The café at Falmouth’s magnificent, modern Maritime Museum was filling up with tanned, greying women and men, with taut, toned muscles. They stood with their feet slightly apart as if they expected the ground to tilt at any moment. These were people who were clearly not at home on a floor that doesn’t sway with the waves, all waiting to hear what Penny Williams had to say about a hero of theirs, Bill Tilman, explorer, sailor and writer.
Most non-sailors haven’t a clue who Tilman was, what he did, and what he wrote. ‘Mischief Among The Penguins’ isn’t what you’d first imagine; it’s about his adventures in the Antarctic on board his boat, Mischief. In the Maritime Museum’s theatre, as part of Falmouth’s Literary Festival, Penny read her chapter, including the story of her encounter with him at the age of 10. She was then joined by one Bob Comley, who had answered a small ad for crew during his gap year, and ended up sailing with a legend.
Afterward, on Penny’s parents’ boat, the sailors sympathised when I said I had to catch a train back to London. “I love it,” I said. They just smiled, nodded and looked very sorry for me. “We’ve got a crew!” one announced. “What are we doing in harbour?” and they all started looking around them for a reason to get going. Every one of them had what Penny calls the ‘thousand mile stare’, a longing to get out to sea again.
Back at the Maritime Museum café, the older sailors who remembered Tilman drank tea, reminisced, and swapped stories until they got fed up with dry land and set off to do some more exploration of their own