Farewell Mr Puffin by Paul Heiney – Review
By David Schuster
I’ll be first to admit that before reading Farewell Mr Puffin I was unaware of Paul Heiney’s sailing career, remembering him primarily as one of the jovial presenters of long running tv show, That’s Life; a reference point which dates both of us. That’s my mistake, as he’s quite clearly an expert yachtsman, currently holding the titles of Commodore of the Royal Cruising Club and Younger Brother within Trinity House. However, it’s for his 18,000-mile boat journey from the UK to Cape Horn and back that he is best known in sailing circles, and which formed the basis of one of his earlier publications; One Wild Song.
In his latest adventure, the writer and broadcaster points the same small craft, the Wild Song, northward to sail from the southeast coast of England to Iceland and the Arctic Circle. This route, he hopes, will take him past some of the largest colonies of puffins anywhere in the world, a premise around both which voyage and book are framed.
I use the term ‘adventure’ here in much the same way as the character of Bilbo Baggins does in The Hobbit; “Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things. Make you late for dinner.” The author leaves us in no doubt that this is indeed the lot of the sailor. In these sanitised times, where we are used to thrills without risk, it comes as a shock to realise just how dangerous sailing a small boat is; submerged rocks, tides, sandbanks, huge ships ploughing through the darkness, and even silent oil and gas rigs, invisible in the fog, all pose threat of death and disaster. This makes for an exciting read.
“Love and enthusiasm”
Heiney’s chatty, ‘warts and all’ narrative style lends especial charm to the tale, giving you the feeling that he is retelling his story over a pint in front of a log fire. Thus, we get to experience, at second hand, the beauty of the clouds parting over a snow-capped volcano on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes peninsula, and a pod of more than 30 whales swimming in formation, without having to endure hours of bucket-vomiting sea sickness. On this latter tribulation, I was surprised to find that ocean induced nausea isn’t confined to landlubbers like myself, and even seasoned sailors succumb to it on occasion.
The author shares his travels with a variety of companions. Some are old friends and experienced sailors and some new, without any boating knowledge. Both however, necessarily have a love and enthusiasm for the sea and wild, lonely places. At either end of that scale, we are introduced to down to earth yachtsman Ant, happily coping with navigational directions as vague as ‘roughly north’. This is contrasted with artist Alan, who sees the beauty in the green waves growing before an approaching storm, without thinking to alert anyone else on board of the danger.
The chapters are liberally sprinkled with photographs. Whilst these are untitled and reproduced at low resolution, that’s not the point, they add atmosphere to the narrative in the way that they might be used in a private journal.
And what of the fate of the titular puffin? The book is never maudlin, and Heiney is characteristically both factual and philosophical, reflecting that the reasons for the fall in bird numbers are many and complex and the impact of human activity only exacerbates this, making it very difficult to predict how they will fare. He is clear on one thing though; the coasts would be drearier without the clown of the seabirds.
‘Farewell Mr Puffin’ by Paul Heiney is published by Bloomsbury, £12.99 paperback