A farewell to puffins

Paul Heiney has been a familiar face to TV audiences for over 40 years, presenting That’s Life alongside Esther Rantzen, Watchdog, and more recently Countrywise on ITV. However, Paul is also a highly experienced yachtsman, and has written on the subject many times, including the sublime narrative One Wild Song, and his guide Ocean Sailing. His new book, Farewell Mr Puffin, started off the story of his voyage to Iceland, but became about a lot more when Paul found things had changed en route since previous trips. In this blog he sets the scene.

It wasn’t my initial idea to sail to Iceland to look at puffins; that was to come later. I simply wanted to discover why all the fuss about this lonely, volcanic island within spitting distance of the Arctic circle. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was talking about Iceland as it became one of the world’s fastest -growing tourist destinations. The whole island found itself bursting with visitors; the coffee shops packed, the sole international airport bulging at the seams. It’s a tourist boom like no other.

I’m not into that kind of tourism. I am, however, into sailing, and going by small boat is a kind of travelling like no other. The harbours you visit and the places in which you shelter often have none of that brochure-like glamour, and that’s the way I prefer it. On a boat, you plug into communities in ways that no tourist would ever think about. For example, in a remote spot on the north west coast, I found myself in urgent need of stout, but flexible, pipe to repair a broken lavatory – such things can be seriously urgent. It required a conversation with a harbourmaster, a cup of coffee, a visit to a distant workshop and another a cup of coffee, plus many conversations along the way – of a kind that a conventional tourist would never have. That’s what I call travelling.

And there’s another reason to head north: I like the ‘edge of world’ feel of places like Iceland. After all, I have sailed, partly solo, as far as Cape Horn (as told in my book One Wild Song, also published by Adlard Coles), which is probably the closest you can get to the end of the earth. I like the clear, vivid landscapes, and I feast on the chill, high-latitude air that never fails to lift the spirits. And although I am the very last person to seek out danger, there is a sense in these places that when things go wrong, they can turn seriously bad indeed, and that keeps your mind focussed and your senses tuned to the nature of the sea.

Puffins didn’t come into it until I stopped at the Farne Islands, off Northumberland, on my way northwards from my home port on the East Anglian coast. These islands are famous to the abundance of seabirds, puffins amongst them. I remember the first flock of puffins I came across, way back in my early sailing years, off the west coast of Ireland. Puffins there were so thick on the surface of the sea that it was like trying to steer a boat through an ever-shifting football crowd. I have always found it impossible not to raise a smile when I see a puffin. They’ve been called the ‘clowns of the sea’, and that’s partly true. That multi-coloured beak, always vivid when set against the grey of the north Atlantic, is always a cheerful sight and to watch them duck and dive as the boat heads towards them makes me chuckle. Almost as much as that swaying gait they display when ashore and walking on land. They are simply funny to watch, there’s no more to it than that.

But delve deeper and read of the truly remarkable life of the puffin and you will find that it is no fool. Their winters are spent entirely at sea; come storm or calm they will ride the waves until the spring when they come ashore to breed, at the same place they visited the year before and for many seasons before that. And always with the same mate. They will fly hundreds of miles in search of food to feed their young, and once the chicks have fled the nest it is back to the harsh Atlantic for yet another winter. It’s an unusual combination of courage and dedicated domesticity.

I am no ornithologist, but to see puffins you shouldn’t need to be. If you are in the right place, they come to you. Except, in the Farne Islands, they failed to appear. That made me sad. Assuming bad luck, I sailed on. I don’t want to spoil for you my subsequent puffin encounters, but the title of my book (Farewell Mr Puffin) may give you a clue.

I found my journey north took me through a richer variety of cultures, waters and landscapes that I could ever imagine. When the North Sea gives way to Scottish waters, and the landmass fragments into the Orkney Islands, there is much to discover, and not all of it on an intellectual plane. In Kirkwall, the Orkney capital, I found a gem of a watering hole where tea is brewed as thick as treacle and the scones as hard as granite, but with an inspiring character that no modern coffee house could match. Tourists don’t go to such places, but sailors need them. The Faroe Islands are different again, and are not the rehearsal for Iceland that I had expected. The Faroes are ancient, Iceland is quite new. The Faroes are rocky and green with lush grass; Iceland is volcanic, covered in black dusty lava and trees are as rare as sunbathing weather. There were many surprises along the way.

I have tried in this book to convey the voyaging experience, and share with you the richness of the places I visited. I have tried to convey the ups and downs of sailing life, and the pleasures that ever-changing crews (usually) bring.

Most of all I want to convey what a lovely little creature the puffin is, and what the puffin stands for. We are being endlessly told of the dangerously changing world in which we live, and often the warnings wash over us because the scale of them is beyond our understanding. But when you head north and see the puffins, it is then you realise that things really are changing. The puffin is often called a ‘comedian’ of the bird world. All I can say is that, at the moment, the jokes are running out.

Farewell Mr Puffin: A Small Boat Voyage to Iceland is published 8th July, RRP £12.99. You can order it with a 10% discount direct from our brand new website here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/farewell-mr-puffin-9781472990976 (please note that following the launch of our new website, all Bloomsbury account holders will need to reset their passwords).

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