Tristan Jones, the known and not so known

The known:     Obituary: Tristan Jones.

Tristan Jones, sailor, author, adventurer: born off Tristan da Cunha 8 May 1924; died Phuket Island, Thailand 21 June 1995.

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 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

Before he was 18, Tristan Jones had been rescued from the sea three times. He left school at the age of 13 and worked as a “nipper” aboard a coastal sailing ketch, but at the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy, serving on convoy duties to the Soviet Union from Iceland. After the war he transferred to the Royal Hydrographic Service, but in 1952 in Aden an inshore survey vessel he was on was blown up by guerrillas and his spinal injuries were so severe that he was told he would never walk again.

On his discharge from hospital, he bought and converted an old lifeboat and decided he would set a new record for taking a sailing boat further north than the 84 degrees N achieved by F. Nansen. His improbable, Baron Munchausen-like exploits in the Arctic, accompanied by his one-eyed, three- legged Labrador dog, Nelson, were to be the subject of his second book, Ice! (1979).

His next venture was the eccentric notion of conquering the “vertical sailing record of the world”. Having sailed his boat on the earth’s lowest stretch of water, the Dead Sea, at 1,250 feet below sea-level, Jones determined to sail the highest, Lake Titicaca, 12,580 feet up in the Andes. His account of this six-year journey was published in The Incredible Voyage (1978), which became a best-seller in Britain and the United States.

As a writer, Tristan Jones’s work varied greatly. He could reel off rip- roaring yarns, such as Saga of a Wayward Sailor (1980), but he could also produce reflective and highly literate work such as the account of his boyhood in his best book, A Steady Trade (1982). As his British editor, I often pleaded with him to settle down and devote himself to serious, unhurried writing, but a few weeks in New York or London, where his advances on royalties could disappear with liquid celerity, were more than his seafaring soul could stand.

Up until 1985, one could never be quite sure where Jones was living at any given moment. His boats were his home. Letters or faxes might arrive from the uttermost parts of the earth: a request for money to be cabled to Bahia Concha in Columbia, say, or an urgent request for some vital part of an outboard engine to be obtained from a trusting chandler and despatched with all haste to Constanta on the Black Sea.

Occasionally, if his publisher paid his fare, he would turn up for publication of a new book, as he did for the launch of A Steady Trade in 1982. Such visits could be hazardous, however, and on this occasion Jones held his own among such distinguished television chat-show guests as Sir Laurens van der Post and Patrick Leigh Fermor, only to finish the evening draining the BBC’s hospitality room of its entire stock of liquor.

Although he was proud to receive a Welsh Arts Council Literature Award for The Incredible Voyage and to have an entry in The Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, the success of his books and the tributes he received from fellow writers and explorers meant little to him. He wrote in order to go on sailing, and, when his leg was amputated and he could no longer sail solo, he set out to show the world that disability need not preclude a life of adventure. He acquired a trimaran, mischievously named it Outward Leg, and set off with a crew of two to make his 20th Atlantic crossing in a small boat.

He arrived on the south coast of England in the summer of 1984 and when he reached Brighton Marina (how he sneered at words like “marina”: “That’s a name for smart Kensington ladies walking their poodles in the park”), I travelled down to take him some money and buy him lunch. He persuaded me to “come for a sail” and I spent a sleepless night bumping along the Channel, but it gave me an inkling of how this courageous seadog had survived his many lives.

No sooner was the anchor hauled up than the jokes and drinking stopped and Tristan was transformed into a strict disciplinarian, barking orders at his crew, charting courses and ceaselessly surveying the horizon. I was deposited in the dawn light at the foot of a dock-side in Folkestone, and as the sea surged Tristan issued orders to jump, cling to a metal hand-rail and climb the 57 vertical steps to the top. Terrified, but relieved to be on steady ground, I looked down to see him waving and giving a thumbs- up sign. It was almost the last time I saw him.

From Britain, he sailed his trimaran the lengths of the Rhine and the Danube to the Black Sea and eventually across the Indian Ocean. For the last 10 years, he lived on Phuket Island off the coast of Thailand, still writing and, even after the loss of his other leg last year, teaching disabled young people to sail. He was a true original and an immensely brave man. He had no known relatives, but he had friends and drinking companions in ports all over the world.



Tristan Jones

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Tristan Jones at book signing, Annapolis Sailboat Show 1987

Arthur Jones, pen name Tristan Jones (8 May 1929 – 21 June 1995) was a British mariner and author. He spent most of his life at sea, first in the British Royal Navy, and then sailing in small yachts for various purposes, including self-appointed adventure trips. Starting in 1977, he wrote sixteen books and many articles about sailing and his adventures, including several memoirs. His writing, while highly entertaining, often mixes fact and fiction. In his memoirs, he invented a fictional childhood and youth.

Tristan Jones, whose real name was Arthur Jones, was born in 1929 in Liverpool. He was the illegitimate son of a working-class girl, and was brought up mainly in orphanages, with little real education. He joined the Royal Navy in 1946, after the end of World War II, and served for 14 years.

