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Home / News / Remembering Captain Tom Woodfield, OBE

Remembering Captain Tom Woodfield, OBE

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Published 15:48 on 29 Oct 2023

We have recently learned with much sadness of the death of Captain Tom Woodfield, who was the SGBA's Commodore twenty years ago, 2001 2004. Tom 'crossed the bar' on 30 October.

Born into a seafaring family, Tom led a life full of adventure and achievements. A merchant mariner from the age of 16, he devoted his early career to exploration and research in Antarctic waters; in his later years he served the whole maritime community as a senior member of Trinity House, the UK charity dedicated to safeguarding shipping and seafarers.

Tom spent nine months at sea each year in almost every year from 1955 to 1974, when he served the British Antarctic Survey in the Royal Research Ships (RSS) SHACKLETON, JOHN BISCOE and BRANSFIELD. In the last of these (in which incidentally he played a key role in its design and build, and commanded on her maiden voyage) he reached a point further south than any ship before: 78'04". For this and his many other achievements in Antarctic waters he was awarded the Polar Medal in 1971.

Tom recorded his experiences in his book 'Polar Mariner', which became an essential handbook for budding Antarctic and Arctic seafarers.

Tom held senior posts at Trinity House from 1974 until the late 1990s. He was afforded the honour of election to be an Elder Brother. This status continues beyond retirement and for the remainder of an Elder Brother's life. At the time of his passing, aged 90, he was the senior of all the Elder Brethren.

Tom was elected Commodore of the SGBA at the AGM in 2001, when he described himself as 'having equal parts salt water, whisky and blood' in his veins! Not surprisingly, given his maritime experience and his record of leadership, Tom was a most effective Commodore. Much was achieved during his tenure, including building the first boathouse at Mill Point, expanding the Optimist fleet, widening the range of training courses, and starting racing for small cruiser yachts. He was a driving force for good.

Tom and his wife Ella left Stoke Gabriel in about 2014, to live closer to family in Alverstoke, Hampshire. Our current Commodore has written to Ella on behalf of the SGBA, to express condolences on her sad loss. Tom's memorial service will be held in Alverstoke on Tuesday 7 November details available from Julian Williams (

Tom Woodfield: A Memoir, by Nick Wilson

I was saddened to hear recently of Capt Tom's passing. SGBA members might like to read this recollection an example of his powers of persuasion!

One day just before Christmas, early in Tom's time as Commodore, I broke 3 or 4 ribs on the Devon ice (I know) and was rewarded on Christmas Day by the muscle spasms that accompany such issues. Boxing Day came and I was in no fit state to accompany the family skiing so I waved them off with gritted teeth and returned to my pursuit of securing painkillers from a festive NHS.

After a day or so things were getting a little better, when the phone rang and Tom's memorable voice asked if I knew anything about 'something called PowerPoint'? I am a builder by trade, not an IT expert, but when I asked why, it was too late, and I was probably already committed to help.

Tom had been engaged to deliver several presentations based on his working days at Trinity House, on a cruise ship leaving somewhere like Buenos Aires, dropping in at the Falklands, then going round Cape Horn and up the other side - that is how hardy sea-faring folk talk of the Southern Ocean. But the ship was sailing in a week or so and he needed some of his images in a presentable format - and quickly.

So off I went to Tom's and was presented with a huge Apple Mac (other brands are available) and some amazing images, as you will see below.

Now Tom was probably hugely decisive at sea for it was his job and often in dangerous conditions, but getting him to instruct me (the uninitiated IT guinea pig) did not come naturally. We had several false starts before we slowly started to build, as I recall four PowerPoint presentations on subjects ranging from lighthouses and buoyage to ice flows and cliffs and penguins and whale noses/snouts.

We spent many hours together before New Year and tested our work, me to make sure the images were the right way up etc and Tom finessing his recollection of the facts and figures... and remembering to press the down key! Stories flowed about leaving so and so port one day later than normal, and having to do an emergency three-point turn in his ship to avoid being trapped for the whole winter by the fast approaching ice. Ella kept popping in with welcome refreshments and adding colour to the stories, as she had accompanied him on many of his trips.

When January came Tom had several copies of the images on several memory sticks hidden in his luggage as both of us were worried about them becoming scrambled during the airport security process. I was hugely relieved to see the job done and as far as I know the lectures were duly delivered.

When I went back to work in January and colleagues asked me if I had a good Christmas, I think I had a more interesting tale to tell than most.

I kept a copy of the images Tom had taken over the years. A few accompany this article, none of which require captions other than superlatives.

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Last updated 21:41 on 27 May 2024

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