The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 28 -

On tbe Wings of a Moth

          This is Gipsy Moth IV GAKK
            calling London . . .
          GAKK calling London . . .
            Do you read me? Over . . .(1)

          AT 0500, MARCH 20, 1967, A COLD GRAY MONDAY MORNING,
the wind veered to the west again, but the barometer held. Francis
Chichester emerged from the cabin, expecting to see nothing but
wild ocean. To his surprise and some annoyance he saw, not a half
mile away, the ice-patrol ship H.M.S. Protector, the presence of
which was no accident, for all the British commonwealth of nations,
to say nothing of the rest of the world, was concerned about this ag-
ing, if not ancient mariner.
  After establishing contact, Chichester altered course to the north
and at 1107 hours, while making good about seven knots speed, he
recorded his position as being just off Horn Island, although the
overcast weather prevented him from seeing anything but the Pro-
tector, still standing by.
  He was beginning to hate that ship, especially since she looked
stable as a billiard table, while on Gipsy Moth IV he felt like he was
being churned in a cement mixer. On board the Protector, a reporter
recorded that the translucent bottle-green seas moved like mountains
of water, rolling and rearing up, to subside with brutal force as a 50-
knot wind slashed off the tops of the foaming crests. The tempera-
ture was 43 and the icy wind cut through heavy parkas like a knife.(2)
  While Chichester alternately fought the seas and cursed the

     ~ 259 ~

Protector, he heard an airplane and looked up in astonishment to see
a Piper Apache coming in low and bouncing in the turbulence. In
the Piper were Murray Sayle of the Sunday Times, one of Chi-
chester's sponsors; Clifford Luton and Peter Beggin of BBC; and the
pilot, former Chilean air force captain Rodolfo Fuenzalida.(3)
  Photos taken from the aircraft and the ship revealed a long slender
yacht, with only a tuft of spitfire set on the forestay, wallowing at
awkward angles, almost lost in the streaks of foam. Had the lone
circumnavigator in the yacht been able to see himself and his ship
from the relative safety of the Protector or Apache, he might have
exclaimed in horror: "My God, what is a 66-year-old man doing down
there in that!"
  But the man down there at the climax point of a spectacular,
record-breaking singlehanded circumnavigation was about to reach
the pinnacle of achievement and recognition in his long and erratic
life as an adventurer, sometime daredevil stuntman, flyer, yacht racer,
publisher, author, real estate promoter, and fighter. If all his other
notorious endeavors had been mostly failures that were barely toler-
ated if at all noticed by the British public, this one would make him
an immortal in maritime annals, earn him a fortune, worldwide fame,
the soul-sweet aura of being a living legend, and knighthood.
  In the past, the British public had created national heroes out of
Shackleton, Scott, Hillary, and even Roger Bannister, who beat the
four-minute mile. In 1967, England desperately needed a new na-
tional symbol, and Francis Chichester became a sort of super-hero.
  If there was any doubt of this, it was removed a few weeks later, on
May 28, when he sailed into Plymouth from whence he had de-
parted the previous August 27 to find a quarter of a million cheering
citizens on the shore to greet him, and an armada of boats disgorging
to meet and escort him in. There followed receptions, speeches,
television interviews, and a ceremony in which the Queen formally
knighted him. The welcome amounted to almost mass hysteria. The
book he was to put together hastily would become a world best-seller.
His little chart and map business would enjoy a kind of success never
before expected. His place in history and financial fortune was suddenly
real. Everything that came later would be anticlimactic.
  Born in Devon, home of many of England's great seafarers, Francis
Chichester's first encounter with notoriety occurred when he was
eleven and had been bitten by a viper he had picked up and was
tormenting. When his stern clergyman father made him ride nearly
five miles to a dispensary for medical attention, the poison very nearly

