Cheating the sea – the life of a Search and Rescue Pilot

Today sees the publication of RESCUE PILOT, the memoir of Jerry Grayson, the youngest helicopter pilot to ever serve in the Royal Navy, and by the age of 25, the most decorated peacetime naval pilot in history.

I was asked in a recent Australian radio interview, “What was the biggest danger you faced when flying Search and Rescue missions?” Without hesitation I was able to reply, “A flying car.” It’s perhaps not the first thing that might pop into anybody’s head when talking about flying a helicopter but the event is seared into my memory and is one of the stories told in my book Rescue Pilot, published today. In brief summary can I suggest that if you’re rushing to a clifftop to watch a helicopter hovering beneath you it’s a very good idea to apply the handbrake firmly before leaving your car!

There are a couple of other good pieces of advice in the book such as “Never walk close to the edge of a cliff, it will crumble” and “Don’t go out to sea on a li-lo when the wind is blowing offshore”, but mainly it’s a collection of stories – some funny, some tragic – about a very average guy who was fortunate enough to be allowed to do an extraordinary job. Some days were spent plucking holiday makers from the cliffs of Cornwall (and avoiding flying cars!) while other days were long, fraught and intense. Chapter 1 (available for free at ) narrates just such a day when my diver, my aircrewman, the doctor and I spent many hours watching a Greek cargo ship slowly stagger its way towards an inevitable demise on the rocks of North Cornwall. It was not until we wished the crew a fond farewell and goodnight that they decided they would like to abandon ship after all.

No such persuasion was needed for the yacht crews battling with unprecedented seas during the infamous Fastnet Race disaster of 1979. I have never seen seas like it, before or since. The poor yachtsmen had sailed right into the teeth of the storm and not all of them were to come out of it. It was while reading Nick Ward’s extraordinary book Left For Dead that I suddenly realised it was time to write down some of these tales from the perspective of a Search and Rescue Pilot. At the time it was just the job we did, but as the years passed I increasingly realised that I’d been privileged to experience some extremes that others would find hard to believe.

But amongst all the drama there was also a good deal of laughter and HRH Prince Andrew, in his kind foreword, hits the nail on the head when he says “Reading this book I am also reminded of the undeniably strong camaraderie of aviators as well as the wonderful sense of humour that arises in the face of adversity.”

I’m forever grateful to the team at Bloomsbury who have taken this project to their hearts and published it in the year that the baton for SAR passes finally from the military to the civilian sector. It’s a controversial move with some interesting birthing pains but I have no doubt that the naval tradition of telling stories to each other will carry forward. My biggest hope for Rescue Pilot is that it will serve as a celebration of all that has gone before in the 61 years of SAR in the Fleet Air Arm and of all the people who have given so much and saved so many. If our website at and the associated Facebook page act as a conduit to those who served together then the launch of the book at the National Maritime Museum tonight will not be an end but just a beginning.

RESCUE PILOT is available to buy from all good bookshops and online retailers. You can get a 10% discount if you buy the book direct from our website: It is also available as an ebook.


From the Marco Polo to the #CuttySark, this beautiful new book captures the clipper ship era.

The Most Dramatic Era in the History of Sail, Brought Vividly to Life


In the era of commercial sail, clipper ships were the ultimate expression of speed and grace. Racing out to the gold fields of America and Australia, and breaking speed records carrying tea back from China, the ships combined beauty with breathtaking performance.

From mutinies, rivalries and the Cutty Sark’s longest voyage via the inspirational story of Captain Mary Patten and her battle with Cape Horn, Clipper Ships and the Golden Age of Sail brings this unique era vividly back to life, recounting thrilling descriptions of the most dramatic races, beautifully illustrated with the finest paintings and illustrations.

First-hand accounts, newspaper reports and log entries add exciting eyewitness detail, while the exquisite images bring home the sheer elegance of these racehorses of the sea.

Read a few sample pages from this beautiful celebration of these racehorses of the sea.

A visit to the Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival 2014


The Royal Greenwich Tall Ships Festival came to London on Friday 5th September for five days and a few of the Adlard Coles team took some time out of the office on Monday afternoon to experience its many pleasures. It was the largest fleet of tall ships to visit London in 25 years and so naturally, for us, it couldn’t be missed.

Crowds of people line the bank at Maritime Greenwich

Crowds of people line the bank at Maritime Greenwich

The fleet was spread across several sites in Southeast London: Maritime Greenwich, Royal Arsenal Woolwich, Greenwich Peninsula and West India Dock. We visited Maritime Greenwich, in order to be able to go on board the largest ship of the fleet, Poland’s Dar Mlodziezy. At a mighty 108.8 metres sparred length and with a sail area of 3,015 square metres, the ship really is an impressive sight to behold.

Approaching Dar Mlodziezy

Approaching Dar Mlodziezy

Greenwich was incredibly busy but the festival seemed to be very well organised, with plenty of stewards available to answer questions and direct people to where they needed to go. Dar Mlodziezy was moored midstream and so we boarded a shuttle boat to take us on the quick 5-minute journey to where it was.


