The Court Jester
Some years ago, Oakland, California’s FOX News Affiliate KTVU allowed itself to be pranked in a most remarkable way. After broadcasting false names for the captain and crew of the ill-fated Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the station attempted to deal with the ensuing furor by insisting that the National Transportation Safety Board had confirmed the crew’s identities.
In turn, the NTSB claimed it wasn’t their fault — at least, not officially. It was the fault of a summer intern: a youngster who’d roamed just far enough off the reservation to allow a Bart Simpson-like joke to make it all the way to the national airwaves. As the NTSB put it, rather primly:
Earlier today, in response to an inquiry from a media outlet, a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.
The NTSB does not release or confirm the names of crewmembers or people involved in transportation accidents to the media. We work hard to ensure that only appropriate factual information regarding an investigation is released and deeply regret today’s incident.
Appropriate actions will be taken to ensure that such a serious error is not repeated.
After discovering the online hubbub, I feared I was suffering heatstroke. I couldn’t imagine even the most loosely-run or inattentive news organization failing to pick up on names that clearly were fake, and that had made the rounds of Iowa playgrounds more than fifty years ago.
But they weren’t paying attention, they didn’t take the time to read the names aloud, and they went live with a “breaking news” update that surely made the Monday morning staff meeting a nightmare for someone.
Watching the video of the broadcast a second time, I confess I laughed. I laughed because of the word play, and I laughed from astonishment that such a thing could happen. Most of all, I laughed at the speed with which the entire event moved from mistake to embarassment to apology to pending lawsuit. Today, things move even more quickly, but even so, it took only minutes for the apology to be issued and the facts clarified. In two more days, Asiana began muttering about lawsuits, and the firings began.
Two decades ago, things moved more slowly. When sailor, author, and adventurer Tristan Jones died on Phuket Island, Thailand, in 1995, one obituary appeared in the British newspaperThe Independent. Written by Euan Cameron, Jones’s British editor and quite an admirer of the man often called, without apology, “the old rum-gagger,” the obituary tended ever so slightly toward hagiography:
Tristan Jones’s life was a series of adventures. Since he was a Welshman, a sailor, a romantic, and a story-teller in the best seafaring tradition, the adventures were so plentiful that they filled eight books of autobiography and were sometimes so improbable that they defied belief.
It all began with a breach birth [sic] in a full storm, aboard a British tramp steamer, 150 miles north-east of Tristan da Cunha (hence the Christian name) in May 1924. Mrs. Jones was the ship’s cook and both she and Tristan’s father came from a long line of Welsh master mariners. “By God, this one will always land on his feet!” the ship’s mate was reported to have said, as he delivered the baby from the 10-hour ordeal. “He may be a candidate for hanging one day, but he’ll never drown!
Cameron went on to note that throughout Jones’s life, as might be expected, pinpointing the sailor’s location could be difficult. He kept landing on his feet in out-of-the-way locations, and sending letters home requesting that money be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, or engine parts dispatched to Constanta on the Black Sea.
It seems never to have occurred to Mr. Cameron that Jones’s sudden disappearances and vague itineraries might be the work of a trickster: a prankster, a sleight-of-mind artist. But at the time there was no reason for suspicion. His books, filled with roaring oceans and exciting landfalls, appeared regularly and sold in the thousands. His book signings at boat shows brought in hundreds of sailors. When I met him at a fall boat show in the late 1980s, I was utterly charmed. One of my acquaintances, even more impressed, signed on as volunteer crew.
Still, there were mysteries. His eventual biographer, Anthony Dalton, remembers that Jones didn’t want his biography written during his lifetime. His books were autobiographical, he insisted, so there was no need for a formal biography. He felt so strongly about the subject that he included a stipulation in his will that no biography was to be written until at least thirty years after his death. Later, he amended that to a financial condition. No biography could be written without payment of $100,000 to the Tristan Jones Trust.
His reasons for not wanting his true story told, Dalton discovered, had little to do with modesty and far more to do with a lack of probity. As he began piecing together Jones’s life, one accidentally discovered falsehood led inexorably to another.
The man who claimed to have sailed more than 345,000 miles in boats under forty feet, who said he sailed 180,000 miles solo, and who told his readers he had crossed the Atlantic nineteen times under sail…had far less experience at sea than he was prepared to admit. The man who claimed to have been torpedoed three times before his eighteenth birthday, who said he had taken a sailboat farther north into Arctic waters than anyone else, who told his readers of being trapped in polar ice for months at a time, was something of a fraud.
Despite the details of Euan Cameron’s obituary – details picked up and passed around the world for years – the man who said he was born at sea on his father’s ship in 1924 actually was born on land five years later, and Dalton has the facts about “Tristan” Jones.
Arthur Jones was born in Liverpool in 1929, the illegitimate son of a working-class Lancashire girl, and he grew up in orphanages with little education. Too young to see action in the World War II naval battles he would later write about so movingly, he joined the Royal Navy in 1946 and served fourteen unremarkable years.
Why would a man who was an accomplished sailor, a beloved raconteur, a remarkable adventurer, and a successful author feel the need to ‘prank’ his audience? Dalton points to cultural heritage as one possible explanation.
If we accept that he was Welsh, as he claimed he was and as it’s possible he was, he was far from alone in his ability to weave fabulous tales. British author Melvyn Bragg, in his biography of Welsh actor Richard Burton, said, “In his cups [Burton] was a story-teller who embellished whenever necessary, and he expected the brightest listeners to understand the art.”
As Bragg put it, “The Welsh way was to talk it up. Celtic stories were tall tales, and if your audience was daft enough to swallow it whole – so much the worse for them. He truly didn’t give a damn.”