   ~ 260 ~ 

killed him. Only the timely arrival of the serum from London
(although not by dog team) saved his life. The episode made all the
newspapers, and for days strangers came to the hospital to see the
brave little lad.
  Rebellious by nature, Chichester had an unhappy childhood, de-
void of the usual parental affection and security. Sent to school at age
seven, he was constantly in trouble with the other pupils or the
headmaster. With no friends and little affection at home, he drifted
into a world of his own making, one in which he pursued excitement
and adventure. Expelled from school after school, he later recalled
only one with any sort of nostalgia Old Raide, where he had been
captain of the cricket team and excelled in military drill.
  He attended Marlborough College, with its abominable diet and
beatings administered for every kind of offense, including tardiness.
He was good at rugby and most other athletics, and became the
youngest boy to qualify for officer's training at summer camp.
  In 1918, during his last term, the entire college came down with
Spanish influenza. The infirmary and the gymnasium were jammed
with sick boys, although few deaths occurred. When the Armistice
was signed, he quit school. This infuriated his father, who had hoped
Francis would stay there and prepare for the Indian Civil Service. It
was family tradition that there would be one son for the army, one
for the navy, and one for the Church. This one did not fit any of
these careers, and now he had thrown off the opportunity for a career
in the civil service. But the lad had read too many novels of adven-
ture, especially those with Australian and New Zealand backgrounds.
He decided to go there but outbound ships were booked months in
advance. Meanwhile, he got a job as a farm boy in Leicestershire,
where he worked for seven months at five shillings a week. It was a
hard life, and he suffered from ringworm and homesickness. He ran
away and tried to bum his way back to Devon. On the way, he was
picked up by police as a robbery suspect. At home, he tried to get a
job in a garage without success.
  Finally, his father secured passage for him to New Zealand, and
gave him 18. Francis was now eighteen, and it was to be the last
time he saw his father.
  Like many a son and daughter, too who, because of circum-
stances and personalities, have been prevented a close association
with a parent, Francis had lost the one fleeting chance to break
through the cold and distant barrier. One day, before he left home,
his father, who was a bird's egg collector, suddenly invited the lad to

   ~ 261 ~

go for a walk with him. Stopping on a bridge, they saw an egg below
in a water wagtail's nest. His father softly offered to let Francis down
so he could reach the nest. It was a poignant moment, which caught
the lad by surprise, and he hesitated too long to grasp it. He never
had another chance.
  Francis sailed to New Zealand on the old Bremen, a famous
German ship that had become a British prize of war. On the way, to
supplement his stake, he got a job with the black gang in the boiler
room and earned 9 before docking in Wellington. His first job in his
new home was on a farm for 10 shillings a week. He was fired soon
after, apparently because of his bad eyesight.(4) His next job was at a
sheep station.
  When he had emigrated to New Zealand, he had set a goal for
himself not to return until he had a fortune of 20,000. After sheep
farming, he tried coal mining, prospecting for gold, and lumbering.
He became a magazine salesman, an auto salesman, a real estate
promoter, and got married (and eventually divorced). In those boom-
ing years, he made his 20,000 and returned to England to visit
the family in Devon, and no doubt to flaunt his success. Always
fascinated by airplanes, he had learned to fly in New Zealand. Home
again, he bought a De Haviland Gipsy Moth, the famous training
ship with the Hadley Page wing slots that made it almost impossible
to stall.(5) Most of his subsequent adventures involved this airplane,
and years later nostalgia inspired him to name all his yachts after
  This was in 1929, just before the worldwide panic and depression.
Unfamiliar with his new toy, Francis cracked up a couple of times,
once with his sister on board, and then set off on a flight around
Europe, which at the time was a minor air epic in itself, although just
two years before the American "Lone Eagle," Charles Lindbergh,
had flown nonstop across the Atlantic from New Jersey to Paris. This
tour, however, was just a warm-up for what Chichester really had in
mind a solo flight from England to Australia, which had been done
only once, by the Australian, Bert Hinkler.
  Even then, or especially then, the monumental risks involved in
these stunts never seemed to give Chichester even passing apprehen-
sion. A contemporary flyer of his, Group Captain E. F. Haylock, once
observed that Francis had a genius for doing the right thing at the
wrong time, which enabled him to escape death at the last moment.
  Back in New Zealand, Chichester decided to fly solo over the

   ~ 262 ~ 

Tasman Sea. He had learned something about navigation and devised
a simple method of obtaining latitude. He crashed at least once, and
Gipsy Moth I sank at her moorings on Lord Howe Island. He raised
the wreckage and rebuilt her and flew her to Sydney. Next he at-
tempted a flight around the world singlehanded via England and the
East Indies. In Katsuura, Japan, he flew into some telephone wires
and crashed into the harbor wall.
  Once more returning to New Zealand, he gave the wreckage to a
grammar school, it now being beyond repair. During the next five
years he fished, tried to write books, and lived by his wits. He per-
suaded a wealthy sheep rancher named Frank Herrick to buy a Puss
Moth in which they would fly to England via Siberia. They got as far
as Peking where the U.S.S.R. refused them a visa to enter the Soviet
Union. They flew back across China and eventually to England.
  Chichester again visited his family, and was as unwelcome as usual,
especially since he was now broke. While visiting some cousins, he
met Sheila Craven, who turned out to be a perfect mate for his
impulsive nature. He proposed on a train soon after they met, saying,
"I have 100 in money, debts of 14,000, and some trees in New
Zealand. Will you marry me?"
  She did, and they went to New Zealand by steamer. Sheila did not
like colonial life, and they returned to England just before World
War II erupted. Francis tried to join the Royal Air Force as a fighter
pilot, and was turned down much to his astonishment. He had not
considered thirty-seven to be old in view of all his flying experience.
  With a friend at the Royal Aero Club, Chichester tried to form a
squadron of private pilots who had lost limbs, an eye, or were too old
for active duty. The RAF also turned down this proposal. Next he
turned to writing navigation articles in aviation journals, which led to
a job in the RAF as an instructor, and after the war into business
publishing charts, maps, and navigation texts.
  By chance, his business office was on the corner of St. James' Place,
almost next door to the Royal Ocean Racing Club. Business being
slow, Chichester accepted an invitation to go on a yacht cruise with a
friend, a jaunt that would take him over the area of The Riddle of
the Sands, one of his favorite adventure books.
  Now bitten by the yachting bug, he took up racing. He and Sheila
purchased an old derelict named Florence Edith, rebuilt her, and
renamed her Gipsy Moth II. With his usual zest and competitive
spirit (which the modern generation scorns as "combative"), he soon

