Monday, September 7, 2020

Gipsy Moth Circles the World: a very short review

Continuing my Summer of Armchair Adventure, I spent the last month with Francis Chichester and his tale of sailing around the world single-handedly: Gipsy Moth Circles the World.

Chichester was really a remarkable fellow. He set off on this adventure shortly before his 65th birthday, and completed the entire trip in 226 days: 107 days to get to Sydney Australia, where he docked and repaired and re-supplied the boat; then 119 days to return to England.

He did all this in Gipsy Moth IV, a 54-foot ketch-rigged yacht which was custom designed and built for the adventure. (After years of being docked as a museum piece next to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, Gipsy Moth has since been restored and is still actively sailed!)

Perhaps even more remarkable, Chichester had few of the tools that are used in modern-day sailing: no telephone, no GPS, no radar. He had a 75 watt radio that he could operate sparingly; he used it primarily to report regular dispatches to be published in (I think?) The Times. And he had a self-steering wind vane, which was a relatively recent innovation for ocean sailing, having been in use only for a few decades by this point.

Instead, Chichester had his bound paper copy of the Admiralty charts, two sextants (his primary one and a smaller less accurate backup sextant), and a Rolex Oyster Perpetual wristwatch (of which the Rolex corporation are justifiably proud).

You probably don't even know what a sextant is; you almost surely have never used one; you might have seen one in a museum somewhere; you're unlikely to be able to summarize how it works. But for centuries the sextant was the only way to navigate on the open seas, and if coupled with a reliable time piece it can be extremely accurate.

Moreover, Chichester literally wrote the book on how to navigate using a sextant. He so thoroughly comprehended this now-vanished skill that during WWII he taught RAF aircraft pilots in navigation, including his own adaptation of astro-navigation to a technique that allowed the pilots of single-handed fighter aircraft to navigate across Europe and back while under complete radio silence.

Anyway, enough about Chichester the adventurer; how about Chichester the writer?

Many reviews of Gipsy Moth Circles the World call it "under-stated", or "dry", and those are fair. Chichester basically developed the notes from his log book (his eight log books, more than 200,000 words across them all!) into a full-length retelling of his sail, and his style was to basically tell it like it was.

The book was, I think, principally targeted at people who have at least some appreciation for what is involved in sailing a boat on the ocean, even if they have never done it themselves, and so there are many (oh! so many!) passages filled with material like this:

I went on deck to replace the trysail with the main. The wind seemed lessening, and I felt that Gipsy Moth needed the main. I did not like that main, it was my least favourite sail. For one thing, it required too much brute force to handle, for it was always pressing against a shroud or binding on a sheet; for another I had to trot to and fro from mast to cockpit about six times during the hoisting. First I had to slack away the vangs as the sail began to rise; then to alter the self-steering trim to head more into the wind so that the head of the sail would not foul the lower aft shroud; then seveal times to slack away the sheet as the sail went up. After that the lower shroud runner had to be released, and the shroud tied forward to another shroud.

Let's be honest: you either find that fascinating (or at least comprehensible), or it's just gibberish and could have just as well be written in hieroglyphs from your point of view.

But at other times in the book Chichester's spare and straightforward approach to re-telling the story leads to passages that are as gripping and compelling as anything you'll find anywhere.

For example, here's Chichester discussing all the flak he'd received over deciding to embark on such an adventure in his mid-sixties:

People keep at me about my age. I suppose they think that I can beat age. I am not that foolish. Nobody, I am sure, can be more aware than I am that my time is limited. I don't think I can escape ageing, but why beef about it? Our only purpose in life, if we are able to say such a thing, is to put up the best performance we can -- in anything, and only in doing so lies satisfaction in living.

And here he is trying to figure out what to do about a few miscalculations that have put him in a dire position:

On Monday, October 3, I sounded the fresh water tank and found that I had only 21 gallons left, plus half a jerrycan (about 2 1/2 gallons) which Giles, my son, had made me take as a reserve.
When I started I knew that I had not enough water on board to see me through the passage to Sydney; I had allowed myself enough for all reasonable needs for six weeks, relying on getting enough rain to fill my tanks before there could be any real chance of running short. But I underestimated my use of water, particularly for the twice-daily watering of my cress-garden. And so many things needed water -- baking required it, and all dried vegetables, egg and milk powder wanted it. I could cook potatoes in seawater but not rice. With my underestimation of consumption, I seemed, too, to have overestimated the chances of rain, or at least my ability to catch it. Rain had come with the squalls from time to time, but not in catchable quantity, apparently.
What I failed to take into account was that rain usually comes with a strong wind, [...] thus ruining the water for drinking purposes.
It is normally reckoned that a man can live well enough on half a gallon (four pints) of water a day; that is of course, for drinking and preparing food -- it allows nothing for washing oneself or one's clothes.
I decided to make do on less than half a gallon a day, and to record every pint of water I used. If I could manage on a quart a day, I should have enough for 80 days.
By October 14 I was down to 16 gallons (plus the half-jerrycan of Giles's reserve). Considering that I had won 1 1/2 gallons in a squall on October 4, that meant that I was still using rather more water than I reckoned. I rationed myself more strictly.

