Alec Rose is somewhat of a human oxymoron. The extraordinary ordinary. The unbelievable unremarkable. The once-in-a-lifetime, everyday man. A man who single-handedly circumnavigated the world in a humble boat, who was before, and was after again, a fruit merchant who enjoyed a quiet life.
Alec wasn’t your typical seafaring adventurer. Born in 1908, he was the third child of a haulage contractor who lived a rural life in Canterbury. There were no family members connected in any way to the sea; the Rose family were, in fact, firmly connected to dry land, for Alec’s father was engaged in bringing consignments of fruits and vegetables to Covent Garden. He was, nevertheless, fascinated by the sea and by nature. Alec was a sickly child, needing to be wheeled to school in a wheelchair, and photographs were taken when he was 5 years old in a sailor costume holding a toy sailboat, because his parents feared that he wouldn’t live long enough to go sailing in real life.
Despite his frailty, Alec had a happy childhood. He was an individual who liked to be busy, with a curious mind and a fervent desire to learn and to challenge his physicality. He daydreamed constantly of far-flung adventures; of trekking through Africa or exploring the Amazon. But most of all, Alec wanted to go to sea. At the age of 16, enamoured by Far Eastern ports with exotic, romantic names, and tales of survival and gruelling storms off Cape Hope, Alec spent three months building an intricate, 3-foot model of a windjammer boat; poring over every detail, familiarising himself with every millimeter of gear and rigging. Upon completion, he decided that he wasn’t cut out for life in an office, and made the journey to Gravesend to ask for employment on a merchant ship. He was told to go home and grow up.
Undeterred, and displaying the stoic patience for which he has come to be known, Alec put his dreams on the backburner while he carefully considered his options. He spent a few years working with his father’s business, learning how to overhaul and service heavy lorries; something which he credits with standing him in good stead, but not an occupation that he was willing to settle for. At 20 years old, Alec emigrated to Canada and found work on a farm in Alberta as the sole employee. The work was backbreaking; rounding up horses and ploughing endless fields, clearing virgin land and growing wheat, along with roadmaking. Working through the scorching heat of summer and the harsh winter, he grew in strength both mentally and physically; Alec’s childhood frailty was a thing of the past, and he levered his stiff, painful hands open each morning and set about his work with vigour.
Eventually, after desperate financial conditions in Canada meant he was laid off from the farm, Alec returned to England - much fitter in health, richer in experience, and with a renewed desire to find his place in the world. He was determined to save money for a long-term plan which, at that point, he still kept close to his heart. Working as a driver and then as a mechanic, he began to build a small amount of savings. He and his first wife and their two sons bought a smallholding in 1939 back in Canterbury, where they enjoyed a simple life, once more connected to the earth; growing their own food and living self-sufficiently. Their simple life was short-lived, as, of course, history was entering into a dark period, and Alec was called up for the Royal Navy in 1940. Alec’s vision of a life at sea had come to fruition; just not in the way that he had hoped nor dreamed it would; he was working on old coal-burning trawlers acting as minesweepers, before undertaking many convoy runs across the Mediterranean, to Newfoundland and Sierra Leone. Alec doesn’t elaborate much on his time at sea during WW2; he mentions only that, in 1944, he was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant but his ‘nerves were frayed’ so much so that he couldn’t sleep, and he collapsed. He spent several months in hospital before being sent home. ‘I felt like a deserter’, he wrote, and it was some time before he could face people. Alec threw himself back into the familiarity of the dry land and family life; growing vegetables, fruit and flowers for the London markets. He and his wife had another two children, both daughters, and slowly Alec’s health was restored. His business prospered, and he bought a retail fruit business on the coast at Herne Bay. Despite his contented life, and the traumas that the sea had brought to him during the war, Alec still longed to sail; and so he bought an ex-ship’s lifeboat, Neptune’s Daughter, and spent the next 5 years converting her. It was arduous, painstaking work, and as the boat steadily took shape, his marriage began to crumble. Alec and his wife separated after 28 years and he gave up his business, to live alone on the yacht while cruising single-handedly across the Channel, the North Sea, and off the coast of the West Country. He was, for the first time, alone with his thoughts and memories; and he was content.
