Alex Alan: a spy knows how to travel undercover | Photo: Ken Towner/Alex Alan Archive

If you can't commute to work by train, why don't you catch... a windsurfer? That was exactly what Sir Alexander Allan thought of in the good old London days.

Alex Allan was born on February 9, 1951. After completing his MSc in Statistics at the University College, London, Allan started working in the early 1980s as a freelance computer consultant in Australia.

A few years later, Alex Allan kicked off a long career in the civil service, including Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice, High Commissioner to Australia, and Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

He worked as John Major's right-hand man and was involved in negotiating the divorce settlement of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

However, Alexander Allan was involved in a rather unusual episode on January 20, 1982.

In order to get around a train strike, the intrepid Grateful Dead fanatic decided to windsurf to work wearing a bowler hat and suit and carrying a briefcase and an umbrella.

"I was living in Putney, South London, close to the Thames, at the time and was working in the Treasury. One of my neighbors was Ken Towner, a news photographer," Alex Allan tells

"We were having a beer one evening and discussing the forthcoming train strike."

"We hit on the idea that I'd windsurf to Whitehall, and Ken persuaded the editor of the Evening Standard to let him hire a boat to take photos from."

"I hired a black jacket, striped trousers, and bowler hat to look the image of a civil servant but wore a wetsuit underneath."

"On the day, there wasn't much wind, as you can see from the photos. Luckily, the tide was with us, and I got the occasional tow under bridges."

Alex Allan: making a splash in the River Thames | Photo: Ken Towner/Alex Alan Archive

Getting Wet in Cold February

Can you imagine yourself crossing Westminster Bridge and suddenly watching a man sailing along the River Thames in a business suit?

Is it a good idea? It could be. But did Allan make it to Whitehall?

"When we got to Westminster, I sailed around in front of the Houses of Parliament while Ken took pictures. I'm afraid the shots of me getting wet were something of a stunt," added the windsurfer.

"I said, 'Would you like a shot of me falling in?' Ken said: 'Yes please,' so we did a 'one, two, three ...' It was cold February, so I was glad of the wetsuit."

Well, he made a splash - literally.

Allan, the civil servant, and his friend got coverage on pages 1 and 3 of the Evening Standard under the headline "Making it to work... a Treasury wet."

Alex reminded SurferToday that this was "a time of controversy within Margaret Thatcher's government about the direction of economic policy, with those urging more reflation tagged 'wets' while those supporting continued cuts in public spending tagged 'dries.'"

"I'd been a keen windsurfer for some years, both on the south coast of England and in Majorca," concludes Sir Alexander Allan.

"And I also spent some time living in Fremantle in Western Australia, which is a great place for windsurfing, with a strong and reliable sea breeze. My late wife Katie had given me the sail with the Grateful Dead logo on it."

The story ends in the industrialized waters of the River Thames, but the history of windsurfing will always remember it with a great smile.

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