Reflecting on the Journey of Sir Francis Chichester

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Surfing about the internet recently I stumbled upon an image of the cover of Life, then the most successful weekly magazine in the world, from June 9, 1967. Sailors of a certain age will know exactly which one I’m talking about: it features a photo of an older British gentleman leaning against a mizzen mast while taking a sun sight with a sextant. His name was Sir Francis Chichester. Finding that old cover inspired me to reread his book Gipsy Moth Circles the World, and what struck me most on revisiting the story of Chichester’s great one-stop solo circumnavigation is what a god-awful boat he sailed it in.

Gipsy Moth IV was custom-designed by Illingworth & Primrose, one of the better known firms in Britain at the time. Though Chichester had wanted a small boat with a full keel, John Illingworth instead presented him with a proposal for a big boat with a fin keel. Chichester did get his way on the keel, but the boat never got smaller and in the end measured 53ft overall. She was also quite narrow, with soft bilges, and when first launched was so tender she lay over flat in a moderate breeze. As Chichester described it, “The thought of what she would do in the huge Southern Ocean put ice in my blood.”

More lead was added to Gipsy’s keel, but still she heeled much too easily, and Chichester sometimes found it impossible to control her on his outbound passage to Australia. At certain times her helm was so hard he could not shift the tiller. Other times she would suddenly bear away downwind and gybe for no apparent reason. It often took Chichester an hour or more to get his windvane to steer the boat, and often the vane could only manage the helm for short periods of time. After the vane gear broke, the wily old sailor spent much time agonizing over how to get Gipsy to steer herself. Finally he found the only way to do it was to constantly keep her staysail aback on a line to the tiller.

In Sydney the famous Aussie designer Warwick Hood reconfigured Gipsy’s keel and parts of her rigging. Chichester hailed the improvement in the boat’s behavior on the inbound passage back to Plymouth, but still she was hard to handle. Ultimately, Chichester deduced that the boat was very sensitive to her angle of heel. Once heeled past a certain point she became wild and unpredictable. Once he understood this, Chichester had an easier time handling her.
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Though Gipsy Moth IV earned him great fame, Chichester never thought well of her. In his book he compared her to Lisette, a mare ridden by one of Napoleon’s generals, who was very brave but also had a bad habit of killing grooms. “I admire Lisette immensely,” the general wrote. “But I do not think I could ever have been fond of her.”

It says something of the British character—though I’m not sure what exactly—that they have chosen to worship this obstreperous vessel. Soon after Chichester’s voyage she was enshrined as a national treasure next to the great tea clipper Cutty Sark at Greenwich. Subsequently, in 2004, she was rehabilitated at great expense and sent round the world again on a commemorative adventure. The highlight of that trip was her stranding on a reef in the Tuamotus. Currently she belongs to a charitable trust and—masochists take note—is available for charter.

The other thing that really struck me about Chichester’s voyage is how much he drank. While loading gin aboard Gipsy he was quoted as saying: “Any damn fool can navigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.” And, I suppose, it takes a really good drunk sailor to sail a boat like Gipsy Moth IV solo around the world.

SAIL’s Cruising Editor Charles J. Doane sails his Tanton 39 on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com

December 2015

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