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In Mountainous Seas

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Fri, 08/21/2020 - 08:25

Sir Francis Chichester and the Voyage Around Cape Horn

Story 11 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

Francis Chichester looked out of the cockpit of his boat, Gipsy Moth IV, at midnight on the 18 March 1967. It was raining and he could barely see beyond 300 metres. The waves of the Southern Ocean, with their foaming white tops, towered above. The pressure on the barometer had been falling continuously for nearly two days, a sure sign of bad weather.  He was heading east towards the tip of South America. In his path, over 200 kilometres away, lay the Ildefonso Islands, just off the tip of South America. To the south of these and a little further east, were the Diego Ramirez Islands. His aim was to get aound the end of South America and then sail north into the Atlantic Ocean. To do that he must steer a course to avoid these islands. But beyond these lay an even greater danger, the dreaded Cape Horn.

Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of an island called Hornos. This is one of a group of islands, called the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago, at the very tip of South America. The headland is a large cliff looming out of the sea. It marks the northern boundary of Drakes Passage which, via the Southern Ocean, links the Pacific in the west with the Atlantic in the east. The southern boundary of the passage is the South Shetland Islands on the edge of Antarctica. The passage acts as a bottleneck through which the waters of the Southern Ocean rush, usually from west to east, but sometimes in the other direction. The bottleneck is made worse by the comparatively shallow depth of the passage. As the waters surge past Cape Horn the currents increase in force and the waves become larger. And added to this are the winds which rip unhindered around the world across the Southern Ocean.

As dawn broke, Francis calculated that he was now 124 kilometres from the Ildefonso Islands and 238 kilometres miles from Cape Horn. But what route should he take? He knew he would not be near the islands until it was dark, so he must not sail too close. However, if he went further south he would be heading towards the Diego Ramirez Islands. He could sail very far south and avoid all the islands, but that would take much longer and would increase the risk of hitting an iceberg. No, he decided to sail between the islands.

Around midday the sun appeared and he made a quick sighting with his sextant to check his location. Soon after, a Force 9 gale developed and he dropped all his sails except one. By 9 p.m. the barometer showed the pressure was rising and the winds eased slightly. He decided to put up another sail. By midnight the visibility had improved so that he could tell the difference between sea and sky. But there was no way he would be able to see any islands unless he was dangerously close. He decided to try and get some rest. Despite the noise of the sea and the fear of the boat smashing into something, he eventually fell asleep. Meanwhile his boat ploughed on towards the dreaded Cape Horn.

Part Two

Sir Francis Chichester was born in 1901 in the town of Barnstaple in Devon, England. He attended several boarding schools and at seventeen got a job as a farmhand in Leicestershire. He was sacked after seven months when he crashed a horse and cart loaded with empty milk churns while racing against another farmhand. He then emigrated to New Zealand. There he had several jobs including working on a sheep farm, in a saw mill and down a coalmine. Eventually he went into partnership with a New Zealander selling land and property. They then formed an aviation company to give pleasure flights. They employed pilots to fly the planes, but Francis had lessons and soon learned to fly himself.

In 1929 he went back to England. After more flying lessons he gained his flying licence and bought a Gipsy I Moth biplane. He flew his plane on a tour of various countries in Europe and then, on 20 December 1929, set off on an epic flight to Australia. He arrived in Sydney six weeks later, on 31 January.  He and the plane returned to New Zealand by ship. He then decided he would try and fly around the world. He converted the Gipsy I Moth to a seaplane by replacing the wheels with floats. This meant he could land at an island even if it did not have any large fields.  He set off from New Zealand in March 1931. But the flight came to an end five months later when he flew into some telephone wires in a small town on the Japanese coast. He could have been killed, but he had several broken bones and nearly lost the sight in one eye. When he had recovered enough he sailed by steamer to Devon in England.  He made one last epic flight, flying from New Zealand to England.

In 1937 Francis married and then got a job in a company which made sextants for navigation. During the War the RAF asked him to join up and write instruction manuals about navigation. He then began teaching pilots navigation, which he enjoyed more because he did some flying himself. After the war ended, in 1945, he set up a mapmaking business in London.

Francis was still looking for adventure and turned to sailing. In 1953 he bought a yacht and named it Gipsy Moth II after the plane he had flown. During the next four years he entered several races. He did not usually win, but he was learning all the time. He also raced as a navigator on an American yacht. But in 1957 he became very ill with a lung abscess. He was ill for two years and his doctors thought he would not get better. Then, a doctor in France began treating him and he began to improve. But even while he was ill, Francis had ordered a new boat to be made. It was called Gipsy Moth III and he entered it in the 1960 solo Transatlantic Race. Despite having to endure a severe storm, he won the race, taking just over forty days to sail from Plymouth to New York. He sailed again across the Atlantic in 1962 and 1964, but by now he had set his sights on the ultimate sailing challenge, to sail alone around the world via Cape Horn.

