Sir Francis ChichesterTime on the high seas
Few characterize the daring spirit that has marked the history of yachting better than Sir Francis Chichester, whose single-handed round-the-world voyage in 1966–1967 charted the course for subsequent generations of yachtsmen and yachtswomen.
His navigational instruments included a sextant and a Rolex Oyster Perpetual chronometer.
By Pierre Chambonnet
Plymouth: fair winds, south-west; sea, calm. The conditions were ideal for the crowd that swelled on the waterfront of the English town that evening, as well as for the exceptional sailor who took centre stage. It was a historic moment. A quarter of a million people had gathered around the port to cheer home one of those lords of the sea. Out in Plymouth Sound, some 300 boats with horns and sirens blaring paid their own homage. All eyes were riveted on the lean English gentleman at work, calm and unhurried, on the deck of a white yacht with peeling paintwork. Sixteen metres of mahogany returning from the high seas, its two masts standing proudly amid stitch-scarred sails.
With a tug of the wheel to starboard, the ketch veered into the wind. As his round-the-world odyssey came to an end, the frail silhouette slowly lowered each of the four sails, one by one, as if furling the colours. The voyage was over. As he sailed into his home port on this 28 May 1967, Sir Francis Chichester became the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe from west to east, having made only a single stopover. A total of more than 29,617 nm - 54,850 km and 226 days at sea. At the time, he was the fastest man to conquer this “Everest” of the sea. Rounding the treacherous Cape Horn, he had been buffeted by 185 km/h winds (115 mph) and battled 15-metre (50 foot) waves. His fundamental navigational tools included nautical charts, a sextant and a watch: a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA
In tackling the traditional clipper route via the Southern Ocean’s great capes – Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn on his port side – the British sailor had covered the distance in almost equal time to that of the great 19th century sailing ships, which plied the same routes transporting wool from Australia, nickel from New Caledonia and tea from China. Alone on Gipsy Moth IV, a ketch designed theoretically for a crew of eight, his achievement was on a par with the illustrious and speedy three-and four-mast ships sailed by a crew some 50 strong.
Yet more surprising is that the man who had just pulverized record after record, was 65 years old. His solo adventure would have exhausted a man half his age. Furthermore, Francis Chichester had only learned to sail less than a decade earlier.Sir Francis was a self-made man who had tried his hand at almost everything: estate agent then aviator, lumberjack then sailor, and director of a cartography company, before he set out to sea.
Eight years beforehand, he had already vanquished a long illness that had come close to killing him. An “irresistible urge”, an insatiable appetite for adventure as strong as a Southern Ocean wind, had driven him to attempt a single-handed voyage around the world.
A few weeks after his return, the Queen knighted Francis Chichester for his exploit with the very sword that had been used to knight the privateer Francis Drake some four centuries earlier.
AN OYSTER PERPETUAL AS GUIDE
The greatest sailor of his generation, Sir Francis Chichester was a hero of another era. An age when sophisticated electronics had yet to make their way aboard sailing vessels: GPS and satellite telephones had yet to be invented. Navigation depended essentially on a sextant, and a watch. A precise, reliable and robust time-measuring instrument was vital for a successful voyage. Without such a tool, Chichester would effectively have been sailing blind and been unable to determine his exact position. With an Oyster on his wrist and a sextant in his hand, Francis Chichester was well equipped to take his bearing at sea. The exercise requires being able to read the time with extreme precision, generally using a marine chronometer located inside the boat, close to the chart table. When sailing single-handed, however, sailors preferred to have the time on them permanently to avoid having to leave the bridge (where they used the sextant) to go down to the cabin (to read the chronometer) and risk an error in calculating their position.
Francis Chichester’s choice of a Rolex, a sign of a true professional sailor, owed little to chance. Some 50 years before his round-the-world trip, in 1914, the Kew Observatory in Great Britain awarded a “Class A” chronometer certificate for the very first time to a wristwatch. That watch was a Rolex. Until then, this prestigious and demanding certification, attesting to the greatest precision, had been reserved for big marine chronometers, and to earn it they had to pass extremely rigorous and extensive tests. In the wake of this success, Rolex became the largest manufacturer in the world of chronometer-certified wristwatches; instruments sufficiently precise for navigation at sea and of legendary reliability in their waterproof Oyster case.“During my voyage around the world in Gipsy Moth IV, my Rolex watch was knocked off my wrist several times without being damaged,” Chichester wrote in a letter in 1968. “I cannot imagine a hardier timepiece. When using [it] for sextant work and working the foredeck, it was frequently banged, also doused by waves coming aboard; but it never seemed to mind all this.” This was praise indeed from a man who was the soul of discretion and the embodiment of the British art of understatement.
With his Oyster, Sir Francis Chichester made history and in style. Such as on that September evening in the middle of the Atlantic, where smooth-shaven as every morning, he donned a velvet dinner jacket to celebrate his 65th birthday, with a bottle of champagne. On his wrist was the same Rolex that, constantly drenched by salt spray at the helm, never once let him down.