And perhaps that is the key to unlocking the mystery of Tristan Jones. There simply was no reason for him to give a damn. If his persona was invented, his knowledge and love of the sea was real. If he engaged in trickery on shore, he knew the tricks of his sea-trade as well as anyone, and was willing to share them freely. He may have pranked the whole sailing world for decades, but in coves and in bays, sheltered at tiny island anchorages and buffeted on interminable offshore passages, his books continued to inspire and entertain the people dearest to him – the ones who put to sea.
And as for those ashore? He was happy for their company, too. As he liked to say, some sail the oceans and some do not, but everyone sets sail on the sea of life, and the lessons of the sea apply to all. I came across a favorite passage from one of his books when making a sea passage myself, and never have doubted its truth:
The Sea knows nothing of money or power.
She knows only loyalty and audacity
and determination and courage
and, by God, she knows an unthinking, unseeing fool when she encounters one.
She knows awareness.
She knows patience.
She knows staunchness.
She knows foresight.
Yet she knows nothing of our longing for riches or fame
or even of our efforts to overcome or thwart her.
She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.
If we have none of these attributes
when we join her,
we shall have them when we have known her
for any length of time,
or we will be defeated or dead.
~ Tristan Jones
118 thoughts on “Tristan’s Truth”
A nice diversion as we track Hurricane Laura’s arrival, or close call, as we in Seabrook hope. Your pictures capture good times at sea, and memories of Loligo, our 26’ Columbia plying the Southern California coast. Tristan was a favorite of our family. I think we read him first in Sail Magazine, then read all his books. Tall tales, true: removal of an eyeball at sea, hand carrying his sailboat over the Andes. I think the latter was the confirmation needed a that he embellished with abandon.
Thanks for fun memories! Stay safe.
The evacuation orders for Galveston just have been lifted; we escaped this one. Now, it’s time to provide assistance to those poor people in Louisiana.
I met Tristan at the October boat show here. Unlike most authors at book signings, he was more than willing to trade stories with people wanting their books signed, and most of us were fine with that. It was great fun listening to him talk.
I have fond memories of SoCal sailing. The boat in the photos is Alaska Eagle, the vessel used by the Orange Coast College sailing program. I boarded her in Hawaii, and we made passage to Glacier Bay, doing 2400 miles in ten days — some under spinnaker. Good times.
What a great story of Tristen Jones and his timely words. I love the grace offered for his tall tails that offered joy to others.
We set sail tomorrow…a short sail (and we hope it’s sailing and not under power) from Anacortes to Orcas island in the San Juan’s. Just two nights out, but on the water!! We were out a week ago with some other friends…mostly under power to a couple of the islands. Never did get much wind—but again…good to be on the water.
It pleased me immensely that the kids’ sailing camps went on this year, and that after a brief pause our Wednesday night races began again. In the best of times, sailing is a joy. In the worst of times, it’s not only a joy, it’s also one of the best ways of escape. One of the best things about it is that after enough time on the water, it’s easy to call up the sense of a boat’s easy rhythm while underway: probably my favorite part of the experience. I hope you got some wind.
What a great story, and how delightfully honest deceptions can be. He could have been the dullard he was destined to be but he tacked, changed course, and lied his way to fame and above all, to entertain and enthrall millions through all of that.
He was a character; there’s no question about that. He did know his way around a sailboat, and knew the oceans, and his tales were impossible to read without feeling the tug of the water. It may be that his real contribution was finally getting a few people off the couch and onto a boat, and that can be no small feat.
What’s amused me in recent years is how many of my sailing skills continue to be useful. Being able to read the wind, for example: photographing flowers in windy conditions is a lot easier if you can time the shutter clicks to the rise and fall of the wind.
“…… The Welsh way was to talk it up. Celtic stories were tall tales, and if your audience was daft enough to swallow it whole – so much the worse for them. …”
And so, I am now hearby- forewarned.
For a true Celt, no Blarney stone is necessary, and for most non-Celts, kissing the stone’s not going to help them one bit. Knowing that helps make it possible to enjoy a Tristan, and spot a non-Tristan in a flash.
This is a timely post: some politicians, including prominent ones, embellish or outright lie in accounts of what they’ve done.
That’s true, but most of them aren’t nearly as entertaining as Tristan. Beyond that, embellished though it may have been, Tristan knew what he was talking about. Too many politicians don’t have a clue. One Sheila Jackson Lee comes to mind.
We used to call them ‘war stories’ back in the days when I was the darling of Diedersdorfer Weg and just off the Luftbrucke Platz on the corner of Manfred von Richthofen Strasse and Tempelhofer Damm was a little kneipe called “Snoopy’s.” Even if they weren’t completely true, they should have been. The way I figure it, when it comes to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, if you can get two out of three, you’re ahead of the game.
Likewise: fish tales, and sea stories. Especially with sea stories, the point of embroidering isn’t to decceive, it’s to entertain — both the teller and the audience. And of course one good tale leads to another, a phenomenon known as the ‘that reminds me’ effect.
It’s been interesting during this runup to Laura to hear the conversations around the marinas and shipyards. Tales of Katrina, Ike, and Rita have been especially prevalent, each has just enough truth to be recognizable to anyone who was around. Was the cost of repairs not quite as much? Was the damage not quite so dramatic? Did the water really rise that high? Maybe, or maybe not. But the community that experienced the storm is bonded again in the hearing, and better prepared for the next.
Beautiful post, Linda. I loved Tristin’s words about the sea. Being 1/2 Welsh and 1/2 Scottish I can’t really comment on the question of truth..