     ~ 263 ~

became an accomplished sailor and navigator, crewing on such
famous yachts as the American Figaro and the South African Storm-
  Then he commissioned Robert Clark to design a new and fast
boat, which he named Gipsy Moth III. This was built by Jack Tyrell
of Arklow, Ireland, and proved to be most successful.
  At this time, he was having financial difficulties, his map business
languished, and he had come down with pleurisy diagnosed as cancer
of the lung. Doctors told him the only hope was an operation, but
Sheila, who was a believer in natural medicine, persisted until the
head surgeon made further tests and found the tumor to be benign.
There followed more setbacks and illness. Francis finally went to the
south of France for rest and recuperation, and gradually got better.
  One day, he saw a notice on the board of the RORC announcing
Blondie Hasler's proposed singlehanded transatlantic race. Chichester
entered, even though still half-sick, with the support and encourage-
ment of Sheila, who knew it was just what he needed. The first race,
sponsored by the Observer, had five entries, including Hasler and his
unique junk-rigged Folkboat, Jester. Also entered were Eira, another
Folkboat, with Val Howells; a small French yacht, Cap Horn, with
Jean Lacombe; and David Lewis in Cardinal Vertue.(7)
  Although Hasler's wind vane was acknowledged as the best in the
world, Chichester devised his own. He bought a book on model yacht
racing in which he discovered that the principles and techniques were
well-established in this hobby. He went out to Kensington Gardens
and for hours watched the model yacht races. In the book, he found
the formula that a wind vane must be four and a half times the area
of the rudder, and from this built his version, which he called
  Chichester won the first Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic
Race, and placed second in the second race the following year, which
was won by the lofty French naval officer, Eric Tabarly. This was the
beginning of his fame as an ocean racer. He was cited by such people
as President John F. Kennedy and Prince Phillip for his achieve-
ments. His business began to prosper. He wrote a best-selling book
with the help of J. R. L. Anderson, The Lonely Sea and the Sky.(8)
 The oldest entry in the first race, he also had the biggest yacht, a 39-  i
foot overall vessel. He crossed the finish line in 40 days, 12 hours, and
30 minutes, beating three of Britain's best yachtsmen. During the
race, to pass the time, he wrote a 50,000-word log, which was later

   ~ 264 ~

published. The originator of the race, Colonel Hasler, came in
second, 10 days later.
  Chichester thought he could improve on the time, so for the 1964
race he made a number of modifications to Gipsy Moth III. There
were fourteen starters this time, and Tabarly came in first in his
radically new ketch design. Chichester did achieve his goal of crossing
in less than thirty days with only three minutes to spare.
  By now, he had raced three times across the Atlantic, and crossed
the ocean six times alone (except for one trip when he was accom-
panied by his son, Giles, as crew). Meanwhile, he had been reading
about the great days of the wool and grain clippers that chalked up
record runs out to Australia and back in the middle 1800s. His re-
search led him to write another popular book, Along the Clipper
Way, which revealed his plan to race around the world on the old
clipper route and try to beat their time.
  Still ailing and getting older, he commissioned Illingworth and
Primrose to design a yacht especially for this venture. It was built in
the famed yard of Camper & Nicholsons and named Gipsy Moth IV.
She was a jinx ship from the start. The project cost an enormous
amount of money, many times more than estimates, and the con-
struction was delayed months beyond the deadline. On launching,
to the dismay of Sheila and Francis, she turned out to be a "rocker."
Modifications were made to improve the balance, but many who saw
it thought it would be suicide to take her out of the harbor. Mean-
while, Chichester's sponsors were getting restless and financial prob-
lems mounted. Just pulling the project together and getting ready to
depart proved to be a minor miracle.
  Finally, on August 27, 1966, all things behind him, Francis de-
parted Plymouth on the long 107-day and 14,000-mile leg via the
South Atlantic and Indian Ocean to Sydney. It was an ordeal in itself
just getting to Australia. Sheila and Giles flew out to be there when
he arrived. His reception was a huge one, a preview of the one
waiting at home for him. It was announced that the Queen had
knighted him, but the ceremony would be postponed until his
return. In Sydney, changes were made to the keel and to the self-
steering vane. Then he was off again.
  On the last leg, he suffered a knockdown in the Tasman Sea which
nearly ended his voyage. But he was equipped with radio and was
able to maintain constant communication with the outside world.
Another innovation on his specially-designed yacht was a gimballed
pilot chair below deck at the chart table, and within reach of this was

