Where I work: Mark Ashley Miller, sailor

Mark Ashley Miller's day job is a little different to the rest of us. He's on a mission to sail around Great Britain and visit every harbour master in the UK and Ireland on his way. He spoke to Rosie Paterson about the inspiration behind his journey.

Mark always dreamed of owning a yacht—something he realised immediately after he and his wife, Fiona, sold their e-commerce company, The Present Finder—and sailing around the British coastline.
Initially, he planned to visit every pub or Church visible from the sea, eventually settling on his current mission: to visit every harbour master. He is 18 months into the five year odyssey, raising money for Seafarers UK along the way.

The charity—previously the King George’s Fund for Sailors—supports seafarers and their families across the marine community. Mark has suffered with depression in the past, and was and is impressed by their continued work supporting men’s mental health issues.

The anchorage off Port An Eilean, Handa Island, where Mark spoke to Country Life from

He learned to sail as a child growing up in the Norfolk Broads and cemented his skills in the army (pre-Present Finder). However, he says that meticulous day-to-day planning is the key to success. ‘A typical day starts with interviewing a Harbour Master—often in their office which usually has a spectacular view of their harbour.  Imagine Milford Haven with its vast view of oil tankers, Conwy with its dramatic castle or Mevagissey and its classic fishing fleet.’

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‘I then try and get going, sailing towards the next harbour, maybe via a scenic anchorage. In the evening I spend time writing up my interview notes for my book and posting them on Instagram.  I try and email each Harbour Master about a week before I arrive. Before I go to bed I try and prepare the passage for the next day which centres on the weather, tides and of course the direction of the wind. I go to bed very tired.’

Mark with the harbour master at Newlyn, Rob Parsons


Despite the constant hard work, there have been multiple highlights: the harbour master at Newlyn, who sheltered Mark from a long storm; taking part in an at-sea rescue mission in Clovelly; sailing sideways at 13 knots up the River Severn; visiting Glasson Docks, unchanged since Victorian times; the harbour master at Faslane, who controls the passage of our nuclear deterrent submarines.

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14th July and at last I have "bagged" my first HM of 2020 – Vicki Mckenzie of Oban – Britain's second busiest ferry port after Dover! There is far more to Oban Harbour than initially meets the eye, including the discovery of two more Harbour Masters I never knew exisited – more about that later. It is the main HQ for Calmac ferries (I will be doing a separate story for ferry lovers) and also the operational HQ for the Northern Light Board – the Scottish equivalent of Trinity House in England, reponsible for all the lighthouses and navigation buoys in Scottish waters. Again, the story of Robert Stevenson the lighthouse engineer deserves its own post. Back to the harbour, and Vicki who trained as a skipper with The Ocean Youth Trust before taking over as HM in 2011. She is assisted by Richard Dobson, an ex Royal Navy submariner who is photographed with Good Dog and her new Seafarers Banner which I am pleased to say has already secured a £50 donation! They run the main "yachtie" & commercial area of the harbour (not the ferry port) and also manage the 90 cruise ships which visit Oban in a normal year. in 2020 she thinks there will be none visiting which rather sums up the VERY empty feel the harbour had as you can see from the photos. Normally in July the population of the town has swollen from 8,000 to 30,000 people – hard to imagine. Back to technical stuff – a wonderfully unique fact about Oban harbour is the the buoyage on the main entrance channel appears to be back to front – i.e. Green buoys on the left and Red buoys on the right. Confusing as this might sound, it is in fact quite correct – the buoyage runs up the Kerrera channel from the south – and simply continues out to sea at the north end which happens to be the main entrance. A lesson to us yachties to read charts properly! Vicki's most unusual job to date has been dealing with a sperm whale trapped in the harbour for a few days. Thank you Vicki and Richard and I hope Oban soon returns to its normal busy "Gateway to the Highlands". I am circumnavigating #GB in a #Nauticat attempting to visit every #harbour with a #harbourmaster #fundraising to #support @Seafarers_UK

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The intrepid sailor has also learned an awful lot about British history and the fishing industry. ‘Did you know that most fish landed in the UK gets immediately exported to Europe or China?’ I did not. ‘I am very wary of fishermen,’ he jokes. ‘On entering Newlyn one shouted at me, “where are you from?” When I said Dorset, he replied, “we eat people from Dorset.” ‘
Mark is currently at sea in Scotland, relatively unperturbed by recent events. ‘It is easy to remain socially distanced when at sea!’ He says. Does he have any advice for those of us sitting at home? ‘If you have a dream, plan it now and then do it! Don’t get to the end of your life and regret the things you have not done.’

Go to office uniform

My sailing dungarees, with a specially adapted zip so I can pee over the side of the boat!

Work soundtrack

Nothing, unless I have my children on board. They don’t seem to be able do anything without loud music playing.

Messy or tidy desk (deck)?

A tidy chart table where I can spread my charts, pilot books and tidal atlases. My crew get in trouble if they drop crumbs!

Best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?

Change your career every ten years for an interesting life.

Instagram hero

Recently, a team of four young rowers circumnavigating Great Britain unsupported, who we bumped into (not literally) off Skye.

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Another big shift from the boys since leaving Glenarm at 0500 yesterday ????‍♀️⚡️ After quickly crossing from Ireland, we enjoyed calm and sunny weather going up the Mull of Kintyre. A stunning sunset over Jura soon gave way to heavy rain and strong SE/E winds. At the northern end of the Sound of Jura we faced overwhelming tide that gradually pushed us back; clinging on as best we could for a few hours, we then enjoyed the favourable tide, managing to pass by the dangerous waters of the Corryvreckan, and set a new boat record of 8.2kts (!!) in the overfalls north of Scarba. To make good enough time against tide and with tight windows, we’ve rowed three up (a shift pattern of 2hrs on, 40min rest) for 12 hours since 3am, a tiring end to a long passage. Great to make so many miles though, anchoring up about 95 miles on from Glenarm after 36 hours rowing! Quick breather now, before pressing on up the Sound of Mull ? . . #heavyweatherspecialists #progress #speedy #GreatBritishRow #rowing #oceanrowing #Scotland #westcoast #roundbritain #north #gbrowchallenge . . @allsportsnu @clarity_enviro @couttsbank @jottnar @kendalmintco @powertraveller @vivobarefoot @rxbar @roosterkit @ebwatches @timney_fowler @osbornestudiogallery @eosphere_uk @justoneocean @britishredcross

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