Alec’s seafaring skill was largely self-taught. His son, who had become a deck officer in the Merchant Service, taught him how to use a sextant for celestial navigation. He spent long days adapting his boat, and long nights aboard her, musing over how to improve her reliability and safety. Alec met Dorothy, and they married and had a sailing honeymoon - which, from the accounts given, Alec enjoyed more than Dorothy. They bought a fruit shop in Southsea, to fund Alec’s habits, and it wasn’t long before he had a fresh ambition; to compete in the upcoming Transatlantic race. After selling Neptune’s Daughter, Alec acquired a boat called Lively Lady; a lady who would come to accompany him on not just this adventure, but the biggest of his life. On May 23rd, 1964, after lengthy preparation and with what sounds like a significant hangover on board with him, Alec set off from Plymouth Sound along with 13 other contestants. In what has become his signature style, Alec’s account of the transatlantic race is very calm, considered, and very, very British. Often giving more detail to his meals than his emotions, he documented his days with good-humoured, straightforward clarity and wit. For a relatively inexperienced sailor, a transatlantic race, alone, in tough conditions ought to have been absolutely terrifying - but the closest Alec comes to expressing this is a brief entry, written in the midst of ‘a stinker of a North-Wester’ on the homewards approach to the Scilly Isles, after 36 hours of being violently flung around his boat, in the dead of night with his blood spattered across the sails and with no real idea of where he was;
“I suppose I shouldn’t worry - but I’m a little anxious.”
He finished in 4th place. It was, all things considered, a roaring triumph for Alec, and he enjoyed a spell of writing articles and giving talks on his adventure before, in the winter of 1965, he began to plan his next mission. Never one to baulk at a challenge, he decided he wanted to sail around the world single-handedly; something which, as a child had seemed a very far-flung notion but which now seemed tantalisingly close to becoming a possibility. Dorothy agreed to run their business, and Alec set about planning this enormous undertaking. Frances Chichester announced his intentions to sail to Australia, and Alec decided to try to make a match of it, to visit his son who had emigrated to Australia. Alec thought it only polite to notify Frances Chichester of his plans, and Frances suggested that Alec should leave on the same date as him; something which Alec was reluctant to do, as he needed to ensure that he could arrive in Australia and spend time with his son before departing in enough time to get round the infamous Cape Horn before bad weather set in. Lively Lady was no match for Chichester’s brand-new, purpose-built Gipsy Moth IV, and Alec didn’t want a big deal to be made out of his adventure; he simply wanted to have one, for his own sake, by himself. The press, in typical fashion and lusting after some rivalry, were undeterred and soon it was announced that Rose and Chichester were to race around the world. Local businessmen rallied together to fundraise for a replacement for Lively Lady, but Alec remained committed to his boat and his plan - it would be him and Lively Lady on the adventure, and nobody else.
“I knew her and had confidence in her as a seaboat. I didn’t want to be sponsored; I wanted to be captain of my own ship and beholden to no one."
And so it was; every spare moment was spent on the Lively Lady, with the next few months seeing an almost complete overhaul of the engine, the installation of a radio transmitter, new masts and sails and a freshly-serviced life raft. Supplies were collected; Dorothy spent many hours packing and storing donations of tinned food, fruit cakes, whisky and other essentials, but it was a tight fit within the boat’s rather humble confines. In the final days before departure, timings were tight, and various faults aboard Lively Lady were troubling Alec - but he was determined to go ahead as planned.
On Sunday 7th August 1967, after a number of gatherings, ceremonies and toasts which such a quiet man found rather overwhelming, Alec set off around the world to a cacophony of cheers of local people, family and friends, and sailing enthusiasts. As he crossed the start line at 3pm, one by one, the escorting craft left him, and he was soon alone - “I felt depressed. I felt I was not ready… But when people kindly arrange a send-off and it is announced in the Press, one feels bound to go on.”
It was an ominous start for Alec, and his very British determination to save face and crack on, to avoid inconveniencing anyone, was his undoing. Following a catalogue of disasters, culminating in a collision with a large vessel, Alec was forced to return to shore and postpone his round-the-world trip for a year. It was a crushing disappointment for him, made all the more bitter for watching Chichester leave the following month. Alec wasn’t fuelled by competitive spirit; he didn’t want to beat anyone, he just wanted to do it, and as Chichester sailed off into the distance, Alec confessed to feeling utterly miserable. He returned to his business in Southsea, and spent the following year regrouping, repairing the damage Lively Lady had sustained, and planning. He was undeterred, and on July 16th 1967, after a relatively quiet send-off at Alec’s request, he slipped away from Langstone Harbour and into the Solent.
