Mike Norris
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Mike Norris - Aberdovey, Wales, 1976

I was at the Aberdovey Sea School for 4 weeks, September into October 1976, in that long, hot summer, and it was one of the most memorable and exhilarating experiences of my life. I`m now 57 and I still tell people about it!

I was an Apprentice at a newspaper in Swindon, and they had just re-introduced the idea of sending the Apprentice on this personal development course for one month. It sounded good to me, an Outward Bound experience, fully paid for, and return back to work with a month`s pay? . . . Yes please!

When we arrived, it was explained to us that the Sea School had been set up in order to instil a sense of purpose in young people. When disasters happened at sea, somehow it was often the elder sailors who survived, not the youngsters. It was felt that the elder sailors survived because they had a stronger survival instinct. They had wives or families to fight for and return to, and that the youngsters felt that they had no purpose to go back to, so they often gave up the fight to survive and perished at sea. The Sea School was all about giving youngsters a purpose in life and showing them that they were capable of achieving things way beyond their recognition of their own abilities.

Abba’s `a`Dancing Queen` had just been released, the reservoirs were drying up, morning showers at the Sea School were banned to conserve water, so we had to go for an early morning run in the dark and the pouring rain, dodging the cows that loomed out of the darkness . . . it rained every day, and BOY, did it rain! On one hike, we stopped to make a brew and it started raining. By the time we had got the fire going, my coffee mug had filled to the brim with rainwater!

Our instructor was a chap by the name of Bob Hall, a New Zealander, who had an unruly shaggy ginger beard, who always wore shorts, and who was always chirpy and happy. He was to become known to us in the group as `Mad Bob` as he threw himself into every demonstration of what he wanted us to do with gusto, and he led from the front. What a great guy! Where are you now, Bob?

The first evening was a bit of an eye-opener, as after completing a long assault course carrying a telegraph pole (During which the team was roped together at about 8-foot intervals in order to encourage teamwork), we all had to negotiate one width of the swimming pool, still roped together, still carrying the pole! When the person in front of you jumped in, you got yanked in too, ready or not! Two of the new entrants left and went home that first night. The majority stayed and immediately loved it. Others stayed, and ultimately grew to love it.

Barrack-style accommodation (Seemingly on the sound of a mountain), bare floors, wooden slatted bunk beds, ultra-thin mattresses, 5am roll call, early morning runs, hiking, abseiling down cliffs into the sea, more hiking, learning how to build a proper fire, sand yachting, more hiking, learning how to read a map, more hiking, rock climbing, more hiking, jumping off the quay into the sea 30 feet below, more hiking, learning how to build your own bivouac, a trip down a Welsh slate mine, more hiking.

Everything was done `At the double`, Army-style. We never simply walked to the quay, we always jogged. I remember thinking to myself that this must be the nearest thing to being in the Army, without actually signing up!
Then, we were solo wilderness camping in our self-built bivvy for 3 days, out of earshot and eyesight of anyone else in order to regain our strength and thoughts. The instructors knew where we were and kept a safe eye on us, but we never felt their presence.

This was all leading up to the big challenge in the final week, that of walking 60 miles in 4 days over mountainous territory, starting at Ffestiniog in the north, up and down Cader Idris, 2nd highest mountain in Wales, and other challenging peaks. 15 miles a day doesn`t sound too challenging, but remember that we were carrying all the heavy canvas tent gear, first aid equipment, all food and water for 4 days. No mobile phones, iPods, iPads, no cigarettes and definitely no alcohol! In fact, nothing but a map and a compass between us!

Despite walking to my place of work in the preceding weeks in order to break my walking boots in, this wasn`t too successful, as after the first morning of the 4-day finale, my feet were blistered very badly. We camped on the top of some wind-swept mountains in a big tent, and for 2 of the nights I never took my boots off as I knew that I wouldn`t get them back on again the next morning. The fact that my nice new sleeping bag smelled of sheep droppings didn`t worry me one little bit. As soon as my head hit that pillow . . .

This finale was extremely challenging, even allowing for the fact that we were by now super-fit. The return to Aberdovey was so good, and suddenly the previously bleak barrack conditions looked very welcoming. In fact, I don`t think that I`ve ever been that fit again!

Bob commended me in his written report for completing this final sector of the course, as my blisters were the worst that he`d seen, and it meant a lot to me that he recognised the determination that I`d shown.

When I returned home to Swindon, I remember looking at the carpet in the lounge and thinking how strange it was to see a nice, soft floor covering, as opposed to the bare barrack room floor.

I intend to return to the Sea School and say `Hello` in the near future, to show my wife the place that I`d spoken so much about.

All in all, I look back with thoroughly warm memories of my visit to Outward Bound, and I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to grab the opportunity to go on any of their courses. But mind the Sheep poo!