WRITTEN BY CLARE CASSY
After family heartbreak, Amelia Dalton found solace at sea and became commander of her own boat. Read her inspiring story…
Amelia Dalton’s love affair with the sea started 40 years ago when her parents insisted she join them for a much-needed break. A young mum at the time, she was sorting out the larder in her home in West London when the phone rang. Her father had chartered a small boat on the west coast of Scotland for a week. The highlight would be visiting St Kilda, an isolated archipelago. Sometimes, no matter our age, our parents really do know what’s best for us, because this trip changed Amelia’s life.
The trip came amidst worrying health struggles for Amelia’s youngest son, with doctors unable to diagnose what was wrong with him.
“My youngest son Digby was two. He’d been unwell since birth. I had looked after him night and day, working out how best to comfort him,” Amelia said.
It’s probably the ultimate horror, being a parent and unable to help your child when they are in pain.
Amelia’s family persuaded her to go on the trip with her parents to get a break from stresses at home. However, the boat, Conochbar, was not what she had expected.
“I had imagined a yachty set up, not a black, ex-fishing trawler! But I loved the scenery, the freedom of being at sea and the lift of the swells.”
Cubby, the boat’s skipper, invited Amelia to help him on the journey by ticking off buoys on the boat’s nautical chart as they passed them by. Amelia picked up a pencil and happily got stuck in as they rolled on through the night, arriving at St Kilda in the early hours.
And it turned out Amelia was a natural on the water. Just four months after this journey, Cubby and his wife, Kate, invited her to crew with them on a series of trips. Crewing was wonderful therapy for Amelia.
“I was a cordon bleu cook and helped in the galley, didn’t get seasick and knew lots about the sea birds and flowers.”
Many happy family voyages with Cubby and Kate followed and they became firm friends. Having no children of their own, Cubby and Kate bonded with Amelia’s boys, and she has many fond memories of Cubby hoisting Digby up on his shoulders.
Tragically, Amelia lost Digby at the age of eight. In the midst of her grief, when she was desperately in need of a distraction, Cubby called Amelia to say that life had taken a huge downturn for them. After 12 years working as skipper on the Conochbar, the owner was selling the boat. As well as being unemployed, Cubby and Kate were effectively homeless.
Determined to help them, Amelia and her husband came up with a plan.
“I visited the National Trust for Scotland and persuaded them to let us have their contract to ferry their work parties out to St Kilda. Cubby had been doing this for years, so the NTS knew him and trusted him. Once I had acquired the contract, we set about finding a suitable boat and had the basis of a viable business.”
Eight months later everything was in place…
After countless inspections of unseaworthy wrecks, they found Monaco – a Danish, Arctic trawler.
There was great excitement as plans were drawn up for cabins, bathrooms, a galley, a drying room and saloon for prospective passengers. They had the prestigious National Trust for Scotland contract and other exciting West Coast expeditions planned. But then disaster struck. They had owned the boat for all of two days when Cubby called to say that Monaco was sinking in the North Sea.
I had no idea of how bad the situation was. Ignorance is bliss!
Luckily, the boat was rescued in the nick of time and sent to a nearby shipyard. After repairs were completed, they really were in business. While Cubby schooled Amelia in seamanship, she in turn tutored him in a passion of her own, Scotland’s wildflowers and fauna.
However, just when their venture was flourishing, Cubby stopped turning up to work. Monaco didn’t have a skipper. A succession of replacement skippers followed: none permanent.
They’d all given Amelia such a run around she decided to qualify as a skipper herself.
“I had no choice – the business had to work. We had debts and friends had invested. I couldn’t let everyone down,” Amelia said.
However, this was easier said than done. The sea-faring community is close knit and predominately male, and Amelia struggled to be taken seriously.
Amelia’s determination resulted in her skipper’s qualification
Against the odds, and after a long battle, she gained her commercial skipper’s qualification, a first for a female in the sector. Using her qualification, she began leading cruises around the Scottish isles, introducing passengers to the glories of the west coast of Scotland.
“I loved telling them about the islands’ history, flowers and seabirds,” Amelia said.
She had well and truly found her calling. After 10 years on this adventure, Amelia established her own travel company. Putting the experience she gained in Scotland into practice, she now leads tours in Russia and Central Europe.
Amelia’s inspiring journey
Read more of Amelia’s seafaring adventures in her book Mistress and Commander by Amelia Dalton, published by Sandstone Press, £8.99.