Chichester estimates that he lost 40 pounds on the outbound leg of the voyage, and was surely dehydrated badly in the final few weeks. But nothing stops Chichester. At one point he breaks a tooth while eating a piece of particularly hard dried bread. Never fear, Chichester is here:

I got out my dentist's repair kit, and spent an hour having a go at my tooth. I succeeded in cementing the broken piece on again, but in doing so I cemented in a fragment of cotton wool from a cotton wool pad I had put in my mouth to keep my tongue away from my tooth while I was working on it. I left the bit of cotton wool in the repair -- I felt I dared not pull it for fear of pulling off the piece of tooth I had managed to stick on.
Alas, my tooth-repair did not hold. I tried it out at supper time, and it was no good -- the broken bit simply came off again as soon as I tried to bite. Perhaps the best dentists do not mix cotton wool with their cement. I had another shot at cementing, this time without cotton wool fragments, but the repair was no more successful. In the end I got a file and filed down the jagged edges of the piece of tooth still in my jaw and left it at that.

Perhaps Chichester's most astonishing aplomb occurs early in the second half of the voyage, shortly after Gipsy Moth has departed Sydney Harbor:

I think I was awake when the boat began to roll over. If not, I woke immediately when she started to do so. Perhaps when the wave hit her I woke. It was pitch dark. As she started rolling I said to myself, "Over she goes!" I was not frightened, but intensely alert and curious. Then a lot of crashing and banging started, and my head and shoulders were being bombarded with crockery and cutlery and bottles. I had an oppressive feeling of the boat being on top of me. I wondered if she would roll over completely, and what the damage would be; but she came up quietly the same side that she had gone down. I reached up and put my bunk light on. It worked, giving me a curious feeling of something normal in a world of utter chaos. I have only a confused idea of what I did for the next hour or so. I had an absolutely hopeless feeling when I looked at the pile of jumbled up food and gear all along the cabin. Anything that was in my way when I wanted to move I think I put back in its right place, though feeling as I did so that it was a waste of time as she would probably go over again. The cabin was 2 foot deep all along with a jumbled-up pile of hundreds of tins, bottles, tools, shackles, blocks, two sextants and oddments. Every settee locker, the whole starboard bunk, and the three starboard drop lockers had all emptied out when she was upside down. Water was swishing about on the cabin sole beide the chart table, but not much. I looked into the bilge which is 5 feet deep, but it was not quite full, for which I thought, "Thank God."
I am not sure when I discovered that the water was pouring in through the forehatch. What had happened was that when the boat was nearly upside down, the heavy forehatch had swung open, and when the boat righted itself the hatch, instead of falling back in place, fell forwards onto the deck, leaving the hatchway wide open to the seas.
As night fell this day I reckoned up my profit and loss account so far since leaving Sydney. The loss was severe. The boat was still in a dreadful mess, and I had sailed only 185 miles since starting. For four days I had been bumped about and thrown, twisted, accelerated and jerked as if in a tiny toy boat in a wild mountain stream, and I was sick of it all. But everything that mattered on Gipsy Moth was intact; she had capsized and righted herself. She had been through an experience which few yachts have survived intact and she could still sail.

It's remarkable how well Gipsy Moth Circles the World stands up, some 50 years later. I think this is considerable credit to Chichester's straightforward and matter-of-fact approach to telling the story. Surely he knew even then that technology would advance and people would come to look back on his adventure as somehow quaint and dated. But given the tools he had available to him, it is truly nothing short of astonishing how he fared, and certainly more importantly his stubborn perseverance and dedication to overcoming whatever obstacles he might face remain as impressive, motivational, and inspirational now as they must have been on May 28th, 1967 when he arrived safely back in Plymouth.

(And if you ever do read Chichester's book, don't miss the lovely picture of him giving Queen Elizabeth II a tour of Gipsy Moth IV just shortly after she knighted him with the same sword that Queen Elizabeth I had used to knight Francis Drake a mere 387 years earlier!)

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