he Falklands War had ended less than 24 hours ago. Nick Wilty had survived ten days of fighting, but now had another problem. The helicopter he was on, that was supposed to be taking him to safety was plummeting to earth, about to crash. He figured it was time to re-evaluate his life.
Looking back, it would become a defining moment in Nick’s life. But only the first of several.
This was the first though, and it set him on journey around the world, across land, sea and air, with little more than an excuse, and a few quid in his pocket.
Decades later, talking it over in a cafe in Whitstable, it was hard to say that adventure was anywhere close to ending.
He’s been a soldier, a part-time sailor, a comedian, and now an artist.
In between he’s worked countless jobs, been lost at sea, won comedy awards, and been deported twice… on the same day.
I have to amuse myself [ he says…]
But back to the beginning, as a young squaddie, crash landing in that helicopter back in 1982.
Oddly enough I quite enjoyed them ten days, in an adventurous way,” he said. “I was scared all the time but I felt alive.
Nick was lucky, and walked away from the crash with a broken shoulder.
“ From that day I thought life isn’t going to get more exciting than this. I’m going to have to create my own adventure. . .]
So he hatched a plan.
“60 odd countries without a stamp in my passport.”
Claiming he had a job waiting for him in Florida, he fibbed his way out of the army, and immediately set off in the opposite direction – to Australia.
He found work immediately.
“It was the best paying job in Australia at the time – a gay bar in Sydney. $26 an hour.”
It was the start of a year Down Under he still recalls fondly.
He lasted less than a week in the gay bar, quit before he tried selling encyclopaedias (“proper horrible”). Then he found work as a hospital porter in Melbourne.
“I was a young man surrounded by nurses, I loved it.”
Eventually he hitched north, taking jobs on fishing boats, and in an opal mine.
“I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a steady job. I’d do any job that came my way.”
With his work permit running out, he made his way to Singapore (via Bali), which offered plenty of work to the traveller creative enough to dodge lax immigration laws.
Then it was on to Thailand, and from there Africa, where he endured the next pivotal moment of his life. 14 hours lost in a crippled dinghy off the coast of Africa.
Lost at Sea
It was another of those odd jobs that had paid Nick’s way around the world – setting out on a yacht before using a dinghy to drop plum lines to measure depths off Senegal.
Nick took a life jacket, even though it earned him derogatory comments from the American captain, a senior executive in a famous soft drinks company. That same arrogance explained the absence of maps, compass or supplies.
Sure enough, the dinghy hit a reef, destroying the engine and ripping out the transom.
“Now we’re in a sinking boat that can’t go anywhere. I’m at the back bailing out constantly.We’ve got no water. No food. No flares. All we’ve got is a radio.”
“I suggest you rely on luck. Out.”
Nick grabbed the radio to send an SOS. The reply he got is still hard to talk about now.
“ It was appalling really. The nearest place was Senegal. The voice said ‘I suggest you rely on luck. Out. . .]
Luckily, they got through to the yacht they had left more than 12 hours ago. The boat sent to help also managed to become stranded. But while they were rescued, Nick was still in a perilous position.
“It was pretty awful,” he said. “It was getting dark. The seas were getting bigger and bigger. I was exhausted bailing out the boat.
“I suddenly saw something on the horizon – a pirogue – a long canoe with an engine on the back. It was about a quarter of a mile away. By chance we were up on a wave and they saw us.
“I couldn’t even talk, let alone shout. The captain said: ‘save your dignity, don’t wave that jacket’. I never forgave him, ever.”
However upsetting, the incident did nothing to quell his wanderlust. The next boat he boarded was headed for the Caribbean.
“I got to the Caribbean and thought, well, I’ve never been to South America. So I got a job as typist for this author writing guidebooks to the Caribbean. Then as hurricanes came I went up to Florida.”
It was what happened next that ultimately set up the rest of his life, and which brought him and his wife, to Whitstable ten years ago.
Pivotal moment number 3
Forgetting to retrieve your passport from a photocopier, and then having your bag stolen while travelling across Canada, is the type of incident that would send a less worldly traveller into a state of panic.
“I had ten dollars in the world. No passport. No clothes. All I had was a solar powered Walkman. And it was a Saturday.
“I thought, there’s no point stressing about it. I may as well get drunk on that ten dollars and worry about it tomorrow.
“Bear in mind I’d been through a war. I’d had some adventures. I just thought ‘what a pain in the arse’.”
Cue the next life changing moment.
So sitting in a bar on Saturday night, laughing into his pint, he told his story (with the odd embellishment) to the man on the stool net to him. Before long both were laughing into their pints.