“As I realized what I had let myself in for I felt depressed and a little scared. Could I carry it through?” The enormity of Alec’s endeavour weighed heavy on his mind as night fell; but, if his book My Lively Lady is anything to go by, after a good breakfast of Shredded Wheat with hot milk and a calm day of sailing, followed by his signature hearty fry-up lunch, Alec was in good spirits. A niggling pain in his stomach, a suspected ulcer, troubled him slightly but he decided to stick to a ‘milky diet’ throughout his voyage, and to give it no further thought.
Alec’s account of his time at sea is typical of his nature; calm, measured, and giving value to the little things in life. He talked at length about his daily pre-lunch can of beer, his meals - “bacon rashers with fried eggs, fried potatoes, brown bread and butter and a cup of tea” - as well as his ‘special drink’ - a squeezed lemon, a large spoonful of honey and hot water, topped up with whisky. He ate well, fuelled with the provisions that Dorothy had lovingly gathered and stored, and enjoyed fresh fruit and vegetables - items of comforting familiarity - well into the first few weeks of his journey. He documented any food wastage; having lived through the war, and now living on rationed food aboard a small vessel, he was extremely conscious of avoiding all waste and he savoured every meal, snack and drink.
For the non-seafaring-sort, such as myself, Alec’s account of his circumnavigation of the globe can be a little tricky to translate. There are swathes of jargon and information and accounts of the handling of the boat, through storms, periods of flat calm seas, torrential rain and searing heat. The technical terms require a glossary, but what is clear, whether or not you are the seafaring sort, is how incredibly physical sailing a boat solo is. It would appear that Alec spent the vast majority of his days, and large portions of his nights, hauling and pulling and pushing and tying and repairing and sewing, thinking on his feet and often coming within a split second of disaster - which, at sea, could very easily prove fatal - by managing to come up with inventive solutions for the seemingly endless problems and incidents which Lively Lady presented him with.
The ‘incident pit’ is a conceptual pit with sides that become steeper over time and with each new incident, until a point of no return is reached. As time moves forward, seemingly innocuous incidents push a situation further toward a bad situation and escape from the incident pit becomes more difficult. An incident pit may or may not have a point of no return; an ‘event horizon’ which, if we are referring to a living creature going down the incident pit, would be death. On numerous occasions, Alec comes very, very close to losing his grip on the opening of the incident pit; quite often, sliding around halfway down, and only managing to scramble back up by some miracle of timing, fate, or a combination of sheer skill and bloody stubbornness. On February 18th, somewhere around 800 miles off the coast of New Zealand, after several gruelling days of stormy conditions which had left him feeling weak and dizzy, Alec started his little Tiny Tim generator to top up the batteries. Unbeknownst to him, the exhaust pipe had not been correctly connected and, before he knew it, Alec was unconscious; overcome with exhaust fumes. He awoke over 3 hours later, freezing, slumped on the cabin steps, with seawater and rain cascading down through the open hatch onto his head. He eventually managed to drag himself to his bunk and lay there, at the mercy of the elements, for days while the poisoning he had endured slowly passed. This was just one of several incidents - a burst finger making it difficult for him to control the sails, a suspected ‘rupture’ of an internal organ (perhaps the milky diet wasn’t cutting it!), another incident of exhaust poisoning - where Alec found himself slowly slipping down the incident pit with only his own hands to reach down and drag himself up and out of it. Alec was 59 years old at this point; he wasn’t a young man and his body had endured a significant amount of physical work before his sailing career began. The Lively Lady wasn’t the sort of boat in which many would choose to circumnavigate the globe. It is, all things considered, quite miraculous that he survived, and a true testament to his skills and determination as a sailor.
Alec reached Australia on 17th December, after 155 days and 14,500 miles. He was greeted by television cameras, circling planes, local small boats and, much to his delight, his son Michael, Michael’s wife Judy and their two children, who he had never met before. Alec spent a very happy Christmas in Melbourne, enjoying many parties, meetings and social gatherings with local yachtsmen, officials and family. He received a telegram from Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip, which he treasured. Meanwhile, Lively Lady was receiving some much-needed attention of her own as repairs, replacements, cleaning and weather-proofing was undertaken. Alec was, as was perhaps the norm for men of his generation, not an outwardly emotional type; but it is very apparent that leaving Australia - in particular, his son and his family - was very difficult for him.