Then he bought a sailboat, tried whiskey smuggling, and scraped a living sailing the Mediterranean Sea. He taught himself to write, and sold articles to yachting magazines.

In the early 1970s, he conceived the idea of setting “the altitude record for sailing” by sailing both the Dead Sea (the lowest open water in the world) and Lake Titicaca, which 3,812 meters (12,507 ft) up in the Andes Mountains. He sailed to Israel, and trucked his sailboat to the Dead Sea. Though he was not allowed to launch his boat, he did make a brief sail on the Sea in an Israeli naval officer’s sailboat.

He then sailed his boat from Israel around Africa to the West Indies, where he traded it for a smaller boat. He sailed this boat to Peru, trucked it up to Lake Titicaca, and sailed the lake, thus achieving the “record”. He then hauled his sailboat across Bolivia to Brazil on the Paraguay River, and sailed down through the Mato Grosso to Paraguay and Argentina.

His account of this adventure was published in 1977 as his first book, The Incredible Voyage.

Jones wrote The Incredible Voyage while living in Greenwich Village in New York City. It was a success, and he soon wrote several more books.

According to Anthony Dalton’s account,[1] “Then came a midlife sea change. Arthur Jones looked into his future, imagined greatness, and began to claw his way to it. Having taught himself to sail, he taught himself to write. He was a natural at both. As Tristan Jones, in his mid-forties, he sailed out of Brazil’s Mato Grosso and into a Greenwich Village apartment to write six books in three years and reinvent his past.”

In his imagined past, he was born at sea, on his father’s tramp freighter off Tristan da Cunha in 1924 (thus the name “Tristan”), left school at 14 to work on sailing barges (A Steady Trade), and served as a boy seaman in the Royal Navy during World War II (Heart of Oak).[2][3][4]

While his account of war service is entertaining, Jones has been compared to a ‘rum gagger’ (19th century British slang for a man who got money or drinks by telling fraudulent tales of supposed suffering at sea).

Besides the two volumes of autobiography, he wrote five volumes of entertaining (if unreliable) memoirs of his sailing adventures: Ice! (1978), Saga of a Wayward Sailor (1979), Dutch Treat (1979), Adrift (1980), and Aka (1981).

“Tristan” Jones became a noted personality in the sailing community. In 1982, he published One Hand for Yourself, One for the Ship: The Essentials of Single Handed Sailing.

His left leg was amputated in 1982, due to health problems and accidents. Despite this, he resumed sailing, to inspire other people with disabilities. He sailed the trimaran Outward Leg from San Diego to London by way of Colombia, Panama, and New York City; the story of this voyage was told in his book Outward Leg. He then continued across central Europe by river and canal to the Black Sea, as told in The Improbable Voyage, and then around southern Asia to Thailand, as recounted in Somewheres East of Suez.

In 1991, he also lost his right leg, and became depressed, although he returned briefly to sea.

He settled in Phuket, Thailand, converted to Islam, and took the name ‘Ali’. Though he seems not to have informed all his older friends of this, he signed his name as ‘Ali’ in correspondence with Rafiq A. Tschannen, a Swiss Muslim living in Bangkok. The change is also confirmed in Dalton’s biography.

  • Tristan Jones: the Psychology of Adventure (1990)
  • The Incredible Tristan Jones (1990)

A few years after his voyage from San Diego to Thailand, Jones visited New York, and spoke about his travels at the New York Open Center. This talk was recorded, and has been released as a videotape and DVD, titled Tristan Jones: the Psychology of Adventure. Later, the producers of The Psychology of Adventure sat down with Jones at a pub in Greenwich Village for a videotaped interview, which became The Incredible Tristan Jones.

Bronze portrait bust of Tristan Jones, sculpted from life, by William Barth Osmundsen during the 1987 Annapolis Sailboat Show. Bronze cast in 1988.

  • The Incredible Voyage (1977)
  • Ice! (1978)
  • Saga of a Wayward Sailor (1979)
  • Dutch Treat (1979)
  • Adrift (1980)
  • Aka (1981)
  • A Steady Trade: A Boyhood at Sea (1982)
  • One Hand for Yourself, One for the Ship: The Essentials of Single Handed Sailing (1982)
  • Yarns (1983)
  • Heart of Oak (1984)
  • Outward Leg (1985)
  • The Improbable Voyage (1986)
  • Somewheres East of Suez (1988)
  • Seagulls In My Soup (1991)
  • To Venture Further (1991)
  • Encounters of a Wayward Sailor (1995)

  1. Jump up ^ Anthony Dalton (2002). Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones. McGraw-Hill Professional.[1]
  2. Jump up ^ Peter Kinsley (2002). Bogged Down in County Lyric. Amherst.
  3. Jump up ^ Kinsley. “Tristan Jones”. Retrieved 18 June 2010.
  4. Jump up ^ “Meet Tristan”. Archived from the original on 19 Feb 2012.


Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones

3.29  ·  Rating details ·  24 Ratings  ·  7 Reviews

He died in 1995, but his nautical adventure books continue to bring entertainment and escape to legions of fans worldwide. He was larger than life, perhaps the most successful sailing writer of the twentieth century. But, as Anthony Dalton’s meticulously researched biography reveals, Tristan Jones was not who he said he was. “Wayward Sailor” began as an uncomplicated tribute to a great adventurer and writer, but one line of inquiry branched to another, plunging Dalton into a three-year odyssey of his own. With the cooperation of Tristan’s friends and supporters, Dalton pursued Tristan’s life through correspondence, logbooks, government documents, and interviews worldwide. With each new revelation, Tristan’s voyage through life seemed more and more like his greatest adventure.

His real name was Arthur Jones. He 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.

Arthur Jones then bought an old sailboat and tried his hand at smuggling whiskey cross-Channel. In his early thirties he sailed into a Mediterranean limbo, scraping a living from charters by day and haunting the bars of Ibiza by night. When he was drunk, which was often, he could be loud and obnoxious and had the scars to prove it. He had no family, no attachments, no accomplishments.

Then came a midlife sea change. Arthur Jones looked into his future, imagined greatness, and began to claw his way to it. Having taught himself to sail, he taught himself towrite. He was a natural at both. As Tristan Jones, in his midforties, he sailed out of Brazil’s Mato Grosso and into a Greenwich Village apartment to write six books in three years and reinvent his past.

The Tristan Jones of his books was born in a storm at sea in 1924 on his father’s tramp steamer; was torpedoed three time in epic World War II engagements; completed the first circumnavigation of Iceland; traveled farther north and farther up the Amazon River than any sailor before him; and sailed more than 400,000 miles, 180,000 of them solo. Readers loved his books and crowded his lectures and signings. He had a bard’s voice and a street performer’s delivery. He had more renown than he could have dreamed.

Having invented a life, Tristan Jones tried to live it. After the amputation of his left leg in 1982 he sailed more than halfway around the world. He lost his right leg in 1991 yet still returned briefly to sea. But as his body failed him, so too did his spirits. It was as if the life from which he’d bodily lifted himself were pulling him down again. He died a bitter man.

“Wayward Sailor” is the biography Tristan Jones did not want. His books were autobiographical, he said; there was no more to tell. But there was. “Wayward Sailor” is the last Tristan Jones story and the most incredible one of all: the story of a man who invented himself. (less)

Hardcover, 350 pages
Published April 22nd 2003 by International Marine Publishing


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R.Bruce Macdonald

Jan 19, 2013R.Bruce Macdonald rated it did not like it
The author takes a sadistic pleasure in bursting the bubble of Jones’ life. Tristan’s readers know to take his stories with a large grain of salt. We didn’t need Dalton to rub the salt into the wound after Jones’ death.


Although this was easy to read and didn’t take me long to get through, by the end I was beginning to dislike the author more than I disliked Tristan Jones, in spite of the latter’s compulsive avoidance of the truth. This was because Dalton seemed to focus more intently on what Jones did not do, rather than on what he did do. This gave the text the complexion of a character assassination, rather than a biography. Moreover, at times I felt almost sympathetic towards Tristan Jones, given that Dalto…more


Jan 30, 2009Jen rated it liked it

Shelves: sailing
I read this book, about a Welsh sailor, because I had just finished studying abroad in Swansea, Wales for a semester. I love Wales and I love sailing so I figured this would be the book for me. The amount of research behind this book is to be marveled at, but the book itself is a bit tedious because of it. I felt as though for every line of truth about Tristan Jones, there were few of those, had to be backed up by thirty pages of evidence – no exaggeration. It is a good and fascinating read, but…more


Jan 01, 2009Bill rated it really liked it

this book was written by the brother of a very good friend of mine…a very interesting well written biography


Aug 21, 2010Jack rated it liked it
I suppose this book had to be written, but having enjoyed all of Tristan’s books I would of been happier wondering about the facts. Now I feel deceived….

Tom Baker

Feb 13, 2014Tom Baker rated it really liked it
I have read all of Tristan’s books and I will not be deflated. Jones was a consummate sailor of my dreams and a wonderful writer.


Included in the book

Wayward Sailor: In Search of the Real Tristan Jones

is the fact that Tristan Jones in later years converted to Islam. In fact when I was in Bangkok (1989-1999) I saw an article by Tristan Jones where he said ‘that if I should have another life I would like to live it as a Muslim’. I then wrote to Tristan Jones congratulating him to his new conviction. He answered me that actually he had now converted to Islam, after having some dream. We corresponded with each other until his death by fax in those days.

I think I could help him a bit, because in his correspondence he said that he was wondering how the orphans that he is looking after could benefit after his death from his book income. I told him to transfer the book rights to a foundation so that the foundation could continue to receive the income. He told me that he did what I suggested. Let’s hope the Pukhet orphans he looked after continued to benefit from the royalty of his books and films.

Categories: Europe, UK

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1 reply

  1. He settled in Phuket, Thailand, converted to Islam, and took the name ‘Ali’. Though he seems not to have informed all his older friends of this, he signed his name as ‘Ali’ in correspondence with Rafiq A. Tschannen, a Swiss Muslim living in Bangkok. The change is also confirmed in Dalton’s biography.

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