On board we were able to wander around on deck freely, and took great delight in admiring the ship’s many features. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted below deck but this was only a minor disappointment, as above deck had plenty for us to see.

Janet and Liz of the Adlard Coles team discuss the merits of baggywrinkles

Janet and Liz of the Adlard Coles team discuss the merits of baggywrinkles

We were also lucky to see the flotilla of puffers (steam ships) and ships that took part in the rescue from Dunkirk in 1940, which started in Maritime Greenwich at 2pm and finished at 3.30pm at the Royal Arsenal Woolwich Festival Village.

The ship Gulden Leeuw sails past us

The ship Gulden Leeuw sails past us

Back on dry land we wandered for a bit around the Lebara Festival Village, which included numerous market stalls, lots of live music, food and drink vendors and other entertaining sights. All against the beautiful backdrop of the Old Royal Naval College. All in all, a brilliant afternoon out.

The Lebara Festival Village

The Lebara Festival Village

A fun family day out

A fun family day out

L–R Liz, Janet and Jenny of the Adlard Coles team

L–R Liz, Janet and Jenny of the Adlard Coles team

To read more about Dar Mlodziezy and more than 100 of the other fascinating tall ships still sailing today, buy your copy of Tall Ships Today, produced in conjunction with Sail Training International. There is a 10% discount if you buy it direct from our website here.


20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the birth of science fiction

The history of science fiction could have been very different. Jules Verne’s father only let him go to Paris in 1847 to study law and afterwards wanted him to come back to his hometown of Nantes to start his own law firm. But the twentysomething Verne had been distracted by Paris’s theatres and literary salons, and soon came under the influence of Alexandre Dumas.

In 1869 he published 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which went on to become one of his most famous, popular and well-travelled novels. It is the story of French naturalist Pierre Aronnax, who joins an American expedition to hunt down a massive whale that has apparently sunk several ships. When they track down the monster, Aronnax falls overboard and finds the massive whale is actually made of metal. Taken inside this artificial leviathan, he begins an epic journey under the seas as a prisoner of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, which involves sea battles, an attack from giant octopuses and a visit to a sunken city.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Our edition, published this week, includes a specially-written Foreword by zoologist and television presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff. In it she explores how Verne both pre-empted and inspired future developments in oceanography and submarine technology. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the fourth book in the Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, which aims to celebrate the best in maritime fiction, both fiction and non-fiction.

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

Remembering Fastnet – 35 years on

Every two years since 1925 (with the obvious exception of 1941 to 1945), yachts have set sail from Cowes on a 608-mile (1,126km) race which finishes in Plymouth, but whose course goes via the Irish islet that gives the race its name – Fastnet.

The 28th Fastnet Yacht Race left Cowes on 11th August 1979. It had 306 yachts taking part, and competitors included Sir Peter Blake, the founder of CNN Ted Turner and former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who was still secretly smarting from what his arch rival and successor as Conservative leader had managed to pull off earlier that summer. Out of the 306 yachts that started, however, only 86 finished. The 1979 Fastnet Race was the one that took a sporting event from the back pages to the front.

As the race started, weather forecasts predicted reasonably steady Force 4 or 5 winds, rising to Force 6 or 7 for a while. A large depression had formed over the Atlantic but was expected to miss the southern coast of Ireland by hundreds of miles. By the time it took a sharp and rapid turn towards the Irish coast and forecasts began predicting Force 8 winds, most of the yachts were already too far out to sea to turn back.

Between the 13th and 14th August, winds reached Force 11. Some 25 yachts were sunk (or otherwise disabled) and abandoned, with 75 turned upside down in mountainous seas. Before rescuers were able to reach the stricken yachts, 15 competitors were killed.

Image from Daily Mail

Whilst the winds were still blowing at hurricane force, the largest peacetime rescue operation in history was mounted. Some 4,000 people were involved in a collaborative effort including British, Irish and Dutch personnel, naval vessels and aircraft. The US Navy even sent a ship based out of Scotland to assist. The Royal Navy, RAF and RNLI led the way, sailing and flying into perilous conditions. The death toll would have been even higher had they not, but three rescuers died in the process.

Large-scale disasters of this nature consist of hundreds of individual stories of courage and endurance, such as that of Nick Ward. He was still in his early 20s when he joined the crew of the yacht Grimalkin for the race. They rode the storm as long as they could but were turned over by a massive wave. Nick was knocked unconscious and when he came to he found himself alone on Grimalkin with only one dying crewmate. The liferaft was missing. Nick realised what the others had done. He spent a long day unable to do anything but sit in an uncontrollable boat at the mercy of the storm, hoping for rescue before Grimalkin suffered her final fatal knockdown. Nick’s account, Left for Dead, was published in 2007 and went on to win The Times Sports Book of the Year.

Jerry Grayson, a Royal Navy rescue pilot flying Wessex helicopters out of Cornwall, was also still in his early 20s at the time of the 1979 Fastnet. He was used to picking up injured people from the bottom of cliffs, or even airlifting them from the decks of submarines. But he had never heard of Fastnet. He thought he was flying to look for a couple of yachts and maybe a dozen sailors stranded on a beach in the Scilly Isles.