Well, it was Faulkner who penned these famous lines in The Town:
“The poets are wrong of course. … But then poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth: which is why the truth they speak is so true that even those who hate poets by simple and natural instinct are exalted and terrified by it.”
William Faulkner and Tristan Jones would have recognized one another as cut from the same cloth.
I think so. I hope the surge from Laura didn’t disrupt you too much.
Not a bit. The water was up about 3′-4′, but that was it. It scoured away some dunes around Surfside, but I’ve not seen more than 4′ on this side. Bolivar got much more. We didn’t have much wind at all, and no rain.
Linda, I must admit that while your story of Tristan Jones is one of intrigue and mystery, and of course, deceit, I couldn’t get past the newscast of the names of the fictitious airline crew. I laughed until I cried. Reminds me of prank phone calls we made when I was a pre-teen. Very funny.
Every time I watch that video, I laugh. I just watched it again, and laughed again. You would think that someone would have caught it, but they didn’t. I’ve heard reports that it’s still used as a cautionary tale in some circles.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check to see if my refrigerator is running…
Glad to see hurricane Laura is turning away from you. But, it is a brutal visitor for anyone in the path.
We were blessed with this one. Unfortunately, a hundred miles east and more brought unimaginable destruction. I’m still waiting for news of friends and acquaintances.
My nephew lives near DeQuincy. The eye passed over them. He and his wife were at the hospital where he works to be safe.
Thanks for introducing Tristan Jones to me. A creative character for sure.
He was both: creative, and a character. I confess to being a fan of ‘characters,’ so he’s always been one of my favorites. Having the chance to meet him in person was a treat.
Has anyone written a song about Tristan Jones?
I don’t think so. There are a couple of clips of him and his boat online, but no songs about him that I’ve found. One reason might be that he’s not well known outside of sailing circles.
There is a song about another sailing icon, though — Tony Tarracino, of Key West. I never met him personally, but I’ve been to his place. He was cut from the same cloth as Tristan Jones: a reality that Jimmy Buffett captured perfectly in his song about Tony — “Last Mango in Paris.”
Yep, that’s a good one, and another I hadn’t heard before. Thanks again!
thanks for introducing us to Tristan Jones.
We like the pictures of the sailboat at sea.
All the best
The Fab Four of Cley
You know a bit about boats and ice, Klausbernd! I’ve wished a time or a dozen that I’d had a digital camera and a bit of skill when I was doing most of my sailing, but sometimes memory-evoking photos are enough.
I know very well what you mean. At my first expedition to the high Arctic I only had a small pocket camera with me. But that’s fine. Even the poor pictures bring memories back and it’s for me only.
And some of the most remarkable experiences of my life are in my memory only: not on a digital card. Being unable to photograph something doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence. Actually, I nearly never photograph, that’s Dina’s job. I like to see but I don’t need a documentation.
Well done tale from the windy latitudes
Thanks, Michael. Tristan was a bit of a rascal, but so are many of the most interesting and entertaining people in the world. It’s always a pleasure to meet them, and sometimes it’s even all right to be taken in a bit by them.
Oh my goodness, I can scarcely believe that a newsreader could read that list of names without choking immediately. Thanks for the introduction to Tristan’s tall tales.
Wasn’t that news report something? Farther down the comment thread, a friend who lives in the Bay Area just posted that she saw the news broadcast live. It’s a small world, for sure. As for Tristan, he’s simply a more famous version of a type that’s quite common around the water. Remember my story of Dale T, the friend who lived on his boat and came back to life after we all assumed he was dead? He and Tristan had a lot in common, and thank goodness for that.
Being a landlubber, I am always fascinated by tales of the sea. I loved the words, “everyone sets sail on the sea of life”, and it’s true that we all have our stories of our truth, embellished or not.
News reporting and story-telling are two different things; they have different purposes. “Just the facts, ma’am” is fine for a police investigation, but when a child implores, “tell me a story,” something else is called for. A problem arises when people try to fact-check a story, or substitute a ‘story’ for facts. Our increasingly uneducated population is finding it harder and harder to separate the two, and there are people who are taking advantage of it.
But that’s more about the media than it is about Tristan. Story-telling is an art, and often a deeply personal one. That’s why telling our own stories is so important. Some (a lot?) of the details in Tristan’s stories may have turned out to be less than factual, but they still were his stories, and contain some truths the fact checkers always miss.
Wonderfully written story about Tristan’s truth, Linda. You did a good job of sharing the spirit of this adventurer, and his tales, and your personal experience, and then the truth as it unfolded after his death. As a novelist, I understand the world of creating fiction, and I understand the motivation for his lie/story about his background. I’m glad he was able to pull off the fiction he created about himself. It’s really quite dull to be a writer, we just sit around thinking, researching and writing. Lovely post, my friend.
From what I can tell, most of the stories he told about his life had at least a kernel of truth, even if he adjusted the facts a bit here and there. We could speculate forever on his reasons, but it’s a recognizably human thing to do. Most of us add a little embellishment here and there, just as we occasionally omit some interesting details. There’s a reason that Facebookers often describe their relationship status as ‘complicated’!
Your comment about the writing process reminded me of a quotation from Annie Dillard in her fine book, The Writing Life
““It should surprise no one that the life of the writer–such as it is–is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.”
Like you and Athena, Tristan had plenty of firsthand experience to draw on — and to shape as he pleased.
I just read in the comments that your community escaped being hit by the hurricane. Thank goodness! And, of course, my heart goes out to all who weren’t so lucky. As for Tristan…reminds me of what my Yankee husband often says, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
We did escape. Even better, some friends in Louisiana also made it through without power loss or a broken levee. We were just far enough west, and they were just far enough east. Amazing.