From Plymouth he would sail around the Cape of Good Hope on the tip of Africa. Then he would sail to Sydney in Australia. The large sailing clippers used to sail from Plymouth to Sydney in around one hundred days. He wanted to see if he could match their speed. At Sydney he would stop for a rest and repairs. From there he would sail around Cape Horn and back up the Atlantic to Plymouth. Many had sailed around the world in yachts before, but only nine yachts had done so by sailing around Cape Horn. Many thought he was too old and too unwell for such a dangerous voyage, but his wife encouraged him and he was very determined.

He had a new boat built, Gipsy Moth IV. To make it fast it was as light as possible but had the maximum amount of sail. The rigging was kept to a minimum to make it easier for him to adjust or change the sails. It also had a self-steering device. This worked by a wind vane attached to the rudder. It kept the boat on a course set by Francis without him having to hold the tiller all the time. It was launched in March 1966. During sea trials Francis noticed that Gipsy Moth keeled over very easily so that the sails nearly touched the sea. To correct this, lead was added to the keel for extra weight.   

His wife, Sheila, and son, Giles, helped Francis get all the food, maps and other supplies he would need for the voyage. To pay for the voyage he had to rely on donations from friends and companies. He was worried he might not have enough money, but in the end enough people rallied round to help. Francis was also worried about a badly bruised leg. He had slipped on a hatch made of armoured glass during a sea trial. Since then he found it difficult to balance and painful to walk. But he was determined that nothing would stop him going. On 27 August 1966 he sailed out of Plymouth harbour. The voyage had begun.

The first few days were tense and tiring. The seas of the Bay of Biscay were choppy and he had to keep a look out for other ships to avoid collision. But by the beginning of September he was clear of the shipping lanes. Now he could begin to enjoy the voyage. As he headed further south the weather got warmer and the seas for a while were calmer. On 17 September he celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday. He dressed in a green velvet ‘smoking’ jacket, with shoes, trousers and tie, and drank a champagne cocktail. This may seem eccentric, but he liked to do things in style. But he could never fully relax, not even on his birthday. Later that night he had to haul in some sails in a hurry as the boat began to keel too much to one side.  

By the third week of October he had turned east past the Cape of Good Hope and was now sailing along the Southern Ocean on the edge of an area known as the Roaring Forties. There were always minor repairs to do and he was constantly changing sails as the wind changed in direction or strength. Then, on 15 November disaster struck. A steel frame on the self-steering gear broke. It was impossible to repair at sea. Now it seemed that the only way the boat could be steered was by Francis holding the tiller. Francis decided to aim for Fremantle which is on the west coast of Australia, much nearer than Sydney on the east coast. He began trying different combinations of sails, and attaching lines from the sails to the tiller. He managed to come up with a system which kept the boat roughly on course. It worked so well, he decided to go to Sydney after all.

Francis arrived in Sydney to a hero’s welcome on 12 December, 107 days after leaving Plymouth. He had sailed 22,692 kilometres. Amongst the crowds his wife and son were there to meet him. He had lost a lot of weight and his boat was badly damaged. Many said he should not attempt to continue with his voyage around Cape Horn. But he had no intention of giving up. Gipsy Moth was taken out of the water and given a complete overhaul. The self-steering mechanism was repaired and, with the help of experts, many more repairs and improvements were made to the boat. On Sunday, 29 January 1967, he sailed out of Sydney Harbour.  He was accompanied by well-wishers on other boats, but they soon turned back. He had begun the next stage of his voyage.

He was soon in big trouble.  On the Monday night there was a ferocious storm. He was lying on his bunk as it was too rough to sit, when the boat capsized. The boat was almost upside down. Everything in the cabin was flung around and cupboards emptied their contents. Thankfully, the boat righted itself. Some water had got into the cabin, and there was over a metre of water in the bilges. When he went on deck he found that one of his large sails had been washed overboard as had 213 metres of rope. But at least he was still sailing. He spent the next few hours pumping out the bilges and it would be many days before he had tidied the boat.

For the next two weeks he made slow progress, passing to the north of New Zealand, 16 days after leaving Sydney. After that he headed southeast and soon picked up the winds of the Roaring Forties. Thousands of kilometres of Pacific Ocean lay ahead of him but his speed increased. Within five weeks he reached the tip of South America and the challenge of Cape Horn.  

