The man with a real thirst for adventure

PUBLISHED: 11:36 01 November 2001 | UPDATED: 10:46 03 March 2010

ALMOST five years ago, as the world was celebrating the turn of a new year, Essex-born Tony Bullimore began a remarkable fight for life in the Southern Ocean.

ALMOST five years ago, as the world was celebrating the turn of a new year, Essex-born Tony Bullimore began a remarkable fight for life in the Southern Ocean.

The adventurer is in Ipswich today and spoke to me about the qualities, the people and the ambitions which drive him.

EVERY so often the world embraces a story of quite unexpected heroism.

It takes heart and optimism from the courage of one lone individual – individuals like Tony Bullimore.

Strictly speaking, Tony Bullimore ought to be putting his feet up.

He's 62, he's tried his hand at all sorts of life adventures, and one imagines that his journals and photo albums must inevitably read like a man who has lived a thousand lives in one lifetime already. But Tony isn't your typical 60-plus retirement-craving adult.

This is the man who shot into the hearts of the public when we dramatically witnessed his very public struggle for survival. In 1997 he spent four days of the new year clinging to an upturned hull in the southern ocean – fighting against freezing conditions for a fading chance of life.

To many, he is an inspiration, to others, he is a man who thrives on taking the most unnecessary of life risks.

"I've always been a 'go out and getter'," Tony confessed. "There's this very clear streak of adventure in me, and I feel I have to go out there and use it in everything I do.

"Obviously I'm not oblivious to the potential dangers of the things that I do, but I want it bad enough."

He said: "I suppose it's also that I'm quite stubborn – and I believe that if you make up your mind to do something in life, you might as well be single-minded about it.

"If you can be blinkered about your goals, then it forces you to focus. It makes you more intent on succeeding."

That blinkered intent is all well and good, but some would say that it was exactly that foolhardy attitude which landed him in trouble on that notorious voyage of 1997.

Tony had set out on the Vendee Globe solo round-the-world-race (that which helped make Ellen MacArthur so famous earlier this year) and hit trouble some 15,000 miles from the shores of Australia.

Despite sending out his distress flare, the adventurer was a long way from any available rescue operation, and had to cling to his capsized boat for five long and harrowing days in all.

"Yes, I did think that perhaps I wasn't going to make it," Tony solemnly confessed. "I knew I had been at sea for two months by that stage, but that I was a long way from any shore.

"I just had to keep on hoping, keep on wanting to live. I was desperate to live, and that forced me to hang on in there."

But even with that determined will to live, and with so many years of nautical experience, Tony's chances were fast running out by the time he was plucked to safety.

He had managed to ensure his existence against all the odds, nourished by just a few tiny chocolate bars. Little wonder he lost a staggering 28 kilos in all.

An experience like that could easily have put him off but he is not one to be beaten.

"It's not in my nature to feel full of self-pity when things don't turn out right," he insisted. "I'd rather get out there and show that I'm determined to live my life. That's the way I've always been."

Born and raised just south of Suffolk, in Rochford, Essex, he was an ambitious and adventurous child, always with high aspirations.

And, contrary to the most typical assumptions of Tony Bullimore, he is far more than a sailor – and always has been.

In fact, few people realise just how many business enterprises, success stories, and diverse vocations in which this famed yachtsman has been involved.

"When I left school I just knew that I wanted to go into business, and to make money as quickly as I could," he said.

"I hadn't been particularly academic, but I was prepared to have a go at things and I wanted to do well at whatever I tried.

"I've done all sorts of things over the years – a carpet business, exhibitions, an international trading house. You could certainly say that I've been around the Mulberry Bush."

But without doubt, one of Tony's biggest surprises is the fact that he launched and owned some of the largest, most popular nightclubs in Bristol.

"In the Sixties I started The Granary," he said, "It was a five-bar place with its own restaurant, and then after that I had The Bamboo Club.

"That was constantly packed at the time. It specialised in bringing live West Indian entertainment in, and we got Bob Marley to come and perform there several times."

On the other side of his life, in terms of his nautical obsession, Tony first began sailing in his late teens.

He quickly became involved on the racing circuit, rose to the biggest ocean-based challenges and has now proudly notched up some 300,000 miles by sea.

"I've got 150 trophies, I've been across the Atlantic 30 times and I was named Yachtsman of the Year in 1995 – those are very big achievements and yes, I am proud of them."

Not unlike Ellen MacArthur, Tony was very keen to establish some of those ocean challenges for himself.

He wanted those voyages to be his, from start to finish – and so single-handed racing was to be his chosen niche.

"I did my first single-handed race back in 1972 at the age of 30, and I do feel that there is something special about sailing like that," he said.

"It's a tougher challenge in many ways, but I really enjoy it. I always have done, and I always will."

Tony does not dwell on the loneliness of such adventures, or even on the wife, the friends, or the home comforts which he has had no choice but to leave behind.

"I love the environment of being out there in the ocean, so perhaps that makes it easier to cope when I am out there on my own.

"Besides," he added, "I am something of a split personality, and while I like being around people a lot of the time, there are other times when I just want to escape it all."

This year, Tony swapped his solo pursuits for the chance to race a 102 foot catamaran around the world.

Eventually, racing Team Legato in the event named 'The Race', Tony brought up the rear of the fleet and must surely have spent recent months reflecting on the choice to sail accompanied.

It is well reported in the sailing arena that his entry had been 'dogged by bickering', and that crew members had actually left the boat just two months through the tough contest.

Perhaps, above all else, he will have been reminded of just why it is that he loves the solo challenge so dearly.

Today, still full of the same enthusiasm and determination which he possessed before that horrendous Southern Ocean experience, Tony is rarely far from the water.

He is busy involving himself in corporate sailing, visiting nautical enthusiasts in Eastern Europe, and preparing on the quiet for new record attempts.

"There are plenty more goals and records to achieve," said the veteran racer. "I may be in my '60s, but it's not my time to give up yet.

"I will know when that day gets here, and I hope it's a long way off."


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