I love that quotation from Clif. It’s exactly right. It just occurred to me tonight that one of my favorite story-tellers had that perfect blend of truth and fact: Garrison Keillor. The reason midwesterners still find his stories of Lake Wobegon so perfect, and so entertaining, is that his imaginary facts are perfectly recognizable.I laugh every time I hear one of his tales of the Lutherans.
Phew! Wonderful that the storm didn’t hit you or your friends.
The funniest part of this hilarious post was the straight face of the apologiser.
Wasn’t that just the best? Sometimes, there’s nothing to do but plow straight ahead and hope it’s over soon.
I think most, if not all, good raconteurs are a bit of a fraud – embellishing, enlarging, imagining what happened or what should have happened. Fraud or not, that quote of his about the sea rings true.
Since writing this, I’ve remembered another storyteller who never fails to sit me down for a listen: Garrison Keillor. His tales of Lake Wobegon clearly were fabricated, but on the other hand, they are immediately recognizable to any midwesterner as ‘true.’
And there’s another one: Willam Faulkner. His Yoknapatawpha County is fictional, of course, but it seems so real that maps of it exist. In fact, Yoknapatawpha was the original name for the actual Yocona River, a tributary of the Tallahatchie running through the southern part of Lafayette County. There’s no better example of a factual basis for fiction that communicates living truth.
An entertaining post, Tristan would approve, I think. You’ve written about him before, I believe, correct? What a character.
I like the comments between you and your fellow water/sailing lovers. Weirdly, I have no interest in boats, except to watch them. The few times I’ve been on one, I’ve become sick. Not too sick, but unwell enough not to enjoy. Still, I love these stories you tell.
He was a character, but a lovable one. It’s hard to tell the whole truth about anyone — he was quite the philanthropist, as well — but I suppose even an 800 page book wouldn’t tell the whole truth about any of us.
I remember that you’re not so fond of being on the water. The only time I’ve been truly seasick was on the boat pictured above, in Hawaii’s Molokai Channel. After finding this short description of the channel’s history and characteristics, I don’t feel so bad about that!
It’s interesting how quickly we’re still willing to accept what we’re told, without fact checking. (Which explains so much of what we believe these days!) I haven’t heard of Tristan before, but based on your post, he sounds like a very interesting character. And his stories may have been made up, but the quote you gave sounds very wise indeed. I guess for some people, fiction makes more sense than reality. I confess I’m sometimes in that camp myself.
It’s hard to write about someone like Tristan, because his stories weren’t purely fictional. They were based in reality; he really was quite a sailor, as well as a writer. Yes, he embroidered his tales, but his primary audience, people who know and love the sea, didn’t much care about the details. It was the core of his work that appealed: the work of sailing, the difficulties of navigation, the perplexities that come when repairs have to be made in far-off ports where there are no chandleries.
And, of course, there’s the experience of the sea. No matter where one sets sail, the feel of a boat over water is the same, and it’s that feeling that he communicated so well. For people who love the sea, living among people who see it only as a threat or a stranger can be frustrating. Picking up one of Tristan’s books was like finding a friend who also loved the water. That love was his truth. The details hardly mattered.
Love your photos of the sea, Linda! And it’s clear to me how much you loved taking them, too. What an interesting character — I suppose some of the best storytellers have a bit of the blarney about them, don’t you think? Glad to hear Galveston was spared from this massive storm. Looking at the radar, I was reminded of Katrina, and my heart goes out to those affected. Originally, they included us in its cone, but at last check, we’re too far north — whew!
As I mentioned elsewhere, story-telling is an art. It demands details; otherwise, it’s not a story. It’s just a report. I could say, “I was stopped in Monrovia, Liberia, by a soldier with a gun who took my passport, and then gave it back.” That’s entirely factual as well as being true. But it’s a report. Given more details and some Tristan-style embroidery, and it becomes a story — I don’t have to tell you that!
Laura very nearly followed the track of Rita. If it hadn’t been for those few degrees of eastward bend at the end, we would have been in the same shape as Louisiana is today. We really, really were blessed. Of course, our luck is someone else’s disaster; that’s always the way with these storms. Florida hopes they go to Texas, while Texas hopes for a Florida landfall. I did just see two brand new storms on the map; I guess I’ll have less preparing to do for the next round.
Two more in the wings??? Oh, no! Stay safe, Linda!
They’re still some distance away, and there’s no telling what they’ll turn into. It just wasn’t what anyone wanted to see today. I intend to avoid thinking of them until and unless I need to.
Again this is one of your best stories and so enjoyable. I follow a blogger from England and she once wrote to me years ago to “never let the truth get in the way of good story.” And I am a firm believer in that. I doubt there is any author who has written “the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” In my little ole opinion he was very smart- he made a very nice living writing tales of the sea and in all honesty, I must say that he was down right smart.
Jones could write about the sea because he knew the sea. He may have changed some biographical details or made up a few exploits, but his descriptions of being at sea were recognizable to sailors. He wasn’t a fiction writer at heart; he seemed to be someone who loved the world of boats and sailing so much he wanted it to be appealing to others. Well, and I’m sure he enjoyed the fame and the book sales!
I suppose he had his own reasons for reshaping his life in print, but the world’s full of people doing that on a daily basis. I’m not sure what percentage of social media bios are fairly far removed from reality, but I suspect it’s pretty high. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt a thing, and Tristan’s books didn’t hurt anyone, either. I still enjoy them.
