THE END OF AUGUST MARKS 50 YEARS SINCE SIR FRANCIS CHICHESTER SET SAIL ON HIS GROUND-BREAKING SOLO JOURNEY ABOARD GIPSY MOTH IV.
Sir Francis Chichester in Bucklers Hard, England, on December 7, 1970 as he prepares his sailboat, the 17.10m Gipsy Moth V, for a 4,000 nautical mile solo voyage between Bissau (Portuguese Guinea) and Juan Del Norte (Nicaragua).
BRITISH YACHTSMAN Sir Francis Chichester’s name remains forever engraved in the history of yachting as the first person to sail around the world alone from west to east, along the fastest route available – the Clipper Route.
During his pioneering solo exploit in 1966-1967, he was accompanied by a no less hardy companion – a Rolex Oyster Perpetual – which took the same drenching and scrapes as he did in the stormy oceans during the months it took to accomplish the feat.
Sir Francis was given a hero’s welcome and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II after his 226-day journey covering more than 29,500 nautical miles (about 47,600 kilometres) on the 16-metre (55-foot) ketch Gipsy Moth IV.
Commissioned and built by Camper & Nicholson’s boatyard in Gosport, Gipsy Moth IV was designed by John Illingworth and Angus Primrose for the purpose of attempting an unimaginable feat of seamanship.
Sir Francis had dreamed of challenging the passage times of the Clipper ships to Sydney, boats that by comparison represented five times the waterline length of his proposed ketch.
He single-handedly sailed the same path as the speedy 19th-Century ships with 20-strong crews that plied their trade between Europe and the Far East, with a stopover in Australia. As a measure of his solo exploit on board the mahogany-hulled yacht, the Clipper Route is favoured by the most testing round-the-world yacht races, which only appeared after his odyssey.
Sailing the length of the Atlantic Ocean south across the equator – rounding the Cape of Good Hope and circumnavigating much of the Southern Ocean past Cape Horn, for a return leg northwards along the Atlantic – was the fastest and most direct way between the major continents by sea before the Suez and Panama Canals were built.
Even today, it remains the most risky and adventurous, exposed to the fiercest elements and long tracts of treacherous open sea, far from land and rescue – despite the huge progress in communications technology, navigation, boat building and safety – including the advent of satellites since Gipsy Moth IV’s voyage.
The Rolex became a trusted navigational aid, as Sir Francis plotted his position and course from the sun or the stars.
“During my voyage around the world in Gipsy Moth IV, my Rolex watch was knocked off my wrist several times without being damaged,” he wrote in a letter in 1968. “I cannot imagine a hardier timepiece. When using [it] for sextant work and working the foredeck, it was frequently banged, also doused by waves coming aboard; but it never seemed to mind all this.”
Sir Francis epitomised a certain spirit of yachting and adventure. An entrepreneur and aviator, he took up ocean sailing in the 1950s and won the first solo transatlantic race in 1960, sailing from Plymouth (UK) to New York in 40 days. With his circumnavigation, the unassuming 65 year old beat yachtsmen half his age and defied critics who felt his twinmast yacht was best handled by a crew of eight.
On September 17 1966, during the early stages of his single-handed journey, Sir Francis donned a dinner jacket to quietly celebrate his birthday in the mid-Atlantic with a champagne cocktail.
Months later, an estimated quarter of a million people lined the shore to cheer him home as he sailed into Plymouth.
The Queen used the sword used by her predecessor Queen Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake, the first Englishman with his crew to complete a circumnavigation.
Chichester was also honoured in 1967 with a postage stamp showing him aboard Gipsy Moth IV. This is unusual because he wasn’t a member of the royal family, or dead, when the stamp was issued. The Sir Francis Chichester Trust was set up in 1968. At his request, the trust provides funding for 16-19 year olds from Devon, Plymouth and Torbay to attend an Outward Bound course.
He famously held no emotional regard for the ketch after his return. “Now that I have finished, I don’t know what will become of Gipsy Moth IV. I only own the stern while my cousin owns two thirds. My part, I would sell any day. It would be better if about a third were sawn off. The boat was too big for me,” Sir Francis wrote in his book Gipsy Moth Circles the World.
Gipsy Moth IV has no sentimental value for me at all. She is cantankerous and difficult and needs a crew of three – a man to navigate, an elephant to move the tiller and a 3ft 6in [1.1m] chimpanzee with arms 8ft [2.4m] long to get about below and work some of the gear.”
In July 1968, Gipsy Moth IV was placed into a purpose-built dry dock next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich and opened to the public. Just over four years later, Sir Francis passed away due to cancer. Meanwhile, his famous boat was left to gradually decay for 36 years.
Bought from the Greenwich Maritime Trust in 2004 for £1 and a gin and tonic (said to be the favourite drink of Sir Francis), Gipsy Moth IV was taken by road back to Camper & Nicholson’s boatyard, where she was lovingly restored at cost by a some of the original shipwrights that came out of retirement to help. On June 20 2005, Gipsy Moth IV was re-launched after a £400,000 refit with money raised by donations from the public, and equipment and services given by the British marine industry. She embarked on a 21-month educational round-the-world voyage in September with the Blue Water Round the World Rally, via the trade wind route and the Panama and Suez Canals (not the Capes as had been followed in its first circumnavigation).
This time the circumnavigation was divided into several legs, each crewed by a different Skipper, mate and four young people through the UK Sailing Association. The aim was to promote the return of this remarkable piece of maritime history, inspire a new generation of sailors and continue the legacy of Sir Francis 40 years on. In spring 2006, she ran aground on an atoll in the South Pacific. An extensive restoration in Auckland was required and she was re-floated in June 2006.
After being accompanied into Plymouth by a flotilla of boats, Gipsy Moth IV docked at West Hoe Pier on May 28 2007, as she had done exactly 40 years earlier to complete her journey round the world. The Gipsy Moth Trust was launched in July 2011 and she remains with the charity for people of all ages to see and sail.