History Centre Heroes: Sir Francis Chichester

by Rosemary Babichev

We’ll be hearing lots about Sir Francis Chichester over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps the largest crowd ever to gather on Plymouth Hoe – a quarter of a million people – saw the 65 year-old sail home to finish the first west-east solo circumnavigation of the world fifty years ago, on 28 May 1967.

Crowds on Plymouth Hoe to watch Sir Francis Chichester's return in 1967

Hundreds of small ships scattered across the Sound let off their hooters and sirens, fireboats sprayed red, white and blue water and the navy gave a ten-gun salute in an extraordinary celebration over land and sea.

The event was shown on TV, and the heroic yachtsman with his ketch Gipsy Moth IV at once became internationally famous for his heroic feat of skill and endurance.

The accolades poured in immediately. He was knighted by the queen just two months later with the same sword Elizabeth I used to knight another Sir Francis for the first global circumnavigation by an Englishman.

Such a stack of historical parallels even drove the Royal Mail to break a tradition that had never permitted: the depiction of a living person (baring members of the royal family) on a postage stamp. That same year the new one shilling and nine pence stamp bore a picture of Chichester aboard his record-breaking vessel.

Sir Francis Chichester entering Plymouth Sound in 1967

Having won the first solo transatlantic yacht race in 1960 and beating his own record two years later, he then set the yardstick for round the world solo yacht racing. Over the following years his time of 119 days went down to 94 (Ellen MacArthur) in 2001, then 71 in 2005, resting at present at only 57 days since 2008.

Chichester came to yachting late in life. Born in 1901, he began his career as an airman. As soon as he gained his pilot’s licence he attempted to break the record for solo flight to Australia.

Too slow to succeed due to mechanical problems he nevertheless proved the utility for air travel of off course navigation, an ancient method in which you deliberately sail the wrong way in order to get to the right place faster. It gave greater accuracy as well, and allowed him make the first ever aerial landings on two tiny Pacific islands: Norfolk and Lord Howe, where the islanders helped him rebuild his damaged plane.

Too old to engage in active service during the Second World War, he joined the reserves and used his expertise to write the manual instructing pilots on solo missions over Europe.

Sir Francis Chichester 28 May 1967

It was his passion for navigation that compelled him to undertake these huge journeys rather than any enjoyment of their solitary deprivations. On returning to Plymouth in 1967, he is quoted as saying: ‘What I would like after four months of my own cooking is the best dinner from the best chef in the best surroundings and in the best company.’ Let’s hope he found it close by.

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