Linda! I thoroughly enjoyed every paragraph, photograph, and stanza of this post. As a Bay Area native, I was watching KTVU Channel 2 that morning when Torey Campbell announced the plane accident. It became clear within seconds, after she read the second name, that a huge prank had been pulled. Eventually, the news director lost his job and others quit. The Korean community here was furious. Anyway, it was a clever lead into the Tristan story. For any of us who have spent time on the sea–or even a rambunctious lake–that poem is gold. Thank for this post.
It tickles me that you saw the KTVU broadcast live. It seemed to me that she was so intent on getting the names right she didn’t realize what she was saying. On the other hand, it should have taken only the first name to realize that something was very wrong. I suppose at that point there was nothing for it but to plow straight on and get it over with.
Even though I know that every blog post needs to have a focus, I may need to write about Tristan again some day. This view of the man is hardly a complete view. After losing both of his legs, he continued to sail, outfitting a trimaran that landed him in Thailand. Once there, he decided to stay, established an orphanage, taught disabled children to sail, and established a trust for his work to continue. That’s the problem with people; they’re always more complicated than we know.
A great tale, Linda. There is always something of an appeal in a rogue and adventurer. I can hear the appeal in your post. And the longing. “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.” I memorized Masefield’s poem as a child and it has never left me. –Curt
Actually, you and Tristan have some qualities in common. There’s the adventuring, of course, but there was more to his life. After losing both legs, he continued to sail, got to Thailand, began a foundation for disabled kids, and taught them to sail. His organization was a prototype for others like it; here in Houston, the Sailing Angels are quite active.
I don’t know if they teach the kids sea poetry, but I hope they do. As an aside, the Morgan 38′ I used for sailing classes was sold to the foundation, and still is in use.
A neat tale, Linda. Thanks. –Curt
What a great story. I can sort of understand Tristan’s point of view about telling his tales. Why not entertain the people [rubes] with a bit of over-the-top flapdoodle? If they bought into it, it wasn’t his problem because they should have known better than to believe him. At least that’s how I suppose how he rationalized his tendency to fabricate. Thanks for the smile.
The rubes? You mean me and my friends? LOL
His tales may have been embroidered, or less than factual, or occasionally laced with outright lies, but his stories of the sea rang true. Some readers were disappointed when more accurate facts about his life came out, but sailors mostly didn’t care. He could have been born in Nantucket or Nebraska, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. He knew the sea, and it was fun to read his books, nodding in recognition all the way through. His stories were believable because most of us had similar stories to tell.
I was thinking about this today, and remembered a sailor I knew some years ago. He was from Marsailles, and we knew him as French Charlie; his boat was docked in Galveston until he and his girlfriend disappeared. His primary claim to fame was that he’d sailed solo across the Atlantic five-and-a-half times. That “half” crossing involved his sailboat sinking in the midst of the Atlantic. He was picked up by a passing freighter and brought aboard; he and some of the crew stood on deck and watched his boat sink beneath the waves. The irony was that he’d left from England, and the freighter was headed to England, so he ended up in the place he’d started from.
Those are the facts — but if you heard Charlie tell the tale, with his typical French flair, you’d have a Tristan-level story on your hands. The sailing world’s full of them, which probably is why a lot of people cut Tristan a whole lot of slack.
Two entertaining tales of deception, although I have to admit I admire Tristan the most for persevering and fooling so many for so long. It’s almost as if he saw himself as the sea, knowing “an unthinking, unseeing fool when she sees one.” It was up to his listener to determine the truth of his tale and chart his or her own course, whether on the sea or not.
And I love the pictures of your own voyages.
I’ve never been able to decide whether Tristan was being intentionally duplicitous, or whether he might have been reshaping his life for his own purposes. There’s no question that, once some of the facts of his life emerged, the sort of people who delight in seeing icons fall were happy. On the other hand, many of the sailors who devoured his books (including me) really didn’t care one way or the other.
What was important to us wasn’t where he’d been born, or how many miles he chalked up on the Amazon voyage. What was important was the wisdom he’d gained; the tips he offered; and the amusement his stories provided. Most of us had enjoyed or endured many of the same experiences, and it was fun to relive them at a bit of a distance.
In truth, this whole facts-and-truth post takes me again to Georgia O’Keeffe, whose words apply very well to Tristan Jones: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” A lot of people found him of interest.
I enjoyed pulling out some of the old photos and looking at them — all pre-digital, and scanned. The ocean sunset’s from the Gulf; it was taken on a passage from Galveston to Port Isabel, about twenty miles off Pass Cavallo.
Reading your responses to other comments gave me a much fuller picture of Tristan. (Pardon the philosophical rambling here.) The knee-jerk response when you see a story like his is “con man,” but that is totally inconsistent with Tristan’s work in Thailand and other things you say. Instead, he seems more of a person who saw his life as creating a kind of art (cf: your Georgia O’Keeffe quote) and his stories were evoking the truth of experience, not reporting the facts of an experience.
Art may not represent the factual view of a subject, yet it can communicate the subject’s truth better than the factual view ever could. His stories ring true to sailors because the stories evoke the truth of their experience. It is irrelevant whether they are factual reports or not. Maybe Tristan sensed this and told his tales like an elder told tales around the fireside, knowing this was the best way to touch those who could understand.
On a less philosophical note, I know that tug of a boat beneath me even though I live in the dry hills. My father was a WW2 Navy guy and taught me to sail early on. He had 3 boats at one time or another down in your part of the world, sailing out of LaPorte, Seabrook, and the Houston Yacht Club. (Not far from Shoreacres, in fact.) I’ve spent many happy hours, and a few really dicey ones, sailing around that bay.
