The careers teacher suggested town planning. Pete chose the South Pacific and sharks
- Credit: Archant
Former Ipswich Northgate Grammar schoolboy Pete Atkinson dreamed of being Jacques Cousteau and knew a 9-5 desk-job was not for him
Grammar school didn’t quite do it for Pete Atkinson. “I was certainly restless and still remember the feeling of looking out of the window at the seagulls wheeling in the endless blue, and envying their freedom,” he says.
Before too long, he’d have a taste of it himself.
“I came alone to the Pacific Ocean with an old boat and the memories of the girl who remained behind. I was 28 years old,” Pete writes in his lavishly-illustrated ebook Polynesia: An Ocean Realm.
“Seabirds – cormorants, pelicans and frigates – were everywhere. At night the sea glowed with bioluminescence…
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“When a few days were behind me, I lost the tenseness that comes with land, with the proximity of ships, and people…
“Often the gentle breeze died with the dusk. I would take down the sails and sleep with the boat. Between the sounds of rope on wood, the silence was profound.”
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This son of a polymer physicist and a social worker spent 20-odd years satisfying his thirst for adventure. He sailed more than 45,000 miles and made a stunning photographic record of Polynesian life, whales, dolphins and many, many sharks.
He says it’s “a snapshot of an era exploring the Pacific when I had remarkable freedom from bureaucracy of all kinds. I feel grateful that with no qualifications, no safety gear and no experience (or insurance) I could just clear customs and sail away.
“For a young man, exploring Polynesia aboard a beautiful yacht, often with a lovely woman, is the epitome of adventure.” Nowadays, Pete doesn’t often return to his hometown. “When I visit Ipswich, I think it’s nothing short of a miracle that I escaped and managed to have a life of adventure. I had no special skills, so I hope my story can inspire young people to follow their passion and make their dreams real.”
This is how it happened:
Despite not being a good pupil as a youngster, preferring to play the fool at Sidegate Lane primary school, Pete passed the 11-plus and moved on to Northgate Grammar School for Boys in 1968. “I was regularly bottom in French, maths and history, but biology I enjoyed,” he tells me.
“When my A-level results arrived – biology (B), physics (E), chemistry (fail) – I met with Mr Eaton, the careers advisor. He asked ‘Have you considered town planning?’ I hadn’t. I wanted to be the underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau!”
The Frenchman was one of the fathers of scuba-diving, having co-developed the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (scuba for short) in 1943.
The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau ran for about a decade until the mid-1970s, though Pete’s family didn’t have a TV at the time, “so I had to go to my grandmother’s house to watch the Cousteau programmes”.
Cousteau’s influence inspired him, though those exam grades stymied hopes of studying marine biology. But all was not lost.
“Bangor generously accepted me to do a combined science degree. For the first time in my life, education was interesting and I did well enough in the first year that they allowed me to switch to the ‘zoology with marine zoology’ course in the second year.”
The next part of the story he explains in his ebook, written, in the main, almost 30 years ago.
The long hot summer of 1976 saw Pete suffering with the pollen and taking refuge indoors, nurturing a dream. He’d just finished the first year of his degree and had learned to dive in cold North Wales. “The problem was, how could I afford to live and dive in the tropics?”
The only way he could do it, he realised, was to live on a boat.
He read all the books he could find about ocean cruising. “I had no sailing experience and knew nothing about navigation or maintaining a wooden yacht. But the books of Eric Hiscock made a great impression on me. He made the whole business seem incredibly straightforward, which it turned out to be.”
Photography would prove key. “My first camera housing I built for a Kodak Instamatic camera when I was 17, my father borrowing a heat gun so I could bend acrylic sheet into a square for the walls of the housing. The rear plate was held on with 14 brass wingnuts! It hardly leaked at all!”
At Bangor, early attempts were encouraged by success in a British Society of Underwater Photographers competition and by “an extraordinary individual, Matt Murphy”. Matt invited Pete to take photographs off Ireland, “and his infectious enthusiasm and encouragement led me to believe that life on an ocean sailing yacht might be supported by underwater photography”.
