Obituary: Gil Dippie - Master mariner who adored sailing, trekking and crofting in Ross-shire

Born: 2 August, 1937, in Hove, Sussex. Died: 11 October, 2011, in Stornaway, aged 74

GIL Dippie flew jet fighters, climbed in the Himalayas, cornmanded square-rigged sailing ships and was a crofter in Ross-shire.

He was born in Hove, Sussex in 1937 and was an only child. His father, Harold, was a stockbroker in civilian life who had served in the British Army during both World Wars.

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At Gil Dippie’s funeral in lnverness one speaker surmised that one of him was probably enough for his parents. Despite his rebellious nature he was only expelled from one school.

During his penultimate term his father died. Money was short but fortunately a benefactor stepped in and paid the outstanding school fees.

Harold Dippie had saved the benefactor’s life in the trenches in the First World War.

Dippie entered the Royal Naval College Dartmouth at the age of 16 and graduated in 1957. He trained as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm and gained his wings in 1960.

He flew the D6 Havilland Sea Vixen, a large twin-engined all-weather fighter with a crew of two. His short flying career included an operational tour with 892 Squadron embarked in HMS Victorious but ended when a routine medical examination revealed sub-standard hearing.

He had a variety of interesting appointments, including training and developing officers for the newly independent Kenya’s fledgling Navy.

His final posting was as Queen’s Harbourmaster in Invergordon, where there had been a mutiny in 1931. He left the Royal Navy in 1978 at the age of 38.

Dippie had been a recreational yachtsman for many years and easily made the transition to larger sailing vessels when he took employment as mate and later master on the British Sail Training Association’s (STA) fine topsail schooners Sir Winston Churchill and Malcolm Miller.

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Judith Fairey remembers the first time she met Gil in 1985. lt was a girls’ voyage on Sir Winston Churchill during dreadful weather in the Fnglish Channel. Describing their first night at sea Judith wrote: “The ship was battered and thrown about in a force ten; the poor girls were sick and terrified, and I wasn’t much better. My abiding memory is Gil striding about the bridge and decks, bright, chirpy, in charge and apparently unconcerned about the appalling conditions.”

Many years later she was with Gil on his Annapurna walks and remembers how he was “tremendous fun with his quirky, unpredictable ssnse of hurnour, and loved by others in the group”.

After several years with the STA he moved on, firstly as manager of an established yacht charter business at Fort Augustus on Loch Ness, before himself buying a smaller business, Loch Ness Yacht Charters, in 1986. He expanded the fleet of seven yachts to 22 mixed yachts and cruisers, before selling the business in 1997.

In 1998 he was contacted by Chris Blake, a colleague from STA days, and become involved with HM Bark Endeavour, the faithful replica of Captain Cook’s ship that was about to visit the United Kingdom.

When Endeavour returned to Australian waters she resumed her routine of short coastal cruises locally with occasional longer voyages to south-west Pacific ports.

Gil Dippie was in close contact with the trainees who ranged in age from young to senior middle age, all seeking to experience something unique.

He was chief mate when Endeavour was in Sydney for the Olympic Games in 2010 and made many enduring friendships during his time onboard.

His last voyage was in 2005, when he commanded her from Tahiti to Napier. That year the ship was transferred from the Endeavour Foundation to the Australian National Maritime Museum and his connection with her ended.

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His swan-song in square riggers was in early 2011 as navigator of the Fremantle-based sail training Barquentine Leeuwin from Shark Bay back to Fremantle.

In later life he became an enthusiastic trekker and traveller, both in Australia and in the Himalayas.

In 2009 he completed the Annapuma circuit which includes the critical 5,416 metre Throng-La pass, and this with three surgically fused vertebrae. Gil married Sheena Hickey in 1971, and their son Malcolm was born in 1974. Home became a croft of 70 acres: Blackmuir, superbly situated on the Heights of Dochcarty, above the town of Dingall in Ross-shire, where they ran sheep, pigs and chickens.

The marriage ended in 2003 but Gil bought Sheena’s share of the property and it stayed his home for the rest of his life.

In 2005 Gil met Elaine Flood and a close relationship developed. On the home front, agricultural activities were curtailed, some of the land was disposed of and trees were planted on the remainder.

The glorious view to the south over the Black Isle and towards Inverness was, however, retained.

Gil Dippie fell ill on a ferry to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, and was admitted to hospital on arrival. Sadly, his condition deteriorated and he died of a stroke on 11 October. Elaine was with him.

At Blackmuir his tree planting is still small. In time the trees will bring joy to future residents. JONATHAN BRETT YOUNG