Lunch with Jock Wishart
Award-winning sailor, polar explorer, trekker and rower Jock Wishart is an adventurer of the old school. Ed Cumming heads to Boisdale of Belgravia to trade tales over the table
By Ed Cummings
July 25 2019
The first thing you notice about Jock Wishart is that he has the most extraordinary hands. The skin on his thick, muscular fingers is mottled red and brown, and looks sore – the legacy of a lifetime spent in baking sunlight and salty seas, clutching oars and ropes and rails and walking poles.
They are hands that have rowed the Atlantic, circumnavigated the globe, and been to the North Pole more times than their owner can remember, twice in record-breaking circumstances. When we meet in the bar at Boisdale of Belgravia one sunny afternoon, they are already clutching a gin and tonic.
Decades of exposure to some of the harshest elements on earth are at last taking their toll. He points to the crown of his head, where surgeons have recently removed some cancerous cells.
“They took some off, but it’s a bit more serious than we thought, so they took even more off,” he says, matter-offactly. “I’m red-haired Norman Scottish, and I’ve spent so long in the sun…”
“It’s a tax on the way you’ve lived?”
It’s not so much that they don’t make them like Jock Wishart any more. It’s more that the world has made it almost impossible for Jock Wisharts to exist. A rower, sailor, and trekker extraordinaire, he has made a career of adventuring at a time when challenges are harder and harder to find. As recent photos of the Everest traffic jam showed, there is no shortage of tourists, but real adventurers are harder to come by.
“I remember [the explorer] Sir David Hempleman-Adams asked me to climb Everest,” Wishart says. “Why would I want to do that, when 28 people climb it every day? I like to do things that are different, or break a record. I’ve always managed to find new things to do, but except for the very deep sea or outer space, most things have been done now.
But I’ve paid the mortgage doing what I love, and enjoyed every minute of it.”
Wishart’s love of sports started when he was growing up in Dumfries, part of a family that can trace its lineage back hundreds of years. His father ran a garage, and his mother had served on Mongomery’s staff during the war. “She taught me that when you do something, you give it 100 per cent,” he explains.
He had three younger brothers, the youngest of whom, Alastair, had Down Syndrome and died three years ago. “He was six years younger than me. It probably made me more compassionate, and it also taught me to value every day, and to make things work for you because others aren’t so lucky.”
Although Wishart was a sporty student, president of the Athletic Union at Durham, as well as the Union Society and boat club, he came late to adventuring, although not to endurance sports, having raced in the America’s Cup in 1980. But since the Nineties, he has achieved a remarkable number of feats. In 1997 he rowed the Atlantic, and then the following year broke the world record for circumnavigation of the globe in a powered vessel. His ‘Cable & Wireless Adventurer’ completed the journey in 74 days, beating a record held by a nuclear-powered submarine.
His many trips to the top of the world include a rowing expedition to the magnetic North Pole, a feat he thinks is unlikely to be repeated. He has also explored South Georgia in the footsteps of Ernest Shackleton, a boyhood hero.
“He had very big balls,” he says. “I like to think that if I had been around I’d have answered his famous ad [which offered ‘small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success’].”
Wishart fits the archetype of the compact, terrier-determined Scot, but he is fine company, too, and hard months at sea haven’t stopped him enjoying the mid-season English asparagus, turbot and more than a bottle of white wine that emerge from the Boisdale kitchen.
His 2011 North Pole expedition was sponsored by Old Pulteney, and a limited-edition Jock Wishart bottle sits on the bar, from which two mandatory drams are poured at the end of the meal.
He falls silent just once, remembering a friend who was washed overboard sailing outside Hong Kong. “He got caught by the guy [rope] and was swept out. By the time we had turned round to get him he had drowned. I don’t think about it much now. I try not to. You can’t take any risks with the sea.”
There have been other terrors. On his trip with Hempleman-Adams to the North Pole, he woke up to the sound of a large polar bear sniffing around histent. “I saw this paw resting on the outside and I curled up into a ball,” he recalls. “I have a higher comfort zone for danger than a lot of people, but I try to make sure I don’t get myself in positions I can’t get out of. You have an objective you want to achieve, but if part of that is being in the territory of one of the most dangerous predators in the world, you have to be prepared to deal with it.”
He is of the preparation-prevents poor-performance school. “Nothing’s impossible,” he says. “If you have a dream and want it badly enough, you’ll achieve it. Inside every ordinary person is something extraordinary trying to get out. If you never give up, in the end you’ll get there.” He has no time for TV ‘adventurers’, like Ant Middleton or Ben Fogle, whom he dismisses as “tourists”.
For his next project he is buying a traditional Spanish rowing boat called a trainera, in which he hopes to set some records. He still rows, skis and sails, and has recently taken up shooting. “I’ve never been able to hit the small ball, so I need something to do as I get older,” he says. The price of his peripatetic career is going away three times a year with his wife, Debbie, and he has close ties to Durham University and sporting institutions such as the London Scottish rugby team, as well as having various charitable commitments.
He still has big plans, although he is keeping them close to his chest. “It requires technology that’s not quite there yet, and if I told you I’d have to kill you. If it comes off, or something else comes up, then great. But if not, that’s alright. I’ve done enough.”