Welcome To My World of Pedals and Paddles

An account of my Sea Kayaking and Mountain Biking exploits

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Freddie Spencer Chapman's Kayak

So who was Freddie Spencer Chapman? one description I have read was that he was the most famous war hero that you have never heard of. He certainly had an amazing life. A quick search on the internet reveals much about his life and his exploits. My search has prompted me to buy his autobiography which I am about to start reading.

So where is the connection between this amazing man and kayaking?

It is logical to start reading about Gino Watkins, Greenland and his expeditions by first reading Gino Watkins by J.M.Scott. In this book you receive an introduction to Freddie Chapman who was primarily the expeditions Ornithologist. You are also given an insight into his strength of character when he is tasked with relieving Augustine Courtauld who was forced to spend a winter on the ice cap alone. FSC did not locate Courtauld but only gave up when all options had been exhausted.

J.M.Scott's book finishes abruptly when Watkins dies. FSC picks up the story in his book Watkins' Last Expedition. He gives a description of Ginos' death but at no time is there any mention of the expedition being aborted. In fact the remaining team members went on to complete all the original objectives although there were just three of them. When I read his book for the second time I became aware that the authors writing had a definite no none sense approach. This prompted me to research who he was.

Gino Watkins certainly picked a strong team for his expeditions.

After the second British Air Route Expedition Freddie Spencer Chapman went on to explore Lapland with a reindeer. This was followed by an appointment in Tibet where he was at first tasked with locating the Dalai Lama. He then taught outdoor education at Gordonstoun School where Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh was a pupil. When the Second World War broke out he was posted to Australia and tasked with training Special Forces. He was in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese and then stayed behind the enemy lines for the next three years fighting a guerilla war. He was so successful at this the Japanese thought they were fighting a force of over 200. He was decorated for his achievements but apparently Lord Mountbatten was very upset that he did not receive the recognition he deserved by virtue of a VC.
After the war FSC was given the task of setting up a school in Germany for soldiers children. Once this was done he went to South Africa and became head of St Andrews College in South Africa. He left SA due to appartheid. He then became a warden at halls in Reading University.
In 1971 suffering back problems and racked by jungle diseases he took his own life in his office. He left a note to his wife stating that he did not want her to nurse an invalid for the rest of her life.

This is a brief summary of Freddie Spencer Chapmans' life there are plenty of other sources to read about him in particular:



This is a blog about kayaking so back to the main subject. On page 102 of the book Watkins' Last Expedition Freddie Chapman describes his kayak which had just been made for him in Angmagssalik and then covered by his friend the Inuit Enoch who was staying in Nigertusok Fjord to the south of the base camp at Lake Fjord. He describes how this kayak was much more stable than the one lost earlier in the expedition when it was cast adrift in a storm. Later in the book he describes how he had to spend twenty hours in the kayak storm bound at sea.
When the expedition was over Knud Rasmussen arranged for the teams equipment to be collected from Lake Fjord and eventually shipped back to Britain. It occurred to me that the expedition would not wish to lose their kayaks again.
After a little more research I came across the book http://www.amazon.co.uk/Eastern-Arctic-Kayaks-History-Technique/dp/1889963259 in this book the author gives details of a kayak surveyed by John Bland in 1987 and stored at Atlantic College, St Donats in The Vale of Glamorgan. It would appear that this kayak is the one described by Freddie Spencer Chapman in his book.

The College very kindly arranged a visit for me to view the kayak and here it is:

The kayak is 5286 mm long, 481 mm wide and 187 mm deep.
How a man the size of Freddie Spencer Chapman was able to sit in this boat let alone paddle it for twenty hours is beyond my comprehension.

I am not sure how the kayak got to Atlantic College but John Brand seemed to believe it was genuine. He also wrote a very interesting book The 'Small Kayak Book' which is currently out of print.

So there we have a piece of history right on my doorstep.

I started my kayak exploits in a SOF kayak and I have seen the sport evolve through SOF, plywood to composite and plastic kayaks.

Many thanks to Atlantic College and Simon Neenan for arranging my visit.

The other members of the second expedition were:

John Rymill - (Cartographer) the year after he led an expedition to Graham Land in Antarctica. He was a farmer in Southern Austarlia and died in 1968 after a car accident. His expedition to Graham Land was commerated by a kayak expedition led by
Andrew Mcauley http://www.andrewmcauley.com/rymill.html
I have a copy of the finished survey by John Rymill and this is still usable for navigation in the area of Lake Fjord.

Quintin Riley - ( Meterologist ) He joined John Rymill on his Graham Land expedition and was the Polar Adviser to the film Scott of The Antarctic. His kayak was also surveyed by John Bland and is kept at The Town Hall Braintree Essex. He too had an outstanding war career and rather bizarrely also died in a car accident in 1980.

My trip to Lake Fjord in August will remember a strong team of four outstanding men and not just Gino Watkins.


The Grange Gardener said...

I was director of the Extramural Centre at Atlantic College from 1990 - 2009, I think that the kayak was in fact a replica that had been built and was not the original.

127Beach said...

Hi James, I knew FSC when I was a student and he was Headmaster of St Andrew's College in SA. I was very friendly with his 3 sons so got to see him out of school and on holiday too, and heard his stories of Greenland, Tibet and the jungle first hand. Also saw his films of Greenland and Tibet and first heard about kayaks and rolling them from him. He had a huge impact on me and still today I have a whitewater kayak (Dagger RPM) which I surf in the waves at the beach.
Chris Harvey New Zealand

James Murray said...

Thank you for taking the time to post a comment Chris. It is so nice to have a 'live ' connection between what I have read and FSC. He certainly does sound an amazing character.
I have a Dagger Axiom which I believe is a later version of the RPM. I too use it for surfing plus river running at playing at the whitewater centre in Cardiff.
Once kayaking gets into your blood I think it is there for good.