The Circumnavigators - by Don Holm


- 31 -

British Steel Faces the Test

       Maureen said, "Well, why not sail around the
       world the other way?" I had other things to
       think about, but her words stayed in my mind.
       Why not? (l)

          THE TIME WAS 1950 G.M.T., DECEMBER 24, 1970. FIVE
miles to the south of Cape Horn, a long white and sleek ketch with
main and jib set, rose and fell slowly in the heave, beating against the
prevailing light winds and currents.
  On board the 59-foot British Steel was not a crew, but just one
man 30-year-old Chay Blyth and he was engaged in the last great
individual sailing adventure left on the Seven Seas. He was sailing
alone around the world, the "wrong way," east to west in the high
southern latitudes nonstop.(2)
  Now on Christmas Eve, not even halfway around, Chay Blyth
broke out his "Cape Horn meal," packed for him before leaving by
his wife, Maureen, for the occasion crab, ham, roast potatoes, and
wine. It was not so much a celebration as a milestone on his voyage,
marking passage from the Atlantic into the Pacific. He still had the
Pacific ahead of him, then the Indian, and finally the Atlantic again,
before he would see his wife and daughter once more.
  But he was not exactly alone. Only the day before, he had rendez-
voused with the British H.M.S. Endurance, on ice patrol.(3) A boat
had been sent off to bring him mail, fresh fruit, bread, and whiskey.
Moreover, with his modern radio equipment aboard, Blyth had been

   ~ 28O ~

in contact with shore stations during the entire trip so far. Now, with
the Endurance, he was able to send out feature material for the
newspapers at home as well as still and motion pictures taken thus
far, to his agent.
  This circumnavigation by Chay Blyth in British Steel was the best-
planned and equipped voyage of its kind in the history of yachting
adventures. All the skill of a century of shipbuilding had gone into
the design and construction of this modern steel yacht for the single
purpose of providing a vehicle for the last remaining spectacular
ocean stunt. To assure success, the state-owned British Steel Corpora-
tion had expended about 50,000 (pounds) or $120,000, of which 20,000
(pounds) had
gone into the design by Robert Clark, and the construction in record
time of only four months by Philip & Son of Dartmouth.(4)  Launched
on August 19, 1970, British Steel was the epitome of modern yacht
designing and the use of steel in yacht construction. She was also
equipped with an expensive array of electronics, and other appliances
needed for one man to master this large a vessel with its cloud of
1,300 square feet of sail.
  The man himself was no ordinary sailor. In fact, Chay Blyth had a
reputation of being a non-yachtsman, somewhat disparagingly, as it
were. All of his yachting so far (and including this trip) was re-
garded as "publicity yachting." Even Blyth thought of himself as an
expert in survival, not as a sailor.(5)
  Born May 14, 1940, in Hawick, Scotland, he joined a parachute
regiment when he was eighteen. At twenty-one, he was already a
sergeant with experience in several overseas assignments. He had
completed the Arctic Survival School as well as the Desert Survival
School, and had become an instructor in the Eskdale Outward
Bound School by 1966, when an officer named Captain John Ridg-
way of the Parachute Regiment at Aldershot called for a volunteer to
accompany him on a rowing trip across the Atlantic in an open
dory.(6) The stunt was successfully completed in ninety-two days, and
for his part, Blyth was awarded the Empire Medal. In 1967, he left
the army and the following year entered the Sunday Times Golden
Globe Race around the world.(7)
  Blyth's participation in the race ended off Cape Town when his 30-
foot Kingfisher-class Dytiscus pitchpoled backward (bow over stern).
Making port, Blyth repaired the vessel, and with his wife, Maureen,
who had flown to Cape Town, sailed back to England. Home again
in civilian life, Blyth took a job as a traveling salesman for a beverage
company. But he was restless without a physical challenge, and seri-

  ~ 281 ~

ously considered a suggestion by a former buddy in the Parachute
Regiment that they cross the Andes and canoe down the Amazon for
kicks. He even went to London and talked to the pros on Fleet
Street, who advised him the Amazon stunt would probably arouse
the most interest, since everything had already been done in the
yachting arena. Later, he remembered a chance remark by Maureen,
and the idea of a nonstop singlehanded voyage around grew upon
  In March, 1969, he went to the Birmingham Boat Show, and there
met a former newspaperman and public relations practitioner named
Terry Bond. Out of this meeting evolved a working partnership and a
plan which was presented to the British Steel Corporation, which was
casually shopping around for some way to publicize its image.
  Next came months of planning, designing, conferences, setbacks,
hectic preparations, and inevitable frustrations. For this kind of
project, one needs a course in survival to maintain one's health and
sanity. Finally, on Sunday, October 18, Blyth went aboard the sleek
new yacht from the jetty of the Royal Southern Yacht Club in the
Hamble River with Maureen and a party of friends for one last
farewell. They motored down to the starting area near the Hook
Buoy in Southampton Water. There, Maureen and their friends
were taken off by the Blue Crystal, and Chay was alone waiting for
the starting gun to be fired by Commodore A. R. Lightfoot.
  In the melee that followed, as the fleet escorted him out to the
Needles, one of the launches rammed his boat and cut a nasty dent
in the sleek white topsides. But he was on his way, on the most
spectacular adventure of his young life, and the one which would
bring him a share of British maritime immortality to say nothing of a
small fortune.
  His route was to take him south to Cape Horn, west against the
Roaring Forties, across the Indian Ocean, around Cape Horn, and
back up the Atlantic to England, for the most part against prevailing
winds and currents. What else was left to do if one were to record
another first in a bluewater yacht? Since Captain Joshua Slocum's
voyage, which started it all, hundreds and maybe thousands of yachts
had sailed around the world in all directions. As Professor Roger
Strout had remarked back in the 1930s on his circumnavigation,
everything that came after Magellan was anticlimax. Sir Francis
Chichester had beaten the average wool and grain clipper ship time,
east-about, when in his late sixties. The young merchant marine
officer, Robin Knox-Johnston, had become the first to sail around