This Guy Clark song always takes me back there Boats To Build.
I know Houston Yacht Club well. I’ve worked on a number of boats there, although port expansion and highway construction have led some friends to turn down work there because of traffic delays and frustrations. It does provide some nice side benefits, though, like the variety of birds and the chance to watch Coast Guard newbies practice their docking skills. It would be a perfect setting for kicking back and listening to that great Clark song.
One of the problems with any writing, but particularly with blogging, is the necessity of limiting posts. Early on, I adopted a variation of Kierkegaard’s famous line, and decided that purity of prose meant to write one thing: at least, in any blog post. Unfortunately, to focus on Tristan Jones the trickster meant setting aside Jones the philanthropist, and some clearly saw him as only a rogue. I suppose that’s why some books get written. The on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand dynamic takes over, and the next thing the author knows, three hundred pages have stacked up.
I’ve realized through all this discussion that we have two other storytellers whose fictional worlds ring true as can be to those who read or hear the tales: Garrison Keillor and William Faulkner. Having grown up in a midwestern culture, Lake Wobegon’s as familiar as Des Moines. And I know a boater from Mississippi who named his vessel Yoknapatawpha. When we met, that’s the county we talked about. It was as real to us as Bandera or League City, and why shouldn’t it be? We’d spent a lot of time there.
Thank you for introducing us to what sounds like an interesting, multi-layered personality, Linda. As I know little about the nautical universe, I had never heard of him or his books. Meeting him firsthand must have been memorable.
‘Multi-layered’ is exactly right. Like most of us, he was a complex character. Despite the revelations about his fabrications, I still dip into his books with enjoyment, simply because he was as truthful about the sea as he was deceptive about aspects of his life. Most of the sailors I know didn’t read his books to learn about him; they read them for his wisdom about the sea.
I have learned something new here once again, Linda, one of the many reasons I love this blog. Tristan Jones is new to me. What a colorful, interesting character! The passage from his book and your photos at sea are delightful.
When I was new to sailing, I read Chapman’s for information, and Tristan for inspiration. There’s nothing like finding an author who can lead you to say, time and again, “Yes. That’s it. That’s just how I see it, too.” The only thing better might be finding an author who leads you to say, “That’s just how I feel.”
That’s an amazing story about Tristan Jones. WHo knows what prompts people to invent a false profile of themselves. Maybe it’s the desire to be seen as having lived a life less ordinary, rather than just a boring life.
I’m sure that’s true for some people, but Tristan led far from a boring life. He did make those solo crossings, and did lose both of his legs: one due to a war injury. As reasonable as he was wacky, he decided that a trimaran would be a more stable platform for a sailor, and it worked out fine. He named it “Outward Leg,” sailed it around, landed in Thailand, and established the Atlantic Foundation, dedicated to the needs of disabled children. When he died of complications of a stroke, he had two more books in process. Who knows what they might have contained?!
Tristan Jones reminds me of a relative or two – interesting characters with knowledge of the sea and tellers of tall tales. This is a fun story. Thanks for the ride.
I think I know who a couple of those relatives are! As we’ve both learned, the worst experiences sometimes result in the best stories — although sometimes even good experiences become more amusing in the retelling. Too bad we can’t sit on that patio of yours and swap war stories — H could keep the glasses filled.
Thanks for introducing me to Tristan Jones and the joy of acting outside the scope of one’s authority! I am glad for people who bring some spice to life, when it is not at the expense of others. The photographs are glorious! That must have been a most amazing adventure!!
I think I might take the time to scan more photos from the passage to Alaska, and put together a post about that. It was quite a different experience than voyages on the large cruise ships, that’s for sure.
I think you’d enjoy dipping into one of Tristan’s books. Outward Leg would be a good one; it’s the story of his trimaran sailing after he had a leg amputated, and how he ended up in Thailand. Naming his trimaran “Outward Leg” certainly was a delicious bit of wordplay.
From what I can tell, Tristan’s fabrications were all in his story-telling. He didn’t bring harm to people in real life: quite the opposite. He even ended up being a Fellow of England’s Royal Geographic Society and the Royal Institute of Navigation — although I suppose he could have “storied” his way into those groups, too.
Sounds like a great idea for a post! Looking forward to it…
Storytelling has many purposes. I’m reminded of Joan Didion’s “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” A way of navigating through life, sometimes directed to where we want to be, not where we are. Sometimes it’s not accurate, sometimes it’s aspirational. There’s magic in what makes a story good, and the magic need not be factual. I haven’t read a word of Jones, but I’m a landlubber. Something else for me to read! So glad to read the hurricane spared you.
I’m surprised I forgot about that comment of Didion’s: the opening line of The White Album. It’s still one of my favorite books, describing as it does a time and place that I knew very well.
You’ve reminded of of one of my favorite lines from Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, as well. He speaks of the novelist’s task as one of “reworking reality to show its significant side.” Jones wasn’t precisely a novelist, but he sure did understand that re-working process. We allow for post-processing in photography; maybe he just was engaged in his own sort of ‘post-processing’ of his experiences.
I should reread the Alexandria Quartet, it’s been years. Storytelling has a bit of stage magic in it. People want to believe, want to astonished, even though they know they are being fooled.
Fooled? Or taken by the hand and led into a different and quite marvelous world?
It’s a good thing, as a reader. As a reader I *want* to go there, to go to those wonderful places, especially if it’s fiction. All stories have a fictional element. Tristan’s writings are a mixture, from what I’ve read here. They are no less wonderful for the fiction they
Regarding the bamboozled newscasters, I guess we can blame the ‘breaking news’ beast. As a former newsroom denizen, I admit I never understood the desire to be the ‘first’ with a story, as if that somehow validated one’s credentials. I was more concerned with getting it right but, sadly, this is a ‘thing’ in the business.
