the 1985 television thriller Edge of Darkness. Then there was Granada TV headed by producer Tony Dennis; and a small London production company called Eldorado.

Captain Jack headed for the wide blue yonder once more, following Columbus's trail to America, and left the negotiations to his agent, Brian Clarke, a lugubrious accountant.

When letters began to arrive at his office full of phrases like 'narrative spine' he decided to bring in an old friend as technical adviser: Peter Woodhouse, lecturer in film at the University of Northumbria. Mr Woodhouse jumped aboard, eagerly planning to convert the experience into a doctoral thesis.

Brian Clarke's negotiating philosophy was to retain a degree of editorial control over the film and to ensure that Captain Jack's woeful money problems were taken care of. He could not have foreseen that Mr Woodhouse's thesis would, in the academic's own bitter phrase, go 'down the pan' and that one section of the Helga Maria's crew, led by Reverend Burkitt, would mutiny.

'The fundamental problem,' Mr Woodhouse says today, 'was one of attitudes, of fast London people who didn't run Whitby people the right way. The Kennedy Martin team started on a budget of pounds 1.2m and then Kennedy Martin hiked it up to pounds 4.5m. Someone said the film would be like another Fish Called Wanda. They also said it would just be one man's fight against bureaucracy, which didn't appeal to the group as a whole. Paul Burkitt, for example, thought it should be about all their experiences.'

Burkitt's mutinous attitude over the nature of the film was only one of Mr Clarke's burdens. He soon found himself at loggerheads with Kennedy Martin and Davies over the central issues of money and editorial control. 'Nick and Troy came up here and Nick says: 'I'm doing a deal with Troy and Captain Jack will get 50 per cent',' Mr Clarke recalls. 'I said 'Whoah] if you want to sell your Guardian story to Troy then that's got my blessing but you aren't doing any deal with Jack because I'm his agent.' I was also disappointed with Troy's approach. He came across to me as 'I'm an artistic man. I can't possibly tell you how I'm going to make the film.' One thing Jack had said to me was he didn't want to come across as Captain Birdseye.'

Eldorado, with producer Chris Bucknall, appeared among the bidders in the late summer, with plans to do the Captain Jack story for Channel 4. The company soon became a rallying point for Paul Burkitt. Increasingly disgruntled about a possible film becoming 'The Captain Jack Story', the parson teamed up with Geoff Newton, an old Australian friend who used to write scripts for Neighbours. Newton approached Eldorado with plans for a 'The Paul Burkitt Life Story', spiced with a section about the voyage aboard the Helga Maria. Eldorado seemed keen.

Burkitt says he has viewed with increasing distaste the scramblings of the movie men in Whitby. He says it reminds of him of his days as a psychiatric nurse in Canada. Charge nurses would end their shifts by throwing handfuls of cigarettes on the floor just to watch the patients fight over them.

'It's been the same morality here,' the parson says. 'My anger comes through the financial invasion into the spirit of something that was important to me. I feel strongly that there have been too many films about heroes bucking authority. The real story is the strange chemistry of everyone who went on the Helga Maria. There was one acrimonious meeting about it with Brian Clarke when I was told categorically that it was Jack's story and everyone else was a passenger.'

Other crew members are divided over the parson's stand. Pat Stubbs, secure in Cawsands, supports him, but shudders at the sound of distant feuding. 'I'm glad I'm not now living in Whitby, thank you very much,' she says. Edna Whelan says miserably: 'I don't know what's got into Paul.'

Brian Clarke looked haggard when I met him in Whitby. 'Right from the start,' he said, 'Paul began making comments about expecting editorial control. We all had a meeting and he said to me: 'You realise this is a story about five people finding God'. We let him rant on and then I had words with him, independently, afterwards . . . Pat Stubbs and Paul are in league about this. Paul didn't find God in the Arctic. He found Sam Goldwyn. He was trying to capture a film we all thought was Captain Jack's and turn it into the Pope's Holy Grail. In fact we don't really need Paul in the story now. There need be no vicar in the story when the film's made, as I'm sure it will be. It's as simple as that.'

Last week, it was announced that a Captain Jack film will be made - through a partnership between Granada Films and Viva, with a script by Jack Rosenthal, and with Nick Davies as story advisor. Further details will be given at the Cannes Film Festival. Chris Bucknall has declined to say whether Eldorado has decided to make its own film, using material available in the public domain.

And Captain Jack? Away all last summer on his Columbus trail, he disappeared again for most of the winter, brooding about his money problems aboard the Helga Maria in the islands. During his long absences, far away from squabbling of small-town hustlers and big city movie he became almost irrelevant, a symbol of other people's and ambitions. This summer he is to make another to the Arctic.-

(Photograph omitted)

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