30th Anniversary

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1997 was the 30th anniversary of Sir Francis Chichester's inspiring solo circumnavigation of the globe in his famous yacht, Gipsy Moth IV.

Francis Chichester and his 53ft (16 metre) ketch Gipsy Moth IV returned to a half-million-strong reception at Plymouth, England, having taken 226 days to circumnavigate the globe alone.

We marvelled at the enduring images of his storm-lashed yacht photographed off Cape Horn and of him being knighted while kneeling before Queen Elizabeth II at Greenwich on the Prime Meridian of the World. Queen Elizabeth II was using the same sword, and stood close to the same spot, that her predecessor Queen Elizabeth I had used to knight Sir Francis Drake.

While by no means the first, it was one of the most significant adventures of this century. Chichester's voyage, which ended 30 years ago this summer, inspired many more to follow in the great man's wake. For all, including Chichester, the ultimate lure has been to sail round Cape Horn.

"For years it had been in the back of my mind. It not only scared me, frightened me, but I think it fair to say it terrified me," Chichester wrote of the challenge in his best selling book 'Gipsy Moth Circles the World'

"I told myself for a long time that anyone who tried to round the Horn in a small yacht must be crazy. Of the eight yachts I knew to have attempted it, six had been capsized or somersaulted before, during or after the passage. I hate being frightened, but even more, I detest being prevented by fright. The Horn had a fearsome fascination and it offered one of the greatest challenges left in the world."

Chichester's second interest in making the voyage was the chance to set the fastest circumnavigation in a small boat: to follow the route of the great clipper ships to Australia and back and try to equal their sailing time of a hundred days between ports.

In retrospect, what is so remarkable is that a man in his mid-60s would have even considered making the attempt then, let alone completed it, especially in a boat that proved so difficult to handle.

'Chichester's voyage was marked by three heart-stopping moments. The first was when 'Gypsy Moth's self-steering broke when still 2,300 miles (3,680 km) from Sydney.

His first thought after part of the frame holding the wind vane self-steering failed, was that his ambitions had been dashed. He would have to put into Fremantle. But after three days of balancing sails and experimenting with shock-chord lines on the tiller, he got Gipsy Moth to hold a course once more and was soon back to covering 160 miles (256 km) a day. Chichester was exhausted on his arrival at Sydney. An adoring public feted him after his 107-day voyage, during which both alloy running poles had broken and the boat had shown a cruel ability to broach almost at will.

The latter was fixed by America's Cup designer Warwick Hood who added a piece to her keel to provide 'Gypsy Moth' with better directional stability, but the modification did nothing to improve her stability.

This was proved within a day of leaving Sydney when Gipsy Moth was rolled in a 140-degree capsize

"I was in my bunk when it happened, asleep " he recalled in an article published in Life magazine. "I had been for some hours because you could not stand up or do anything. You got tossed around too much.

It must have been a giant wave, a freak. I woke up as we began to roll and said to myself 'Well, here she goes.' It was pitch black....There was a terrific clatter as everything started falling from what was normally down to what was normally up. I was on the downside and the whole boat was above me. Bottles, tins and bags of fruit shot out to where the bunk had been. Seven large airtight containers, all full of food, burst open. Knives and crockery showered onto me across the cabin. Later, I found a sharp cutting knife embedded quite close to my head. I was very, very lucky it was not in my eye. I escaped with only a cut lip.

'There was never any question Gipsy Moth would right herself. She was built to do so. The question was, which way would she come up? I was lying there wondering whether we might go all the way over."

From the marks left by a bottle of wine that had smashed on the cabin roof, Chichester was able to measure its trajectory. "I was amazed. The boat had heeled over to at least 41 degrees below horizontal before righting herself. I was frightened. I thought, if this can happen in an ordinary storm, what will it be like if I run into a real hurricane?"

The third and most significant event of the voyage was rounding Cape Horn.

"The waves were tremendous. They varied each time, but all were like great sloping walls towering behind you. The kind I liked least was like a great bank of gray-green earth 50' (15m) high and very steep. Image yourself at the bottom of one" he told Life readers..

"My cockpit was filled five times and once it took more than 15 minutes to drain....My wind-reading machine stopped recording at 60 knots. My self-steering could not cope with the buffeting....I had a feeling of helplessness."

Stepping out into the cockpit, he was astounded to see a ship - the British Antarctic Survey vessel HMS Protector and no sooner had he recovered from that shock, a plane broke through the clouds. "I cursed......If there was one place in the world where I expected to be alone it was at Cape Horn....I was beginning to feel seasick.....I just wanted to be left alone, by things and especially by people"

Well-wishers were treated to another frosty reception when he returned to Plymouth surrounded by a massed flotilla of vessels on May 28, 1967 having logged 28,500 miles. It was are remarkable feat that I hold in as much awe now as I did 30 years ago. Chichester died a hero at the age of 71 on August 26, 1972, two months after ill health forced him to retire from that year's Observer Single-handed Transatlantic race - just a year before the first Whitbread Round the World Race for fully crewed yachts which he had helped to inspire.

After his return to England, Chichester wrote in Life magazine:

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. 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 3'6" (1.1m) chimpanzee with arms 8' (2.4m) long to get about below and work some of the gear.

Upon her return, the yacht, designed by John Illingworth and built by Camper and Nicholsons, was never sailed again. Instead, she became a national monument set in concrete next to the great clipper ship Cutty Sark at Greenwich where she has just been returned after a complete overhaul and rebuild - rotted by rain water and worn out by the millions of visiting boots that have strided her decks in the almost three decades that have passed since Chichester's success.


Other special features about Gipsy Moth IV and Sir Francis Chichester:


With thanks to the Chichester archive. All photographic material and originals of text can be obtained from PPL. Please contact them at: ppl@mistral.co.uk

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Greenwich England is where East meets West at the Greenwich Meridian (0 Longitude); World Time is set Greenwich Mean Time .   The Millennium Dome is now open as the O2. 

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