British adventurer Sir Francis Chichester (1901–1972) gained worldwide fame in the summer of 1967 when he completed an around-the-world solo trip in his yacht, the Gipsy Moth IV. His voyage set a new world circumnavigation record of 274 days for its arduous, 28,500-mile journey. Throughout his life, Chichester was an adventurer in the air and on the sea, setting records as an aviator and a seaman.
Chichester had previously won fame for flying around the world in his single-engine Gipsy Moth plane during the 1930s. The author of several books that chronicled his years of solo escapades, Chichester asserted that "the only way to live life to the full is to do something that depends on both the brain and on physical sense and action," according to the New York Times.
Search for a Calling
Chichester was born September 17, 1901, in Shirwell, Devon, England, the second of four children in a family headed by an austere, Anglican-minister father. Charles Chichester, his son later recalled, "seemed to be disapproving of everything I did, and waiting to squash any enthusiasm," according to his Times obituary. On one occasion, the young Chichester was bitten by a snake near the family home, and his father instructed him to ride his bicycle to the nearest hospital, some four miles away, for treatment.
Expected to follow in his father's career footsteps, Chichester was sent to a rigorous boarding school, Marlborough College in Wiltshire, where he endured corporal punishment from the masters and brutal hazing rituals at the hands of the older students. He dropped out at age 17, hoping to join the British colonial administration in India, but his father nixed that plan and instead found him a place as a farmhand. When his workhorse bucked and ruined some dairy equipment, the farmer flogged him and sent him back home. At that point, Chichester's father agreed to buy him passage on board a ship bound for New Zealand.
Arriving on the other side of the world in 1919 with just ten British pounds to his name, Chichester vowed never to return to England until he had turned the ten into 20,000. He failed in a series of jobs, from coal miner to lumberjack to gold prospector but did earn enough as a door-to-door newspaper subscription salesman to finance a small foray into real estate. That venture quickly proved profitable, and a tract of land he acquired and planted trees on provided him with steady income from lumber later in his life. Married in 1923, he became a father, but his wife died in 1929. By then, Chichester and a business partner had established a small aviation firm that took passengers for their first airplane rides. Fascinated by the new method of transport, Chichester decided to return to England and enroll in flight school.
Plane Crash in Japan
Chichester trained as a pilot for three months and bought a de Havilland Gipsy Moth plane, which he named the Madame Elijah. He made practice runs for another month, following the railroad line from London to his boyhood home in Devon, and took a few jaunts to the European continent to practice landings and takeoffs. On December 20, 1929, he stunned the ground crew at the Croydon airfield with an announcement that he was going to fly solo back to Australia. Only one other person had ever done so, taking 15 days. The trip was perilous, and he survived a crash landing in Libya, which delayed his trip for days while he waited for a replacement propeller to be sent from London. In the end, he completed the 12,600-mile trip in 180 hours.
Chichester touched down in Sydney to find that he had become a minor celebrity for his feat, and he wrote a book about his experience, Solo to Sydney, published in 1930. The following year, he became the first pilot to fly solo across the treacherous Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia. He added pontoons to his plane for the journey, but when he capsized once he had to convince aboriginal islanders who came to greet him to help him right his craft. Later that year, he began his next trek, a solo seaplane trip around the world. His plane was unable to avoid telegraph wires near the Katsuura harbor in Japan and crashed into a retaining wall. He woke up in the hospital after surgery with 13 broken bones, and it took him five years to fully recuperate.
Undaunted, Chichester bought a new plane, the Puss Moth, and made a 1936 Sydney-to-London flight across Asia. In 1937, he married Sheila Craven, who wholeheartedly supported his quest for new adventures. But the onset of World War II grounded Chichester and his plane in 1939. The skilled pilot tried in vain to join the Royal Air Force but was rejected three times because of his nearsightedness and astigmatism. Instead, he served as chief navigation instructor at Empire Central Flying School in England and wrote navigation materials for the British Air Ministry. On the day he returned to civilian life in 1945, he established a map and guide business, Francis Chichester Ltd., with his wife.
With the onset of the jet age, and feeling that the skies were now conquered, Chichester looked elsewhere for the thrill that running a business failed to provide for him. He settled on sailing, buying his first boat, the Gipsy Moth II, in 1953, and taking part in ocean races. In 1958, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and doctors suggested that his lung be removed; he refused the surgery and instead went to the south of France for holistic therapy. He remained a vegetarian for the rest of his life, which lasted 14 years beyond the six-month sentence the doctors had given him when he refused the surgery.
