Sir Francis Chichester: the great voyage
PUBLISHED: 10:05 10 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:21 10 April 2018
Fifty years ago Sir Francis Chichester sailed from Devon on voyage that would make him famous, as Chrissy Harris reports
PLYMOUTH has been the starting point for many a great adventure over the centuries. And they don’t come much more epic than Sir Francis Chichester’s famous voyage. Fifty years ago this month, the master navigator set sail from the city’s West Hoe Pier aboard the Gipsy Moth IV for a round the world trip that would secure him a place in the record books.Barnstaple-born Sir Francis, then aged 64, became the first person to sail single-handedly around the world, west to east, in the fastest possible time. He took 226 days to travel 28,500 miles and, incredibly, made just one stop in Sydney before heading back to Plymouth to a hero’s welcome.
Standing on the same steps from which his father climbed aboard the Gipsy Moth IV on 27 August 1966, Sir Francis Chichester’s son Giles tells Devon Life about that day.
“I can remember it well. I went out and saw him off,” says Giles, a former Conservative politician and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for South West England. “My mother and I were in a smaller boat and we followed him out a little way.”
How did you feel?
“Slightly queasy!” says Giles. “I think my father did too, poor fellow. Well, when you go off on these big trips, there’s a tremendous rush to get everything finished and ready to go – plus there are a few parties, of course. All of which adds up to feeling a little, well, delicate. If you suffer from seasickness, as all of us did - including my father - then it hits you at the beginning.”
The sheer scale of the challenge that lay ahead must have been weighing on everyone’s mind.
But Giles says he knew his father - who by this stage in his life had already single-handedly sailed the Atlantic three times and attempted to circumnavigate the globe in a plane - was more than up to the job.
“I understood the enormity of what he was doing but being inside of the operation, I had complete confidence in him,” says Giles. “He was a very competent fellow, a very fine navigator. I didn’t go along with the people who said: ‘Oh he shouldn’t risk it’ and there were lots of people who were saying that he was an old man. I mean, he was just short of his 65th birthday when he left and that was considered quite old 50 years ago.”
What is even more remarkable, is that just a few years before he set off on his record-breaking trip, Sir Francis had been diagnosed with what was thought at the time to have been lung cancer.
“I grew up in my teens with him battling this very serious illness,” says Giles. “I just remember terrible times travelling from our home in London to the Royal Brompton Hospital and this poor figure of a man... Anyway, he survived – more than survived. And in fact, he thought the first single-handed race he did across the Atlantic (in 1960) was going to be a sort of convalescence. Well, it’s not everyone’s idea of convalescence, but that was him.”
Giles has organised a series of events in Plymouth this month to honour his father’s departure on his round-the-world adventure
As well as a dinner and a talk at Waterstones book shop, the highlight on 27 August will be a re-enactment at West Hoe Pier, featuring the actual Gipsy Moth IV, a 54-foot ketch sailing boat.
There is a huge banner on Plymouth Hoe’s Front Garden to mark the start of Chichester’s historic trip.
In addition, there will also be a formal unveiling of a replacement bronze plaque, set in the wall next to the Waterfront pub on West Hoe. The original commemoration was swept away in storms two years ago.
The celebrations promise to be a fitting tribute to a Devon-born man who achieved so much in his lifetime.
“I’m very much looking forward to it,” says Giles. “Plymouth is a place where many people have set forth on adventures, whether it was the Mayflower, or Sir Francis Drake.
“It’s a stepping off point. The main idea this month is to remind people of this great adventure by a Devonian that started and finished here.”
Nicola Moyle, head of Plymouth City Council’s Arts and Heritage Service, agrees it was a remarkable accomplishment.
“It’s one that the sport of sailing, the Chichester family and the city of Plymouth should be rightly proud of.”
A spirit of adventure
Born in Barnstaple on 17 September 1901, Francis Chichester grew to love sailing and flying.
In 1929, he made the second solo flight to Australia. Two years later, he became the first person to fly solo across the Tasman Sea from east to west in his Gypsy Moth aeroplane, which was fitted with floats.
He then turned his attention to single-handed sailing - with Gipsy Moth II, and then Gipsy Moth III. In 1958, he was diagnosed with a lung disease and was given just six months to live. He was advised to have one lung removed - but he refused and was nursed back to health by his wife, Sheila.
Two years later, in 1960, he was the first winner of the inaugural Single-Handed Trans-Atlantic Yacht Race, in Gipsy Moth III.
Then came his greatest achievement. In his new 53ft yacht, Gipsy Moth IV, Chichester set sail from Plymouth on 27 August 1966 to embark on an attempt to circumnavigate the globe - solo.
After rounding Cape Horn in huge waves, he said: “Wild horses could not drag me down to Cape Horn and that sinister Southern Ocean again in a small boat. There is something nightmarish about deep breaking seas and screaming winds. I had a feeling of helplessness before the power of the waves came rolling down on top of me.”
Stopping just once, in Sydney, Australia, Chichester made it back into Plymouth nine months and one day later, on 28 May 1967. His round voyage of 28,500 miles took 274 days, with 226 days sailing time.
Throughout his journey, Chichester sent back reports twice a week and many people, including hundreds of local schoolchildren – were captivated by the trip.
Around 250,000 people - some in small boats - cheered him as he sailed into Plymouth.
He was knighted by the Queen in 1967 - and she used the same sword that Queen Elizabeth I used to knight Sir Francis Drake.
Chichester died in 1972, at the age of 71.