Come sail away: ocean explorer and filmmaker James Aiken shares his passion for solo adventure on the high seas

The adventurer tells Tempus about his wildest adventures at sea and the importance of getting the message of ocean pollution into the hands of decision-makers

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When it comes to exploring the high seas, there are few people who can combine the wild romance and environmental urgency of our oceans quite like James Aiken. The single-handed sailor and filmmaker has dedicated his life to impactful – and impact-free – exploration, drawing attention to issues such as the ocean pollution and rewilding needs during his solo expeditions and evocative films.

Aiken uses traditional sailing methods to traverse the ocean in his trusty boat, The Oaken Yarn, while producing films that serve to educate those of land of the true impact of plastic and other pollutants in the ocean. It was this mission that called out to fine Scotch whisky brand Talisker, whose Wild Spirits campaign includes several conservation and rewilding projects near its home in the Isle of Skye and beyond.

Aiken’s most significant collaboration with the whisky brand saw him undergo the 24-day Atlantic Challenge in January 2020 – single-handedly traversing 3,264 miles from La Gomera, Canary Islands to Antigua – while carrying onboard the wooden staves that would become part of 10 special casks made to finish Talisker’s oldest expression to date – the 43-Year-Old Xpedition Oak: The Atlantic Challenge – launched in April this year.

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Now, Aiken is preparing to host one “wild spirit” and their guest on Talisker’s Ultimate Rewilding Adventure competition, where he will sail the rugged coasts of the Isle of Skye and experience a taste of the Scottish island’s natural beauty in 2022.

“Talisker aims to inspire people to reconnect with the exhilaration of being in nature’s presence,” he says. “I believe that venturing into the outdoor realm is healthy and expansive... There’s always something fresh to experience.”

Here, Aiken exclusively tells Tempus about his wildest adventures at sea and the importance of getting the message of ocean pollution into the hands of decision-makers.

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James, how did you find your passion for traditional sailing?

I actually grew up by the sea and have always been around boats, so it was a natural progression to buy my own boat and commit to a life at sea. I see sailing solo as the purest way of experiencing the sea, where you are totally responsible for your safety and that of the vessel, it’s the height of self-sufficiency.

I like to whittle things back to their simplest form, and sail in a way that relies on knowledge and intuition [rather than high tech equipment]. So much of modern life relies on a safety net and a digital interface; in sailing, you have an opportunity to embrace the elemental forces on a personal level.

Could you describe a typical day at sea?

Every day can be totally different. Challenges are presented by the environmental conditions, equipment failure and sleep deprivation. When the going is good, I try to bank rest and eat well but, generally, a lot of my time is involved in the actual sailing of the boat.

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What are some of your wildest experiences at sea?

My most memorable moment was sailing alone across the Bay of Biscay and being surrounded by fin whales. Their breaths explode in vertical plumes that shoot 20m into the air and I could see them all around me. Biscay is special in that the depth drops off from 150m to 5,000m in a short space, and this drop creates an upwelling of nutrients that wildlife congregates to. It’s a truly mesmerising place.

The wildest moment would be one of the nights alone in rough weather. I find the isolation and darkness inspiring, and have gratitude for the skills I’ve been able to develop in my life to be out there, comfortably, on my own.

You combine your expeditions with environmental filmmaking. What do you hope viewers will learn from your work?

I hope that I can inspire people to interact with the natural world around them, whether on sea or land. I believe that it is the affinity and passion that nature inspires in people that will allow us to make the necessary decisions that will ultimately save the planet.

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How did your collaboration with Talisker begin?

I directed a film project with Talisker in 2019, so I got to know the brand very well. During this time, it was very clear that we share similar values, including our love of and affinity with the sea. I believe that venturing into the outdoor realm is healthy and expansive, both mentally and physically and, whether hiking mountains or exploring local woodlands, there is always something fresh to experience, and Talisker shares this ethos.

What inspired you to take part in The Atlantic Challenge?

In January 2020 I embarked on a solo expedition across the Atlantic Ocean, and traversed the same route taken by the rowers of the Talisker Whisky Challenge – where competitors race across more than 3,000 miles of untamed sea stretching from La Gomera, Canary Islands to Antigua. Heading out to the ocean on your own is a serious commitment, and this stretch across the Atlantic was the longest stretch I’d ever undertaken.

Onboard my boat, The Oaken Yarn, were wooden staves that were to become components of the final casks that the very special Whisky [Talisker 43-Year-Old Xpedition Oak: The Atlantic Challenge, below] would be finished in. Throughout my 24-day journey, the staves were on board with me as part of the adventure.

What does your next dream adventure look like?

My next dream adventure would be a sailing trip through the Arctic, partnering with scientists and storytellers to depict the way in which the ecological issues of our age are affecting the most remote and beautiful parts of the planet.

Enter Talisker’s Ultimate Rewilding Adventure by 21 August 2021 at taliskerultimateadventure.com