   ~ 265 ~

a draft beer tap provided by one of his sponsors, Colonel W. H.
Whitbread, chairman of a big brewing company.
  In the end, his greatest feat was successfully sailing the cranky 53-
foot Gipsy Moth IV, perhaps one of the worst racing yachts ever
built, around the world singlehandedly with only one stop in 226 days
at the age of 66.            
  Home again, not pausing to bask in the new fame as a super-hero,
Sir Francis donated his yacht to a maritime museum and commis-
sioned Gipsy Moth V, a 60-foot sleek racer designed by Robert Clark,
which incorporated a lifetime of experience in flying and sailing small
craft. Chichester's purpose was to establish a new ocean speed record
for sailing ships. In her he set off to sail across the Atlantic in 20 days,
covering 4,000 miles. He failed to do this by two days due to calms.
  In May 1971, he showed up at Plymouth for the Observer Single-
handed Transatlantic Race. By now, however, he had a painful tumor
at the base of his spine, this time malignant. To ease the pain; he
took drugs. Out at sea, he failed to make scheduled radio contacts,
and a search was launched by the Royal Air Force. When located, his
son, Giles, was put aboard with a navy crew while Sir Francis was
flown to a naval hospital. There he rallied and went home. Not long
afterward, he died. The date was August 26, 1971.
  Sir Francis had long foreseen his death, and had described it as a
"spinnaker run across the Styx from which there is no return."
  He was buried with members of his family in the churchyard of the
little Devon village of Shirwell, where his father had been rector.
  He was given a hero's funeral with a coffin draped with the blue
ensign of the Royal Western Yacht Club of which he had been
commodore, and members of the club acted as pallbearers. As they
buried him, a perfectly-timed flight of Royal Air Force Hunters
passed low overhead in formation.
  Pioneer aviator, gold prospector, adventurer, navigator, real estate
promoter, publisher, author, racing enthusiast, few men have ever led
a more colorful life despite personal obstacles. What mysterious
chromosome in his makeup had snatched this man from a career as a
soldier, sailor, or minister or for that matter, from a life of degrada-
tion and dissipation, and at best obscurity and thrust him into the
lofty regions of the super-hero almost at the end of his life? It almost
seemed as if it had been preordained from the beginning.
  No one will ever know, but with Chichester, the Slocum school of
bluewater voyaging came to an end. It never would be the same

   ~ 266 ~

 - end Chapter 28 -

To Chapter 29.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Twenty-eight 1. A radio signal used by Chichester on his record-breaking cir- cumnavigation during which he maintained constant communications with shore stations. 2. Reported by Michael Hayes, Reuters staff writer. 3. Sayle's story appeared in the Sunday Times, March 21, 1967, to scoop the world press. 4. Chichester had a defect of vision from childhood days, but this was corrected by glasses. It was not a progressive disease and it never interfered with his flying or sailing. 5. Pilots affectionately refer to the old Gipsy Moth as a ship that "takes off at 40, flies at 40, and lands at 40." It is the British equivalent of the Piper Cub. 6. Gipsy Moth II was the derelict Florence Edith, rebuilt by Chi- chester. Gipsy Moth III, designed by Robert Clark, was built at Arklow, Eire, by Jack Tyrrell. It was 39.6 feet overall; 29 feet on the waterline, 10 foot beam, and had a draft of 6.4 feet. Gipsy Moth IV, designed by Illingworth & Primrose was built of laminated wood by Camper & Nicholsons, Gosport, Hants in 1966. Length overall was 53 feet; lwl, 38.5 feet; beam, 10.5 feet; draft, 7.7 feet, dis- placement, 11.5 tons. She was equipped with a Perkins 4-107 diesel engine. Gipsy Moth V, designed by Robert Clark, was 60 feet in overall length, a staysail ketch (without mainsail), long, lean, and steady for ocean racing 7. Cardinal Vertue was later sailed around the world via Cape Horn singlehandedly by the Australian, Bill Nance, brother of Bob, who accompanied the Smeetons on their third and successful attempt at the Horn. 8. The title comes from John Masefield's Sea Fever, the passage be- ing, "I must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky."

To Chapter 29.

Return to Table of Contents.