After graduating, he worked as a technician in the zoology department at Bangor. “On the strength of the job, I borrowed a little money from my parents and bought a three-bedroom terraced house in derelict condition. It cost £5,300! In my spare time I renovated it completely. Of course, I knew nothing about pouring concrete, slate roofing, installing central heating etc, but the library had books! When the house eventually sold in 1982 for £12,950 I went looking for a yacht which fitted Eric Hiscock’s idea of a good cruising yacht. Eila (built in 1935) was lying ashore at Lymington and I paid £11,000 for her.
“She became my home for the next 17 years and 45,000 miles. She had no refrigeration, liferaft, radio and many other things considered necessities today.”
In September, 1983, Pete set off for Portugal, where he was joined by his girlfriend. “Once we had crossed the Atlantic, my girlfriend and I got work on a motoryacht in Antigua for a year. She decided to stay in Antigua, so once I reached Tahiti I did odd-jobs on boats, delivered a yacht to Hawaii and continued writing articles and shooting pictures for sailing and diving magazines.
“I was shooting stock pictures for agencies and considered in those early days that I could live on about £2,000 a year. Later, when I was accepted by Getty Images, my income improved dramatically.”
Pete owned Eila for those 17 years. In New Zealand he bought another yacht. Vigia was aluminium. Over seven years they covered about 15,000 miles together. In the early 2000s he won awards in Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions, and in 2004 secured a Distinguished Talent Visa for Australia, sailed to Queensland, bought a house, sold the boat and married Thai photographer Darin Limsuansub. This is not a man who does things by halves.
“Adjusting to a normal life was difficult; the bureaucracy was almost overwhelming,” he admits. “In 2010 we moved permanently to Phuket, Thailand, where personal freedom seems very similar to living on a yacht. It suits me.” He almost never sails now, “and strange as it may sound, I never really loved sailing as such; only the opportunity it gave me to visit wonderful places like Beveridge Reef. I dive seldom, although there is good diving at the Similan Islands 60km offshore. I shoot most underwater pictures now when I am snorkelling, when there is a bloom of jellyfish or at a clear freshwater lake north of Phuket.
“I help my wife with the logistics of her work in the office but never assist her in the field. I still shoot stock photography for Getty Images.”
Bit of a transition, isn’t it?
“After 23 years I was ready for a change, and although I miss the wonderful places, I don’t miss the boat life much. And living here in Phuket extends the same personal freedom that I had living on a yacht, without the nagging anxiety of bad weather or the hassle of painting the boat!”
So, let’s get this straight. Pete sailed away from the UK with no “proper” tuition?
“I had no formal training in sailing (or photography) but I bought a friend’s home-made sailing dinghy in Bangor, which taught me something, and I chartered a small yacht in Scotland with friends who knew what they were doing on two occasions. But really I knew very little.”
Wasn’t he frightened, then, on Eila’s shake-down voyage to Ireland?
“Scary things are fog, shipping and bad weather. Returning to Cornwall after the trip to Ireland, we almost ended up on the rocks in fog. You need a little luck... But offshore it’s almost never scary, except when the weather is atrocious.”
OK, so this was a great adventure. But wasn’t he petrified?
“Often scared, but what got me down was the constant nagging anxiety, whether about the weather, the anchor dragging, shipping, the boat leaking.
“Sailing north from Fiji on one occasion I had to go over the side with long lead patches and copper nails to try and reduce the leaking of the starboard seams.
“Another time, 300 miles south of Rarotonga in a severe gale, the biggest seas I have ever seen, with a girl on board who had never sailed...”
Pete had previous little safety gear and no insurance. Naivety or bravado?
“Bravado is completely useless at sea. I felt I had no real choice about doing this. There were no realistic alternatives.
“Safety gear will consume as much money as you let it and in those days the reputation of liferafts was poor. I had some second-hand flares, but, at sea, no-one is watching.
