Dr Andrew Eccleston opens the file of lovingly archived memorabilia from his life, and takes a trip down memory lane with each turn of the page. When the 61-year-old academic alights upon a prize-winning essay he wrote in 1969 in tribute to Sir Francis Chichester’s solo navigation around the world in Gipsy Moth IV, he rocks back in his chair and places his hands behind his head. This was the moment that a teenaged pupil of King Edward’s School, in that renowned sea port of Birmingham, “articulated that which was already latent inside” – a “need to go to sea”.
So trading dinghy trips on Bittel Reservoir for the open ocean, Andrew loaded up his Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorbike and rode to the South West, spending his first night sleeping on The Hoe atop his bike. He enrolled as a Merchant Navy Cadet, and within a year was on his first circumnavigation of the globe, on board a bulk-carrier loaded with coal and iron ore. Sponsored by Denholm Ship Management to undertake a BSc in Nautical Studies at University of Plymouth, Andrew qualified as a Navigating Officer and served on numerous carriers and cargo ships. He went on to become the first person at the institution to earn a PhD in maritime science, and now, 30 years later as lecturer at the University, he asks his students to navigate that same maiden trip, using the Marine Institute’s state-of-the-art ship simulator to voyage the virtual oceans from Rotterdam to Australia.
A natural raconteur, with an undimmed ability to recount names, details and ships, Andrew’s life-story unfurls through a series of seemingly improbable right angles, but which do in fact have at their heart his maxim of “Trying to do ‘stuff’ and help people”. There were the entrepreneurial 1980s and 90s when he set up and ran hugely successful software businesses that were genuinely customer focussed.
Then the spiritual homecoming to Plymouth, where he has spent the past decade passing on his knowledge to students, and sharing his passion for sailing by taking friends and colleagues out on his yacht Bessie. And it was perfect serendipity when Andrew had the opportunity to help rescue Gipsy Moth IV from its 37-year entombment in dry dock, and sail three legs of the second circumnavigation of the globe in 2005 as First Mate. “I’m helping young people to get the same start in life that I had,” he said. “It gives me great satisfaction to see them grow into professional seafarers and then embark on the sort of adventures that I enjoyed. I’m trying to share with them the same inspiration I had learning about Chichester and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.”
One last turn of the page and Andrew is back at King Edward’s School: a programme for a performance of The Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare. And what role did the young Eccleston play? Well, two of them actually – The Mariner, and The Shepherd. One doubts whether the great Bard himself could have cast it more perfectly.