“I said goodbye to them with a lump in my throat. I had not met Judy until I arrived in Australia and we had come to love each other dearly. They had done everything they could to make my stay a happy one and all I could say was "Thank you, it has been one of the happiest months of my life.”
And so Alec set off for home. Lively Lady suffered serious damage to her mast shortly after his departure from Australia, and he was forced to stop in Bluff, New Zealand, for emergency repairs. From there on out, he was bound for that place he had so revered since he was a young boy; Cape Horn. Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of Southern Chile, and marks the Northern boundary of the Drake Passage, as well as the spot where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans meet. The waters around Cape Horn are extremely hazardous, owing to strong winds, large waves, strong currents and icebergs. They are, for many sailors, the ultimate challenge, and at dawn on April 1st, Alec saw it for himself, that scene he had dreamed of since he was a young, sickly boy; Cape Horn, looming majestically and menacingly, around 20 miles away.
“This was it. This was the moment I had dreamed about and planned for. I thought of all the others who had passed this way. Lone sailors as well as those in the great square-riggers. I was just another one, looking with awed respect at this most feared of capes.”
While Alec’s rounding of Cape Horn was without incident, he experienced awful conditions as he put some distance between it and himself. His log paints a distressing picture; not only was morale low, with the euphoria of realising his childhood dream giving way to the grim reality of 8,500 miles between him and home, but the weather had taken a turn.
“The wind - bitterly cold - screams at us; the sea boils as the top of the waves are blown off, and the hail hits the deck like bullets… the whole ship shudders and shakes as the wind roars through the rigging.”
While these long, stormy days and nights tested Alec, the most troublesome times for him where when there was little to no wind. Drifting slowly, making minimal progress and having only himself and his stuffed rabbit Algy - a generally well-mannered but occasionally mischievous character - for company was wearing thin and he often wrote of his low morale at this point. It seems an endless parade of slow days, the passing of time stitching sails or carrying out minor repairs, with the occasional horrendous storm; certainly there were very few ‘good’ days. Nevertheless, as was his way, Alec kept a clear head, stuck to his routine, and kept busy as best he could, and in what seems like no time at all to anyone reading his book or reading of his endeavours - but must have felt like an eternity for him - he was nearly home.
On 4th July 1968, after 354 days, Alec and his Lively Lady made landfall in Southsea, Portsmouth. Alec was astounded at the reception he received; an estimated quarter of a million people turned up to greet him. His account of this moment and the following days and weeks is humble, but it clearly meant the world to him; he was incredibly touched by so many people showing such interest in his adventure. Alec Rose was knighted just days later, and so began the next chapter of his life, as he turned 60 years old; Sir Alec Rose, the ‘Shoestring Sailor’, the adventurer. Throughout his journey, Alec had attracted a host of diverse characters from around the world, drawn in by his story, his personality, his Alec-ness; characters who he now called friends, and from then on he was an active, renowned and revered personality within the seafaring world. But he did return to his shop, with his wife Dorothy who had stood steadfastly by his side (often just figuratively, given that he was, for some time, on the other side of the world) throughout his endeavours.
Sir Alec Rose’s ‘normality’, as someone who wasn’t from a seafaring background, and who had a ‘normal’ job and who was a ‘normal’ person with no lust for glory or fame, could prompt somewhat of a ‘if a normal person can do it, then so can I!’ reaction. It’s a fair reaction; he is the epitome of an inspiring individual for all of these reasons. But he wasn’t a normal man; he was someone who studiously and steadfastly pursued his childhood dream, undeterred by health, by circumstance, by going to war, by finances, by fear, by criticism, by age, nor setback after setback. The core of an adventurer isn’t the bold as brass, gung-ho, fearless attitude that we often assimilate with such individuals; it’s not the sponsorship deals, the swooning fans, the publicity stunts and death-defying daring. It’s the learning and honing of a craft, it’s the graft and the effort and, above all, it’s patience. Sir Alec waited and worked most of his life for his big adventure; and while that adventure itself is, of course, incredibly impressive, it was his sheer will and focus, and unfaltering determination to make a wild childhood dream his reality, that makes him a true adventurer.
On 11th July 1968, Lively Lady, Alec's 36ft ketch, was put on show in Holborn Circus - opposite the statue of Prince Albert, who appeared to be raising his hat in salute to Sir Alec - for all to be inspired by.