Instead, as he flew into the storm, the radio went crazy. It seemed like every helicopter from their base was also being sent up. Meanwhile one yacht after another was issuing desperate Mayday calls over emergency channels. For normal rescues, Jerry would hover 15ft in the air. That was always going to be difficult that stormy August morning, however, when waves topped 40ft.

Image from Daily Echo

Jerry was one of those directly involved in the rescue effort to receive the Air Force Cross for his actions. He will tell his story in Rescue Pilot, to be published next year.

The 1979 Fastnet Race had consequences that continue to be felt today, and not just for the race itself. The RYA and RORC jointly commissioned an inquiry which thoroughly investigated the safety and performance of small craft, their crews and equipment. It was far-reaching, the definitive report on sailing standards for all offshore sailing, not just racing. It led to significant changes – and most would argue, improvements – to yacht design, safety and equipment.

The Sea Wolf – a forgotten classic?

The Sea Wolf by Jack London is the third title we are publishing in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, celebrating the best of maritime writing through the centuries, whether fiction or non-fiction.

When we first came up with the idea for the series it was a hard job selecting which titles to include in the first batch. Various people insisted we do something to ensure The Sea Wolf didn’t become a forgotten classic. Here in the office we were more familiar with Jack London’s most famous books, White Fang and Call of the Wild, but when we were reading The Sea Wolf we all agreed it was really rather good.

Informed by London’s own experience serving on a Pacific sealing schooner heading for the coast of Japan, The Sea Wolf is the story of Humphrey Van Weyden, a quiet bookish man who falls overboard after his ferry collides with another vessel. He is picked up by the crew of a seal-hunting schooner called The Ghost, but his relief at being rescued is short-lived once he meets her captain, the brutal Wolf Larsen.

Wolf Larsen would terrify even Captain Ahab. Nihilistic, cruel and vengeful, Wolf Larsen views the men under his command as little more than yeast. But he is not a mindless monster – indeed, he takes to Humphrey Van Weyden because he senses an intellectual equal. Caught between Larsen and his browbeaten crew, Van Weyden’s life-changing experience is punctuated by an attempted mutiny, a cataclysmic storm and the appearance of Wolf’s equally terrible brother, Death Larsen.

At once a cleverly written thrilling adventure and an insightful look at the fragility of humanity in the face of the unforgiving ocean, our brand new edition of The Sea Wolf features an exclusive Foreword by adventurer and television presenter Bear Grylls. In it he draws on his own experience of running into trouble hundreds of miles from land to give a unique perspective on the fundamental amorality of the natural world.

The Sea Wolf (Jack London)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?

Reappraising the mutiny on board HMS Bounty

In late December 1787, HMS Bounty set sail for Tahiti under the command of Lieutenant William Bligh, a 33-year-old career sailor who had voyaged to the far reaches of the Pacific with Captain Cook and served with distinction during several sea battles against the Dutch in the American War of Independence. Today he is known only for what happened aboard the Bounty – in April 1789 roughly half of the crew mutinied against Bligh, cast him adrift and sailed away with the ship.

Most of what we know about the mutiny comes from Bligh’s own account, in which he gives notably less space to the possible grievances that may have led to the mutiny than he does the adventure he had afterwards. After all, he and his loyal crew were cast adrift in a 23ft (7m) open launch, thousands of miles from the nearest colonial outpost, with insufficient supplies to last. Due to Bligh’s seamanship, however, he and his loyal crew sailed over 3,500 nautical miles to Timor, and almost all of them lived long enough to see England again.

The mutiny on board HMS Bounty

Meanwhile the mutineers returned to Tahiti, and then some of them continued on to Pitcairn, where they scuttled the ship. Many of their descendants continue to live on the island to this day.

Even at the time, however, William Bligh’s account raised questions and doubts. The leader of the mutiny, Fletcher Christian, was no press-ganged pauper turned pirate. Indeed, his brother Edward was a lawyer, and following the court martial of half the mutineers (and the executions of three of them), plus the complete legal exoneration of Bligh, Edward Christian began his own investigation.

He talked to acquitted mutineers and even some of the crewmen who had remained loyal to Bligh. He published a diplomatically-worded but still highly critical alternative to Bligh’s account, which began a tit for tat back and forth reappraisal of the mutiny played out in public, full of implicit insinuation and apparent contradiction from both sides.

Today Bligh’s account still remains most well known, but read together with Edward Christian’s reports, the fascinating story really comes to life. For this reason in our brand new edition of Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty, we have decided to publish them together, allowing readers to make up their own minds.

An inaugural title in our new Adlard Coles Maritime Classics series, Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty features new maps and a special Foreword by world-class yachtsman and racing sailor Pete Goss, in which he describes his own experience of a collapse in captain-crew relations as he explores the grey areas surrounding the mutiny on the Bounty.

Mutiny On Board HMS Bounty (William Bligh)

Other titles in the series currently include South (Ernest Shackleton), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) and The Sea Wolf (Jack London). Next year we will add Robinson Crusoe (Daniel Defoe) and Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad).

What maritime favourites would you like us to publish next?