His new friend encouraged him to try his story on stage at a nearby club that gave you free beer for five minutes of comedy.
So he tried it. “Nick the English Guy” was an immediate success.
He was asked back, getting $10 for 10 minutes this time. Five weeks later it was $20 for 20 minutes.
“I thought ‘I should turn professional’. My travels gave me so much to talk about.”
It became a big part of his act, which he scribbled on the back of beer cans that he drank from onstage.
But it was this newfound success would bring him home prematurely, albeit after a run in with the United States, and then Canadian immigration services.
The Yellow Line
Nick picks up the story.
“I was voted second funniest new comedian in Canada…]
The prize was to go to America, to play Holy City Zoo in San Francisco.”
This was a big deal for any comedian.
Holy City Zoo was known as the Comedian’s Clubhouse. The likes of Dana Carvey, Bobcat Goldthwait and Robin Williams had at one point in their careers called its tiny stage their own. Nick planned on being next.
Only his bid for immortality made it about as far as the border.
“In Vancouver they’ve got a very strange thing,” he said. “You check into America at the airport and there’s a yellow line. So I told the Canadian [immigration officer] my plan.”
Nick, who was sponsored by the comedy club, would leave Canada, find the Canadian consulate, get a work permit, then come back to Canada. All legitimate.
Things started going wrong when he stepped across the painted yellow line on the floor.
He’d been over heard.
The American official took Nick’s story to mean he planned to work in the US.
The conversation continued something like this:
“You plan to work in the US ?”
“No, I’m doing shows.”
“But it has a monetary value ?”
“But I’m not being paid.”
“Well how can you afford to come here ?”
“I’ve just won this prize. I have flight, hotel, car. I’m doing it for free.”
“That must have a value.”
Nick had only walked five feet, crossing the yellow line painted on the floor. But he was immediately turned around and “deported” back to Canada.
That’s where he ran into the next problem.
The Canadian official had overheard all this too.
Suddenly, with plans for a career-changing trip to the US, he was now barred from entering Canada as well.
“I got put on a plane home. That was how my travels came to an end.”
He’d been away eight years.
The story became part of his routine back home, which featured a theatrical leap over the painted yellow line.
This was 1990. Alternative comedy was in its heyday, and Nick was at home in more ways than one.
“Within a year I was full time professional. Within two years I was on telly.”
Nearly thirty years later and he still does four or five gigs a month, driving across the country and then back to Whitstable.
He’s set a few records in the process, racking up 62 performances in countries as varied as Dubai, Borneo, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, and an Irish bar in China.
Why not. He had decades of great stories to tell.
“The only thing I avoided talking about was the army. It was 25 years before I spoke about that.”
From the Falklands to Whitstable
Nick set sail for the Falklands on the same day as the QE2, albeit on a much slower cross channel ferry, pressed into operation.
He landed from HMS Fearless, and survived unscathed before the helicopter crash.
But while the physical injury was one thing, the mental damage was something he only realised later. Adventure had seemed as good a cure as any.
Which took him to Australia. And, in a roundabout way, what brought him to Whitstable.
“We came down in 2008. My wife’s best friend had already moved down here and we came down for her birthday. It was on the beach. I left to do a show in Skegness. But I loved the beach; it was beautiful, good company.
“So I got back to London about 2am, and my wife came in after me. She said, ‘you know what I was thinking’, and I said ‘what, move to Whitstable?’
“We both fell in love with it.”
It’s a love that now extends to painting – which he turned to when his wife fell ill. Whitstable plays its role as muse.
“I’d never painted at all,” he confesses. “I got thrown out of school for smoking during the art exam.”
He started by painting the windmill on Borstal Hill. To get an idea of his style, let’s just say he turned it into a dalek.
But it’s this surreal blend of what you see every day, and a little of what you think, that makes his paintings so fascinating.
“I’m trying to make a painting that’s beautiful; that you don’t notice is surreal until you get closer.”
That includes his version of the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Inspired by the remarks made by the city’s mayor (who blamed tourists for Venice’s woes) his interpretation features the golden arches, as well as Ronald McDonald, in yellow clown suit, hanging himself.
Nick still claims amateur status, but it’s becoming a bigger part of his life, with a trip to a gallery in Los Angeles planned for this year.
He’ll be taking with him His latest piece – an overview of Venice beach in Los Angeles.
The palm trees are replaced with the now legalised marijuana plants, and the surfers with gondoliers.
“I think that will be just their cup of tea. That’s the plan anyway.”
From the Falklands, around the world, and back again. To Whitstable. And now Los Angeles.
The adventure is most certainly not over.