“In 1983, before the Atlantic crossing, I enquired about insurance. The premium was about 25% of the value of the boat, would only cover me as far as Panama and they needed three people aboard, one with ocean navigation experience. So that was an easy decision, and I discovered later that very few cruising yachts have insurance. It’s a great freedom!”
So why trade it for Cairns, a house and a life on land?
“I felt I wanted a tropical base close to the South Pacific, which had good diving. After 23 years living aboard, I was getting a bit fed up with always having to move on, as a visa on arrival would only last four to six months in most places. I heard about the Distinguished Talent Visa programme in Australia, applied and got it in 2004. So I sailed to Cairns. I had never been there before.
“My boat was illegal in many ways, I had no boat licence, no gas certificate, no radio licences. The bureaucracy was confronting after all the freedom at sea! So I put the boat up for sale, bought a house and tried to live a normal life. It was not easy!”
He describes that bureaucracy as “almost overwhelming”. How so?
“I was shocked how businesses seemed to gouge their customers mercilessly. Having a letterbox attracted bills, and the tax laws were so complicated I needed an accountant. So the cost of just existing was high.
“We had some nice friends in Cairns, almost all expats of some sort, but I never felt I belonged there. And Australian politics drove me crazy! Since I couldn’t talk about 4WD vehicles, rugby league, AFL rugby or cricket, I had nothing to talk about at barbecues. But there was excellent diving out in the Coral Sea and on the Great Barrier Reef.”
Suffolk, not surprisingly, seems a world away.
“While my parents were alive (they lived in Holbrook) I would visit every few years. I visit seldom now. Ipswich always seems a bit quaint to me, and I wonder how it can compete in the modern world.”
I ask Pete to describe his character…
“I think the single-minded obsessiveness I had was almost pathological, but it achieved a result. My character?! Thoughtful, opinionated, social butterfly, almost always cheerful... I guess I have become more self-confident over the years and I am now happy to take a back seat, to my wife’s photography particularly.”
It’s hard not to be envious of his great adventures in the Polynesian sunshine. Paradise, surely?
“It can be utterly sublime. I think of Robinson’s Cove (island of Moorea, French Polynesia) in the evenings, completely still, with the dropped flowers of Hibiscus tileaceus dotting the surface. It was as beautiful and as peaceful as anywhere I have been.
“And the freedom to slip over the side in clear water to go snorkelling, when the water is 28C. And the feeling of self-reliance you get when you have the tools on board to fix anything likely to go wrong, and the medicines to treat yourself when you are sick. And the ability to catch rain water and to catch fish if you need some protein.
“It’s a good feeling.”
n The ebook Polynesia: An Ocean Realm can be bought via www.peteatkinson.com
More of Pete’s pictures can be seen at www.eadt.co.uk/ea-life
Pete in the Pacific
Eila’s yoyages were, basically, around the islands north-east of New Zealand, stretching up to Hawaii. Places Pete visited included French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Tonga and – his favourite – Beveridge Reef.
There’s no land but it has some of the things he loves: very clear water and many, many sharks!
‘On day seven I proposed to her on the phone, having never met... She accepted’
So how did Pete’s bachelor days come to an end?
“In 2006 I received an email asking about underwater photography, signed Darin Limsuansub. I suggested we meet for a coffee if he/she was in Cairns, and then Googled this person’s name. The only Darin I could find was a Swedish man!
“The next day she casually mentioned that she was 24, Thai and female and had just learned to dive in Cairns. Her instructor was a friend of mine and he suggested she contact me.
“I was 48, never married, always looking for a cute girl who could model underwater who had an interest in photography. She was in Sydney, 2,500km away!
“By day three we were on video chat and on day seven I proposed to her on the phone, having never met... She accepted and we were married in Cairns three months later.”
The couple later moved to Phuket, Thailand.
“Since we arrived she has created a phenomenal wedding photography business and is one of the best photographers I have ever met. Far, far better than me!”