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Obituary: Tristan Jones

Euan Cameron
Monday 26 June 1995 23:02 BST

Tristan Jones, sailor, author, adventurer: born off Tristan da Cunha 8 May 1924; died Phuket Island, Thailand 21 June 1995.

Tristan Jones's life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.

It all began with a breach birth in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha - hence the Christian name - in May 1924. Mrs Jones was the ship's cook and both she and Tristan's father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. "By God, this one will always land on his feet!" the ship's mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. "He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he'll never drown!"

Before he was 18, Tristan Jones had been rescued from the sea three times. He left school at the age of 13 and worked as a "nipper" aboard a coastal sailing ketch, but at the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy, serving on convoy duties to the Soviet Union from Iceland. After the war he transferred to the Royal Hydrographic Service, but in 1952 in Aden an inshore survey vessel he was on was blown up by guerrillas and his spinal injuries were so severe that he was told he would never walk again.

On his discharge from hospital, he bought and converted an old lifeboat and decided he would set a new record for taking a sailing boat further north than the 84 degrees N achieved by F. Nansen. His improbable, Baron Munchausen-like exploits in the Arctic, accompanied by his one-eyed, three- legged Labrador dog, Nelson, were to be the subject of his second book, Ice! (1979).

His next venture was the eccentric notion of conquering the "vertical sailing record of the world". Having sailed his boat on the earth's lowest stretch of water, the Dead Sea, at 1,250 feet below sea-level, Jones determined to sail the highest, Lake Titicaca, 12,580 feet up in the Andes. His account of this six-year journey was published in The Incredible Voyage (1978), which became a best-seller in Britain and the United States.

As a writer, Tristan Jones's work varied greatly. He could reel off rip- roaring yarns, such as Saga of a Wayward Sailor (1980), but he could also produce reflective and highly literate work such as the account of his boyhood in his best book, A Steady Trade (1982). As his British editor, I often pleaded with him to settle down and devote himself to serious, unhurried writing, but a few weeks in New York or London, where his advances on royalties could disappear with liquid celerity, were more than his seafaring soul could stand.

Up until 1985, one could never be quite sure where Jones was living at any given moment. His boats were his home. Letters or faxes might arrive from the uttermost parts of the earth: a request for money to be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, say, or an urgent request for some vital part of an outboard engine to be obtained from a trusting chandler and despatched with all haste to Constanta on the Black Sea.

Occasionally, if his publisher paid his fare, he would turn up for publication of a new book, as he did for the launch of A Steady Trade in 1982. Such visits could be hazardous, however, and on this occasion Jones held his own among such distinguished television chat-show guests as Sir Laurens van der Post and Patrick Leigh Fermor, only to finish the evening draining the BBC's hospitality room of its entire stock of liquor.

Although he was proud to receive a Welsh Arts Council Literature Award for The Incredible Voyage and to have an entry in The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, the success of his books and the tributes he received from fellow writers and explorers meant little to him. He wrote in order to go on sailing, and, when his leg was amputated and he could no longer sail solo, he set out to show the world that disability need not preclude a life of adventure. He acquired a trimaran, mischievously named it Outward Leg, and set off with a crew of two to make his 20th Atlantic crossing in a small boat.

He arrived on the south coast of England in the summer of 1984 and when he reached Brighton Marina (how he sneered at words like "marina": "That's a name for smart Kensington ladies walking their poodles in the park"), I travelled down to take him some money and buy him lunch. He persuaded me to "come for a sail" and I spent a sleepless night bumping along the Channel, but it gave me an inkling of how this courageous seadog had survived his many lives.

No sooner was the anchor hauled up than the jokes and drinking stopped and Tristan was transformed into a strict disciplinarian, barking orders at his crew, charting courses and ceaselessly surveying the horizon. I was deposited in the dawn light at the foot of a dock-side in Folkestone, and as the sea surged Tristan issued orders to jump, cling to a metal hand-rail and climb the 57 vertical steps to the top. Terrified, but relieved to be on steady ground, I looked down to see him waving and giving a thumbs- up sign. It was almost the last time I saw him.

From Britain, he sailed his trimaran the lengths of the Rhine and the Danube to the Black Sea and eventually across the Indian Ocean. For the last 10 years, he lived on Phuket Island off the coast of Thailand, still writing and, even after the loss of his other leg last year, teaching disabled young people to sail. He was a true original and an immensely brave man. He had no known relatives, but he had friends and drinking companions in ports all over the world.

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