   ~ 282 ~

nonstop, also east-about. Dozens of stunters had rowed across the
oceans, even long before the ordeal completed with Captain Ridg-
way. Circumnavigations had been made by concrete vessels, by
catamarans and trimarans, and even by an amphibious Jeep. Until
someone came up with a suitable private submarine capable of sailing
around the world underwater, the only remaining feat was a wrong-
way nonstop singlehanded passage.
  Physically as well as spiritually, no man was ever better prepared
for such an undertaking than Blyth. In robust good health, full of
zest for life and adventure, his reactions and coordinations sharpened
by years of commando training, even a wrong-way voyage was ex-
pected to be an easy cruise.
  Sailing down the Atlantic, he had trouble in the northeast trades
with the sails. Off the Rio de la Plata, he encountered a pampero
and could not lower his mainsail because of jammed slides, making
necessary a hazardous trip up the mast. Off Cape Horn, he was
driven south into the ice fields by a Force 9 gale in enormous seas
that smashed his self-steering gear beyond repair and caused a serious
head injury. From then on, he had nothing but trouble.
  In late February, near New Zealand, he suffered a severe knock-
down by a graybeard wave which bent the mast and damaged the
rigging When he crossed the southern Indian Ocean, he was bat-
tered for five days by the worst storm he had ever experienced, and
probably one which he could not have survived had not his steel
vessel been built like a submarine. He was driven five hundred miles
off course by it.
  Rounding the Cape of Good Hope, he was forced to spend as long
as twenty hours at a time steering. On June 28, he crossed his out-
bound track, having technically circumnavigated. On July 19, he
celebrated his daughter's birthday with a special pack of goodies, and
was spoken west of Ushant by the H.M.S. Ark Royal. He sailed
through the tunny fleet, and, on July 31, a chartered airplane with a
Sunday Mirror team flew over to take photos. Navy ships stayed with
him the rest of the way while he toasted himself with champagne and
prepared himself and the ship for the homecoming.
  On August 2, the Blue Crystal came out to meet him and to lead
him to a mooring at the Royal Southern Yacht Club. The voyage was
over, the 292-day passage, Hamble to Hamble, the fastest nonstop on
record. His welcome was even bigger than those of Rose, Chichester,
and Knox-Johnston; and unlike those homecomings, as the British
Steel sailed up the Solent, the yacht looked as if it had just come out

   ~ 283 ~

of the yard, its topsides spotless, its gear in first-class condition. Blyth,
himself, clean-shaven and dressed in his best, bounded about the
deck ebullient of spirit and in the best of health. The grueling voyage
had been carried off in the best British tradition; and with superb
timing, Blyth managed to make his appearance in the midst of Cowes
Week. And to complete the tableau, he was greeted personally by the
Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne, and Prime
Minister Edward Heath.
  Upon his return, the yacht was given to him to keep, and the
young national hero went on to share the limelight with Sir Francis
Chichester, Sir Alec Rose, Knox-Johnston, and the others.(8)

   ~ 284 ~

 - end Chapter 31 -

To Chapter 32.


AUTHOR's NOTES Chapter Thirty-one 1. The Impossible Voyage by Chay Blyth (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972 ) . 2. The only way one can sail nonstop around the world is via the sailing ship passages south of the capes. 3. The Endurance was on ice patrol at least officially. It is note- worthy that the British navy takes such an interest in its yachtsmen. Chichester Rose and Robin Knox-Johnston were also the object of navy interest in the vicinity of the Horn. One reason may be that the United Kingdom would like to draw attention to its role in those waters and to its presence in the disputed Falklands. 4. British Steel's dimensions were: 59 feet loa; lwl, 43 feet 6 inches beam 12 feet 10 inches; draft, 8 feet. The sails by Ratsey & Lapthorn included a main of 408 square feet, a mizzen of 150 square feet, a main jib of 693 square feet, plus a boomed foresail of 208 square feet. The hull was built of mild steel plate to Lloyds Grade A specification. The deck was of half-inch marine plywood, covered by two layers of fiberglass with epoxy resin. 5. Blyth later built a 77-foot ocean racer, Great Britain II, at Ramsgate, and trained a crew of 13 paratroopers for the Whitbread round-the-world race to start and finish at Portsmouth. This 34-ton new yacht was designed by Alan Gurney, designer of Windward Passage, called the fastest racing yacht in the world after winning several ocean races, including the 1971 TransPac. 6. Another rowing team was not so successful. The boat used by David Johnston and John Hoare was found months later, overturned and barnacle- encrusted. 7. Captain Ridgway was also entered in the Golden Globe, but dropped out early. 8. Chay Blyth says he carried with him the rope doll, "Winston," a lion, given him by Sir Alec Rose, for whom it brought good luck thus giving Winston a second circumnavigation. Winston, however, was not mentioned by Rose in his book. Instead, he mentions being given a leprechaun by Irish actor Ray McAnally, a friend of his son David. It was claimed the leprechaun would undo all the snarled ropes. "Algy" was a large stuffed white rabbit which David and Baba loaned their father as a mascot, and was carried around the world. Mrs. Rose wrote later that Algy and the leprechaun "did not get on" together, so Alec decided not to take the latter. Early in 1974, Blyth and Great Britain II were on the last leg of Whitbread round-the-world race, and leading the surviving fleet of contestants by several hundred miles.

To Chapter 32.

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