Ageing is a Never-Ending Adventure
"Holthusen, dear boy, always remember tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, rejoice that you are still alive and cherish every day."
Many years ago, shortly after I embarked on a career in journalism with The Sunday Times, I had the good fortune to interview Sir Francis Chichester, that now legendary round-the-world yachtsman, who, in 1966-67, became the first person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe in his sleek and gallant 53-foot ketch ‘Gipsy Moth IV’.
After 226 days at sea, with only one stop in Sydney, the 65-year-old sailor and former aviator finally returned home to Plymouth on 28 May 1967, where he was greeted by a flotilla of small craft all keeping perfect station, while gently vying with each other in their salutations. Several weeks later Chichester was knighted by the Queen at Greenwich for “individual achievement and sustained endeavour in the navigation and seamanship of small craft”.
For the ceremony, the Queen used the same sword which had been used by her predecessor, Queen Elizabeth I, to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake, who was the first Englishman to complete a circumnavigation with his crew.
I actually interviewed Sir Francis at his London home in 9 St James’s Place, above the map-publishing company he founded there shortly after the War. He was an imposing man with piercing blue eyes and a handshake that could shatter a rock, but he nevertheless went to great lengths to put me at ease and we soon shared a pot of Earl Grey tea with crumpets.
Unknown to me at the time of his solo circumnavigation, in 1958, Chichester had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and he had no intention of dying without a fight. His wife Sheila put him on a strict vegetarian diet (now considered to be a macrobiotic diet) and his cancer went into remission.
It was at this point Chichester decided to take up long-distance yachting. When I asked him why he undertook such a perilous journey at 65, Sir Francis simply replied: “Because it intensifies life”. It will therefore come as no surprise to our discerning readers that it was this very moment that inspired me to lead a life of adventure myself, and having now reached the same age as Chichester when he decided to circumnavigate the globe, I have no plans to retire from my own adventures and already have expeditions planned for 2018 in Papua New Guinea, Bhutan and Greenland.
I have always believed ageing to be a never-ending adventure, and with inspiration from folk such as Sir Winston Churchill, who was elected PM for the second time on 26 October 1951, only a month away from his 77th birthday, or Sir David Attenborough, who at 91 still manages to lead a positively adventurous life and entertain us with his captivating TV documentaries.
Although both of my parents are now deceased, I shall be eternally grateful for their guidance and inspiration and to this day recall captivating bedtime stories about the exploits of larger than life heroes such as Douglas Bader, Gertrude Bell, Florence Nightingale, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the Empress Dowager Cixi, Lawrence of Arabia, Emmeline Pankhurst and Amy Johnson.
Then of course, there are people such as my good friend Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who in 2003 survived a massive heart attack on board an easyJet plane which was due to take off from Bristol Airport to Edinburgh, and went on to become the world’s greatest living explorer. If that wasn’t enough, within months of being discharged from hospital after undergoing a double heart bypass operation, Fiennes joined Dr Mike Stroud, with whom he became the first to cross the Antarctic continent unsupported in 1993, to complete seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Then, in 2009, at the age of 65, when lesser mortals would be planning their retirement, the indefatigable Fiennes climbed to the summit of Mount Everest, becoming the oldest British person to achieve this, having already climbed the Eiger by its notorious North Face two years earlier, despite a lifelong fear of heights. Now aged 74, Fiennes has no plans to retire from exploration nor his feats of human endeavour.
In 2012, my wife Rosemary and I decided to sell our home in East Anglia and move to the wilds of County Kerry, Ireland, where we bought a farm and now live in relative tranquillity with our two dogs, Tristan and Isolde, a couple of horses, quite a few rare breed sheep, chickens and a barn full of other animals.
Just over a year ago I collapsed on my boat in Galway Harbour, having suffered a heart attack myself, though fortunately not of the severity of the one that nearly killed Fiennes in 2003. I was planning a leisurely voyage to North Rona and Sula Sgeir in the Outer Hebrides at the time, on the same boat that I sailed alone to the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha several years earlier: my trusted 40- foot Spey Class motorsailer ‘Tempest’.
After a rather lengthy spell in hospital I was allowed home by my cardiologist with the proviso that I should endeavour to lead a more leisurely lifestyle, perhaps more akin to someone of a comparable age.
My mind immediately turned to my meeting with Sir Francis Chichester all those years ago and my friendship with Ran Fiennes, and within weeks I was back on board ‘Tempest’ charting a course for the Outer Hebrides, although this time, my dear wife Rosemary insisted on joining me with our two dogs, Tristan and Isolde, who quickly found their sea legs.
Intensely active older men and women who have the means and tenacity and see the twilight years as just another stage of exploration are pushing further and harder, seemingly tossing aside presumed limitations. And the global travel and leisure industry, long focused on youth, is now racing to keep up. “This is an emerging market phenomenon based on tens of millions of longer-lived men and women with more youth vitality than ever imagined,” said Ken Dychtwald, an American psychologist and author who has written widely about ageing and economics.
Some will pursue challenges closer to home, mastering a headstand or the perfect side crane balance on a yoga mat, while others like Attenborough and Fiennes will go further afield.
At Everest Base Camp, in the Himalayas, for example, doctors at the medical tent now regularly see trekkers suffering from age-related maladies. But Dr Eric Johnson, a physician from Idaho who has worked at Everest for many years, camped next to a 74-year-old woman who made it to 28,000 feet on the mountain, only about 1,000 feet from the summit, before she turned back.
Other experts in wilderness medicine say they think technology has diminished the perception of risk that, in past generations, might have kept people in an armchair beside the TV.
Growing old seems intimately linked with decline. Ageing, which is apparently the accumulation of damage to molecules, cells and tissues over a lifetime, often leads to frailty and malfunction. Old age is the biggest risk factor for many diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and diabetes.
The realisation that time does not have to take its toll is a recent discovery and I truly believe that to strive actively to achieve some goal, however small or adventurous, will give your life meaning and substance, and I shall always recall the words of my old Latin master, who once saved me from drowning in the Thames near Boulter’s Lock: “Holthusen, dear boy, always remember tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life, so rejoice that you are still alive and cherish every day.”
Ageing research is clearly gaining momentum and remarkably, there is now more evidence than ever that the substantial health benefits of leading an active life is all that it takes to slow down the wheels of time.
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