One day at the Royal Ocean Racing Club, a fellow member suggested a transatlantic race, and Chichester agreed. The wager amount was a half crown. "On looking back I am astonished how ignorant I was when I started ocean racing," his New York Times obituary quoted him as saying. "My only experience with the seamanship needed and the sea was what I had learned in seaplane handling." On June 11, 1960, he and his competitors set sail from Plymouth, England, and Chichester reached the New York harbor on July 21, a week ahead of the others. At 40 days, it was a new world record for a solo Atlantic voyage, beating the previous one by an astonishing 16 days.
Global Trip by Yacht
The transatlantic course became Chichester's new proving ground. He made another east-to-west crossing in June 1962 in 33 days, 15 hours, and took his son along for another two years later and completed the trip in just 25 days, 9 hours. Then Chichester found a new challenge: an around-the-world solo trip. The quickest route was via South America's Cape Horn, but this was one of the world's deadliest passages. He needed a much more solid boat for the feat and found a sponsor in England's Whitbread Brewery, which funded the construction of the $70,000 Gipsy Moth IV and then provided him with enough ale for the journey. Equipped with state-of-the-art navigational equipment, it boasted an auto-steer device that would allow him sleep for a few hours while the ship sailed on.
Chichester set off from Plymouth in August 1966 with an itinerary that included only one stop on land. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope, on the tip of the African continent, on October 20, and had more than one hazardous high-seas moment. In a New York Times Magazine interview with Harry Gordon, he recalled an incident when his boat suddenly picked up incredible speed. "What had happened was that we had been picked up by a surfing wave, about 30 feet high, and the whole boat was being carried along broadside on and horizontally, with the mizzenmast parallel to the water," he told the magazine. "It just stayed like that for a time as we skidded along at about 30 knots sideways. All I could do was watch dumbfounded."
After 107 days, Chichester had logged 13,750 miles but nearly abandoned his adventure when the auto-steering device broke and could not be fixed. He headed for the Sydney harbor anyway and was stunned to see it crowded with boats and planes to greet him. Irked at the traffic after so many isolated days on the open seas, he snarled at the "bloody Sunday drivers" over the radio and then docked to find he had become a celebrity once more. A debate in the press raged over whether or not it was safe for him, at 65 years of age, to continue, but Chichester refused to bend to conventional wisdom and rested for the next six weeks, waiting for modifications to be made to his boat. He was knighted in absentia by Queen Elizabeth II on the day before he set sail once more.
The Gipsy Moth IV's passage across the Pacific continued apace, but Chichester was a few weeks behind schedule when he rounded Cape Horn at the tip of South America in mid-March, just in time for the fierce storms that have wrecked much larger ships than his. Five times his cockpit flooded with water, but he bailed and kept on, with a Times of London photographer flying overhead and a Royal Navy frigate following at a courteous distance. He arrived back in Plymouth on May 28, 1967, having set the new around-the-world solo record of 274 days. His Sydney-to-Plymouth leg, at 119 days, was the longest ever by a yacht of its class without stopping at a port of call.
Knighted with Drake's Sword
A crowd estimated at a quarter-million Britons greeted Chichester when he sailed into the harbor, and a Royal Navy ship fired its guns in salute. A few weeks later, the Queen knighted him in person using the sword of Sir Francis Drake, the world-famous navigator. Chichester sailed his Gipsy Moth IV up the Thames River for the occasion, which again brought an immense turnout of well-wishers. It one of the few times when the knighthood ceremony was not performed in private. The Gipsy Moth IV was donated to England's National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
After writing two more books, Chichester had a new boat built, the 57-foot Gipsy Moth V, and made a 22-day run from Bissau, a port in what is now Guinea-Bissau, to Nicaragua in 1971. He was forced to drop out of another solo Atlantic race in June 1972 when he became ill and returned to England. He died on August 26, 1972, in Plymouth, England. His books included a 1964 autobiography, The Lonely Sea and the Sky, and Gipsy Moth Circles the World in 1967. When the New York Times Magazine's Gordon asked Chichester what drove him to take on such desolate solitary voyages, he replied that he took "tremendous satisfaction out of being the first man to various things, and I like to do them alone … when I'm alone I perform twice as efficiently as at other times—maybe even four times as efficiently. I don't have to defer to other people's opinions. I'm just a loner, I suppose."
Daily Telegraph (Surrey Hills, Australia), October 28, 2000.
Life, Fall 1986.
New York Times, August 27, 1972.
New York Times Magazine, January 22, 1967.
Times (London, England), January 18, 1967; February 1, 1967; February 8, 1967; February 15, 1967; February 22, 1967; March 1, 1967; March 22, 1967; March 29, 1967; April 26, 1967; May 3, 1967; May 18, 1967; May 24, 1967; May 27, 1967; May 30, 1967; August 28, 1972; July 8, 1998; May 29, 2000.
"Francis Chichester," Contemporary Authors Online,http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 7, 2003).