As for ‘storytellers,’ I can appreciate their charm and ability to inspire us. When their tall tales are exposed, it can be rather harmless, as in the case of Tristan Jones. or have more dire consequence should they, say, have been catapulted to the highest office in the land by those yarns.
Have you seen the parody of Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry”? It was put together by a news team in Canada, and it’s absolutely priceless. It takes sharp aim at all the vulnerabilities in the news business: some of which are even more pronounced today.
Who knows? Maybe our deadly levels of cynicism make us unable to appreciate a good yarn. Storytelling is enhanced when the listener willingly suspends disbelief; the listener has a role to play, too, and who wants to listen today?
Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones,Mr. Jones, you had a thing going on! And what what a wonderful thing is was! Prior to your post I had not heard of this character, who’s real life was every bit as well lived as his imagined life.
Thanks for posting shoreacres!
PS – I watched the video of the reporting on the airliner crash. Hilarious! Loved it!
I’ve not thought about Mrs. Jones in a good while: that’s a fun reference. You’re right that however much was added or subtracted in Tristan’s books, they were great reads. He had a good, long life, and his experiences were great fodder for all of his books: seventeen, as I recall. It’s worth remember that he didn’t have the advantages of computers, cell phones, or self-publishing in those days, either. All things considered, cutting him a little slack probably is justified.
Haha. Can’t say that I’ve thought of that song in a long time either; it just sort of came out of the blue and I went with it. Thanks for your reply. I look forward to seeing more of your posts!
Great photos – The poem and the photos work well together.
I enjoy the nuggets of wisdom scattered through Tristan’s books, and it’s always fun to remember my sailing days, so it seemed like a good combination. In these days of continuous heat advisories, it was nice to look again at the ice, too.
He sounds like quite the character as many from Liverpool are, most of us here can embellish a tale. Loved the pictures.xxx
When I saw that photo of him in the bar, I thought to myself how truly it portrayed not only Tristan, but every sailor and storyteller in every wharfside bar, expounding and expanding on their exploits at sea. The entertainment value is the point, after all, and truth be told, it’s in places like those bars and docks that the phrase “oral tradition” still has meaning.
He was quite a character.
The legend endures and causes many to dream. The legend is the reality he authored – probably chuckling the whole time. Sailors are always the most interesting people
“She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.”
I’ll tell you this: a little more caution and self-discipline in the matter of computer backups would be a good thing. Not only did I get the dreaded “critical errors” notice from my PC on Monday, when the guys at yon computer shoppe tried a backup from my external hard drive, it had corrupted files, too. I have no idea what’s going on — don’t have it back yet — but when I finally can pick it up, I’ll find out. I know this — I intend to add more backups to my routine. It never occurred to me that an external hard drive could go belly-up, but of course it’s a hard drive, too: so…….
At this point, a little grace from the computer gods would be a good thing!
Yeah staff’s office computer hard drive has done the corrupted files before…anguish remembered.
Not only did a news organization not pick up on names that clearly were fake, but they blamed a youngster and intern. Does bode for much respect. All the better that you could set the facts straight – and also making an interesting connection to Tristan Jones.
It’s always the intern! And isn’t it interesting how often those ‘interns’ remain nameless and anonymous; they do make convenient sources for the sketchiest news stories.
As for Tristan, I don’t think it would be at all out of order to understand many of his stories as we do photographs. Perspective is everything, and deciding what to include and what to leave out while composing is part of what raises any story from a reporting of facts to an expression of artistic truth.
Thoroughly enjoyed reading the broadcasting story as hadn’t heard it before. Tristain Jones tales sound fascinating with all his embellishments others seemed not to have questioned. Have never had the pleasure of sailing but sounds like an adventure i would have enjoyed in my younger days when i was limited mostly to inland fresh waters. Perhaps in my next life…….
I’ve always enjoyed that broadcast, but I was surprised and delighted to learn that one of my readers actually saw it life on television; she lived in the Bay Area, and was watching the news when it happened. It’s still amusing, and reminiscent of other times pranks have been played on newsreaders who don’t pay attention to the words on the prompter!
Tristan Jones was such a complex character. I believe he wrote seventeen books, and he supported himself to a great degree with the profits from them, so there’s no doubt a little embroidery in the service of profit took place. On the other hand, like most story-tellers — particularly those telling stories of the sea, or of storms — he knew the details were most important, and he provided them in abundance. Some were factual, some not — but they certainly convey the truths of a life spent at sea.
The other night I came across the documentary film Art and Craft which made me think of Tristan and wondered where this fellow would fall on the continuum of those commit some sort of fraud. It should go without saying that this character is far different than Tristan and he’s not someone I would like to sit in the pub with throwing back pints as he regaled me with tall tales. Nevertheless I find him to be a sympathetic and fascinating character.
I wouldn’t say that Tristan Jones committed fraud. That makes him sound rather like a crooked bond trader or used car salesman. Did he play fast and loose with his biographical details? He did, at least to a degree. But none of us knows the full truth about anyone, even though there are people on social media who seem determined to provide it. Thanks for the link; I’ll take a look at it this evening.
I agree. Fraud was not the best choice of words and that’s why I said “some sort of fraud”.
I also agree that none of us know the full truth about anyone, including ourselves, far from it.
Thanks for your reply and your very interesting posts!
I just watched the trailer, and it reminded me that I’d heard about that guy. I was greatly intrigued, and pleased to see that the film’s available for free on Amazon. It’s on my watch list — thanks for the tip!
