The Spy Next Door

Northwest-side author, 92, continues to build adventurous life
2012-11-04T00:00:00Z 2014-10-10T11:46:07Z The Spy Next DoorKristen Cook Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Patrick Ellam has a doozy of an opening line.

"I was a spy," says Ellam, 92, in a gentlemanly British accent that could just as easily be uttering, "Bond. James Bond."

A master of understatement, Ellam says simply of his early career, "It was the nicest job I ever had. No one ever told you what you were supposed to do or how you were supposed to do it."

In his life, the longtime Tucsonan - who shares a northwest-side home with his wife of 57 years, June - has been many things: a sailor who gained notoriety in the 1950s for crossing the Atlantic in a tiny sailboat with no motor, an avid adventurer who's explored the world by land and sea, an entrepreneur, an author, a Life magazine and Sports Illustrated photographer, even a restaurateur.

It's hard to know where to start. So, let's take it from the top.

• • •

Ellam enjoyed a privileged upbringing, growing up an only child in London to a sailing family.

"My father said I could have a boat when I could swim across the Thames - in clothes and shoes," Ellam recalls. He earned the boat at 7.

Though he passed Oxford's entrance exams at 16, his father instead gave him some money and told him to explore Europe while learning German and French. At the start of World War II, Ellam joined the British Expeditionary Force. He commanded an anti-aircraft site with hundreds of troops defending London against German bombers. When he learned that volunteers were needed to parachute behind enemy lines, he jumped at the chance and ended up in "spy school," where he learned all sorts of useful stuff, like how to blow open safes and the proper way to parachute out of a plane at night.

"You have to remember to keep your legs together," he says nonchalantly. "If you land in a tree, that would be uncomfortable."

Ellam ended up as part of a top-secret force called the Special Operations Executive, whose mission was to thwart the Nazis behind enemy lines. After the war, he turned his sights back to sailing. His next big adventure involved a bright blue midget sailboat that he designed. Contrary to the way boats had been built - as heavy and strong as possible - Ellam and his friend, boat designer Colin Mudie, thought a light boat would lift over the top of the waves.

The Sopranino, named for the smallest wind instrument, was just 19 feet long and credited with spawning a new breed of sailing. In 1951, Ellam and Mudie took the little sailboat for a journey to four continents and across the Atlantic Ocean.

He gained a great deal of recognition for the feat: In his home office hangs a framed 1955 Hiram Walker Whiskey ad from Life magazine featuring Ellam, a slight smile on his face and a full glass in his hand. The copy reads: "Trained as a parachutist, he aided the French Resistance during the war. Later he built the tiny 'Sopranino' (19-ft, with planking barely thicker than a cigarette) and sailed her across the Atlantic. World Authority on midget boats."

"His pay was a case of Hiram Walker," says June, 82. "It was awful. We gave it away."

June entered the picture in 1955. They met while Patrick was in New York. June was there working for a Broadway producer. They married just four days after they met.

"I thought it wouldn't last," she says, every bit as dryly as her husband shares spy stories. "I looked like a good prospect - I had a job and a bag of groceries. He was in Manhattan trying to write a book."

"It was a big bag," Patrick chimes in.

Though the two ran a yacht delivery business for 10 years, June is not a sailor. Never has been, never will be. She much prefers driving, which is why the couple steered a customized, gold Scout II from Vermont - where they had a restaurant before retiring to the desert for the warm winters - to South America. The goal of the 1975 trip was to visit Ushuaia, what's commonly considered the southernmost city in the world.

"Should I mention," Patrick says, pausing to look at his wife before he decides to go on, regardless of her opinion, "I peed off the end."

"That was the justification for the trip," June says.

• • •

His life sounds like a screenplay and though Hollywood types showed interest at one time, nothing happened. Instead, Patrick Ellam documented his adventures himself in several books. His most recent work is a large-type dictionary featuring selected words. "Left out are most words an educated person would know or ones from special areas like medicine or biology" reads the cover of "Some Less Known Words."

Patrick Ellam has been spending his days addressing letters to colleges across the country, so he can market his abbreviated dictionary. He's got to sell some books - a lot of books, actually - to fund his next big adventure, which sits in the front yard, shielded by a blue plastic tarp and a partial wooden fence. He isn't done exploring yet.

The current project is a riverboat, 30 feet long, 10 feet wide with three hulls. Half finished, it's painted deep green and still in need of a water tank, septic system and electric motor. He plans to take it out on the Colorado River. But he still needs to get his wife onboard. In more ways than one.

"I want it to go very slow and be very stable," Ellam explains. "June doesn't like wobbly. I'm making it so nice, all she'll have to do is step on and off and cook."

"And clean and spray for roaches and tie the lines," June says, with a roll of her eyes. "I'm staying at the Holiday Inn."

If he hears her, Ellam doesn't show it.

"It's nice to be 92 years old," he says, "and have a future."

Patrick Ellam titles

For more information about Patrick Ellam or his books, go to patrickellam.com

Books by Patrick Ellam

"The Road to Ushuaia"

"Wind Song"

"Things I Remember"

"Yacht Cruising"

"Sopranino"

"Sam & Me"

"Some Less Known Words"

"Royal Flying Corps Technical Notes"

"The Judge"

Contact Kristen Cook at kcook@azstarnet.com or 573-4194.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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