Part Three

Francis woke up at 5 a.m. He looked through the porthole and there was no land in sight which meant he was a safe distance from the islands. He was now about forty miles from Cape Horn. The sea seemed calmer so he decided to alter his course more towards the Horn. The closer he went, the quicker it would take to get around it. However, it was a risk because the sea might well be rougher nearer the Horn. If he miscalculated and got too near he could be blown onto rocks and wrecked. He would just have to be careful. He left his cabin and stepped into the open cockpit.  It was then that he got the shock of his life.

In the distance he could see a large battleship, the British ship, HMS Protector. Francis went back into his cabin and spoke to the ship on his radio. The captain had known that Francis was approaching the Horn and, as his ship was in the area, he had sailed there to give him some support. Francis appreciated his thoughtfulness, but he was also frustrated at having to spend time on the radio when he had more important things to do. He had to write up his log, change sails and prepare breakfast. While he was inside a huge wave broke over the boat and half-filled the cockpit with water. But worse was to come.

Around 9 a.m. he went on deck to change some sails and while he was doing this a large wave slammed into the boat and turned it ninety degrees. He was now broadside on to the waves and the current. The boat could be thrown onto its side and capsize at any moment. It was just as well Francis was on deck when it happened. He sorted out the self-steering gear, which had become tangled, and set the boat back on its proper course. To do this he was standing on the seat in the cockpit to avoid the pool of water which was still there. While he was doing this he happened to look around to the left over his shoulder. And there, in the distance he saw the unmistakeable sight of Cape Horn.

But Francis did not have time to admire the view. The wind was getting up and the seas were becoming rougher. And then, a small plane, a Piper Apache, appeared and flew around the boat. Francis later found out that it had two journalists onboard who filmed the boat and took photographs.  By now Francis was fed up with the interruptions. He just wanted to be left alone to concentrate on his sailing. At 1.30 p.m. HMS Protector sailed away. And it was then that Cape Horn unleashed its fury. A Force 11 gale developed, with mountainous seas. There was little Francis could do except hope Gipsy Moth could ride out the storm. Thankfully, by the end of the afternoon, the winds began to lull. Gradually, the winds eased and he left the storm behind. Then, early the following morning he spotted land on the port side. It was Staten Island, which is the last of the islands of the tip of South America. Francis sighed with relief. He had sailed around the dreaded Cape Horn.

Part Four

Francis made good progress as he sailed north, even through the Doldrums.  This is an area where there is often no wind and boats can be becalmed. But the winds kept blowing and Gipsy Moth kept moving. Then he reached the North-East Trade winds and he went even faster. But Gipsy Moth slowed down in the Azores High. This is an area of high pressure which is almost always present to the south of the Azores. The weather is sunny, but with little wind. Francis enjoyed this part of the voyage the most. As well as his painful leg, he had also hurt his elbow. He was sailing more slowly, but, with his aches and pains, it was easier.

As Francis approached the English coast, planes flew over and boats came out to meet him. On Sunday, 28 May he began the final approach to Plymouth. By noon several ships and boats were now following him. During the afternoon he passed the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle. All its crew gave him three cheers. Later the crew of a minesweeper also cheered him. Meanwhile thousands of people had gathered on Plymouth Hoe, the grassy promenade and ramparts that looks down on the harbour. His voyage had captured the imagination of the British public.

At precisely 8.56 p.m. Gipsy Moth passed the breakwater. As it did so a finishing gun fired from the boat of a local yacht club and a beacon was lit on the nearby Drakes Island. Francis had officially sailed around the world. As thousands cheered and millions watched on television Gipsy Moth was brought safely to the dockside. Francis was then taken in an open car through streets filled with cheering crowds to a reception at the Plymouth Guildhall. 

The strain of the voyage finally caught up with Francis. A week later he collapsed with a duodenal ulcer and he was in hospital for a month. But by July he had recovered. He sailed with his wife and son to London. On 7 July he was knighted by the Queen in the Quadrangle of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich next to the Thames. She used the sword which had once belonged to Sir Francis Drake, the sailor who lived under the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth I. He then went to the Mansion House, cheered by thousands of people, for a luncheon as guest of the Lord Mayor of London.

In 1971 Francis made one more solo crossing to the Atlantic. The following year he entered the 1972 Transatlantic Race, but soon after starting he became ill and withdrew. He died a few weeks later.

The voyage around the world had broken several records. For example, it was the fastest such voyage by a small vessel and the voyage from Sydney to Plymouth was the longest non-stop passage by a small vessel. Also, he had sailed twice as far in one passage as any previous singlehanded sailor. His achievements as a sailor and as a pioneer aviator were remarkable. But he is remembered the most as a tough, determined but dignified elderly gentleman who lit up the second Elizabethan age as Gipsy Moth IV took on the mountainous seas of Cape Horn.


A particularly helpful source was:

Chichester, F. (1967) Gipsy Moth Circles the World, (London: Hodder and Stoughton).