Having more than one “tall tale teller” in our southern family, I understand and appreciate the art of Tristan Jones. Your wonderful essay has motivated me to seek out one of those individuals to craft an exciting biography of my fairly unremarkable life. On second thought, perhaps I should leave well enough alone!
Years of fishing in the Gulf of Mexico taught me Mr. Jones was correct in writing:
“She gives an illusion of freedom,
but in reality she demands restraint, caution, self-discipline,
and a deep belief in the grace of God.”
Nothing like an unexpected swell breaking over the gunnel to become instantly humble.
Yes! and to focus one’s attention!
Why look for someone else? Tell your own tall tale! If it was good enough for Tristan, it surely would be good enough for you. Story-telling really is fun, although all this discussion has reminded me of childhood, and my parents’ efforts to help me learn the difference between ‘telling a story’ and a flat-out lie. I well remember the year I tried with every ounce of my being to persuade them another child was breaking into our house and stealing the chocolate chips!
As for that unexpected swell over the gunnel — your point stands, whether it’s seawater or life that decides to intrude.
Amazing story. I enjoy posts like this about real people, filled with mystery and surprise. The truth about Tristan can never quell his written words.
It’s hard to believe he’s been gone for so many years. There’s something about old sea-dogs that seems impervious to time, or even to death. Who knows? Maybe the reason the sea seems to speak to so many of us is because of the number of story-telling sailors who’ve become part of it.
It amuses me greatly that the prank went live on the news. Too fun that the powers-that-be can goof so impressively.
Isn’t that a kick? Every now and then, I know that someone on the radio is reading a script they’ve never met before: the pronunciation’s off, or the facts are crazily wrong. I always wonder if someone’s playing a trick on them.
It never occurs to me, but I’ll be paying attention from now on!
Hola – I’m online to send my ‘out of country absentee’ vote via pdf.. feels good to have that finished.
A peregrine falcon is watching over the city this week. Nice….
Offline I opened your ‘homepage’ here and enjoyed scrolling through the past month’s posts.. It was nice seeing those oaks again and walking that boardwalk. One view was especially nice. There were so many photos that I hoped to comment on and opened the images as ‘image file’ and ‘link’ hoping there would be a comment form for each one. Drats, no option there, but it’s so nice seeing them in larger format.
One was this one, which looks like it’s in the mallow/hibiscus family, which made me wonder (if it is in that family) if it would make a nice tea, like the ‘normal’ hibiscus..
As for this post, ah, this man had such a strong presence, and you do a great job of keeping his spirit alive and smiling..
Good heavens! How did this escape me? Being slow with a response is one thing, but a year and a half? A lot of water has gone under both our bridges in that time, but at least we’re still surviving!
That flower you enjoyed is part of the mallow family. It’s called bracted fanpetals, or bracted sida (Sida ciliaris). It’s a pretty little thing: about an inch wide, and low growing. The color’s almost orange sherbet like, and that makes me like it even more! None of the sidas are recommended for teas (or other use). The description I found for other sida species said, “Barely edible.” Doesn’t sound too good! This one isn’t listed at all in the Texas foraging sites.
“Good heavens! How did this escape me?” – I laugh again as I read your reply! Sometimes it’s easy to miss comments, especially when one appears to have been read but it wasn’t – those little glitches that happen often here, maybe from slow internet, or when the battery goes dead – from active screen to a black one, and that awful sound as it shuts down…
Recently I stumbled upon a lovely tiny hibiscus blooming along the dirt road in the cyclists’ refuge area. Someone on iNaturalist helped with identification, and after getting the scientific name, I searched for more info and found that it’s endangered. ‘Barely edible’ will be a good description to remember when perusing the mallows!
And that made me chuckle! I guess you’ll have to stick with your hibiscus tea, and if you have the means, tuck those tiny mallows into ice cubes for fancy drinks at the museum galas!
I worked with an editor of a weekly that relished a good yarn on an “April Fool’s” day edition. He pulled off a magnificent try years ago, telling the story of a town of the same fruit’s name attempting to grow citrus.The writer got caught up in the story and it just flowed from there.
Maybe some day we can raise citrus in the Midwest, but I kind of doubt it.
I’m in love with books, fiction and non-fiction, and movies. They are all, in many respects flights of fancy. And, it’s a real treat to run across an author who is also a great storyteller. I’ve been at many a presentation at which an author read directly from the work but didn’t light up the room until asked a question that inspired a diversion independent of the pages in question.
Your mention of Garrison Keillor and of the legendary Faulkner rang true, as well.
A good tale is worth the telling, and a good tale must have at least some embellishment. Some do it so much better than others.
I, too, laughed (and winced) at the monumental television news goof. The powers that were tried so hard to make it up to the public. That was entertaining, as well.
You growing citrus in the midwest would be akin to the attempts to grow apples in Texas. It can be done, but there are problems. Not many Texans knew that cotton root rot would take out apple trees; live and learn. I think there are some varieties that will produce in north Texas now, but they sure don’t work even a couple hundred miles south.
Your comment about authors that don’t quite light up the room when doing a reading of their own work was interesting. I’ve never really enjoyed or sought out readings by authors. I don’t know why, but sometimes it seems as though the reading diminishes the work rather than enhancing it. Maybe an author reading from a work for the umpteenth time is just flat bored. I can understand that!
The other thing is that writing and talking are quite different mediums. There are some wonderful jokes that I’ve thought to share online, but they require timing, or dialect, or something else that can’t be communicated on the page. And, as you say, sometimes the give-and-take of conversation sends things in unexpected directions.