Onboard the Oaken Yarn with James AikenFrom The Field
Written by Harriet Osborne
Photography by Ben Duffy, with additional photography by James Aiken during his solo sail
Produced in Partnership with Talisker
Sailor James Aiken has grown up with a life that revolves around the sea. A nautical nomad, he has spent five years onboard his 33 ft boat, The Oaken Yarn. Recently he single-handedly sailed 3,264 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, powered by steadfast routines, natural instinct and an unwavering affinity for adventure. This was with Talisker, to launch their oldest whisky yet, Talisker 43 Year Old Xpedition Oak: The Atlantic Challenge.
As the last rays of sunlight illuminate the clouds with vibrant hues of pinks and reds, sailor James Aiken prepares for another night alone at sea. He has spent five years onboard his 33 ft boat, The Oaken Yarn, which he single-handedly sails in flowstate; a sense of fluidity between the body and mind when deeply immersed beyond distraction.
‘There is something special about the ocean at night,’ he says. ‘The lights of distant homes clustered on the hillsides accentuate the remoteness of my own situation, my decision to leave communal comforts behind. The contrast clarifies my choice to be nomadic in nature but right at home, here in this moment, when I am self-sufficient at sea.’
James has grown up with a life that revolves around the sea. As a sailor, surfer and adventurer, it is his primary source of inspiration, energy and balance. ‘The ocean is the place where I seek challenge and freedom,’ he explains. ‘I find the most fulfillment from engaging with the ocean in as many ways as possible, from freediving to solo ocean sailing, with surfing, swimming and foraging all playing a role.’
His affinity to sailing is incomparable to any other seafaring pursuit. ‘To take full responsibility for your own direction and wellbeing is rare in modern life. I have a capable boat and the experience to explore a world without borders or regimentation,’ he says. ‘The accumulation of skills and instinctive decision-making gives me the confidence to embrace all the challenges.’
Last year, James played the role of navigator, engineer, rigger, meteorologist and chef, when he sailed 3,264 miles across the Atlantic Ocean for an adventure with Talisker whisky. He brought with him stacks of wooden staves, sections of whisky casks, that were used to complete the final maturation of Talisker’s oldest whisky to date, the 43 Year-Old Xpedition Oak.
‘I’d been working on a film project previously with Talisker, and they asked me if I had any plans to cross the Atlantic, as they had a challenge they were looking to take on with their latest release. I love whisky, and Talisker, and crossing the Atlantic seemed to be the next natural step, the pinnacle of my life at sea.’
He prepared for the challenge where land meets sea; trail running and surfing on windswept coastlines. While onboard the boat, he kept a routine of simple tasks to help mitigate disasters, but few things could help alleviate the exhaustion from weeks at sea.
‘Sleep deprivation was the hardest part of the challenge,’ he recalls. ‘I focused on sleep cycles and naps. A day when I could sleep at least three sleep cycles of two hours was sufficient to maintain focus and good decision making. I struggled to make use of the twenty-minute nap in the day because of the heat. I actually prefer sailing at night so I was always striking a balance on banking enough sleep.’
In order to stay motivated, James referred to a passage by the late sailor and author, Wallace Clark, who suggested, ‘the forward momentum of any vessel was in correlation to the will power of the skipper and on this crossing, including the months of preparation.’
Later this year, the first bottle of Talisker 43 Year Old Xpedition Oak: The Atlantic Challenge will be entered into an auction with all proceeds donated to Parley for the Oceans, a charity that raises awareness and solutions to plastic pollution.
In a collaborative environmental commitment which began in 2020, Talisker and Parley launched Rewild Our Seas, a global initiative to restore and protect the health of underwater forests on coastlines. Together the partners have a mission to support the preservation and protection of 100 million square meters of marine ecosystems around the world by 2023.
‘As someone who is connected to the sea on a daily basis, I witness the negative human impact first hand. It’s distressing to see the amount of pollution, both plastic and otherwise, that we are willing to release into the wild. It’s clear that we now stand at a point where only radical societal change can prevent the unthinkable ecological disaster that is looming.
‘I think the most important thing to recognise is the loss of momentum in communication between those who are passionate about the subject, and those not as yet educated, and that’s understandable given the cross-societal stress caused by the pandemic. We really need policy change at the highest level.’
James is also working with Talisker on offering one adventure-seeker and a guest the chance to win an ultimate rewilding experience on the Isle of Skye. The trip, which will happen next year in 2022, will involve hiking, foraged feasts and stays in ruggedly luxurious accommodation on the island. It will also include a sailing expedition on the coast of Skye with James, which he says is one of his favorite places to sail in Europe, with some of the most beautiful sights he’s excited to share.
‘I’m really looking forward to sharing a seldom experienced view of our small North Atlantic islands. The United Kingdom is set amongst some of the wildest seas on the planet and you only need to travel a few miles out and look back to see the remoteness and the ruggedness laid bare. The Isle of Skye embodies that on an extreme level, with high mountains looking over hidden coves and lochs, it’s an extraordinary place to embrace adventure.’
For more information, and to enter the promotion for a chance to go on the adventure including sailing with James, visit: www.taliskerultimateadventure.com