Francis Chichester, the first great navigator of the contemporary era

Sir Chichester immortalized in a cartoon for Esquire magazine

More than fifty years ago, precisely on August 27, 1966, in front of the small town of Plymouth, 65-year-old Francis Chichester set sail aboard Gypsy Moth IV on his solo round-the-world voyage rounding the three great capes (Good Hope, Leeuwin, Horn). A feat that would consign him to legend.

Here is the story of the first great navigator of contemporary times.


A life that reads like a 19th-century adventure novel, that of Francis Chichester. He did everything and succeeded in everything, overcoming serious accidents and illnesses, until he earned the title “Sir,” he who was born on September 17, 1901 into a family of modest origin. He lives a miserable youth; his father, a pastor in the Anglican Church, sends him as early as age six to boarding school, from which he does not leave until he reaches university. After attending Marlborough College during World War I, he emigrates to New Zealand. There he discovered his first great passion, flying, and took his pilot’s license. At the same time, Chichester shows that he has a good nose for business and creates from nothing a solid company active in mining, timber and construction.

Everything seems to be going great, but suddenly the Great Depression of 1929 arrives, causing huge losses to the Chichester company. He then decides to return to England, where he also has to pick up a de Havilland DH.60 aircraft Moth. It is a biplane of just over seven meters, with which he plans to fly to New Zealand. He wants to break the record for solo flight from England to Australia.

He failed to achieve the record, but still completed the crossing in 41 days. In compensation, he is the first man to fly over the Tasman Sea. To accomplish this, he applies real maritime methods to the flight: for example, he follows the magnetic course without correction. Once the estimated distance is reached, it veers to find the arrival point. A technique that allows him to find the end point with a precision previously unknown. On the strength of these innovative techniques, Chichester attempts a solo round-the-world tour. The first leg, to Japan, proceeded smoothly, but starting from the port of Katsuura Wakayama failed to avoid cables and crashed, seriously injuring himself.

The return to England is obligatory and even becomes forced with the outbreak of World War II. Chichester is not skilled in field service, but he puts his knowledge to good use as a navigation expert: he writes a manual to help single-seater drivers find their way over Europe and then their way home, based on charts that are still in use today! It is only many years after the war, now in his late sixties and well off thanks to the establishment of a thriving map-making firm (could it be otherwise?, ed.), that Chichester’s interest shifts to the sea.

In 1960 here was the insight: he organized the Ostar, the first transatlantic race for solo sailors. But organizing is not enough for him; the lure of challenging himself, strictly on his own, is too strong despite his advanced age. Chichester appears on the starting line aboard the Gypsy Moth III. Like his planes, all of Chichester’s boats are also named Gypsy Moth, which literally translated means “flying moth.” He not only participates, but wins, then coming second four years later.

But the feat that enshrines Francis Chichester is yet to come. On August 27, 1966, in front of the town of Plymouth, he boarded the Gypsy Moth IV. He is about to turn 65 and wants to circumnavigate the globe by rounding the three great capes: Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn. Succeeding, he would surpass the legendary Joshua Slocum, who at the turn of the century had taken three years to succeed in the feat, albeit without passing all the bosses. The Gypsy Moth IV, at sixteen meters in length, immediately proves difficult for Chichester to maneuver, despite the fact that it was armed specifically for this navigation. The sail plan includes about 80 square meters of white-sailed canvas and a 140-square-meter spinnaker.

In the first phase of the circumnavigation everything seems to be going according to plan. But problems are not long in coming. We are still 2,300 miles away from passing Australia when a rudder problem makes Gypsy Moth IV seemingly unsteerable. Chichester did not lose heart and spent three days trying to find the correct sail trim to be able to stay on course. He succeeds and, traveling about 160 miles a day, reaches Sydney. Here he stops to repair the damage and try to improve the stability of the Gypsy Moth IV. An attempt that actually, as he would discover shortly afterwards to his cost, fails.

Gipsy Moth IV at Cape Horn
Gipsy Moth IV at Cape Horn

In the South Pacific, a wave capsizes it at 140 degrees, but fortunately without leaving irreparable damage. And the terrible Cape Horn is yet to come. “The waves were tremendous. They changed each time, but all of them anyway were like walls looming up behind you. The one I liked the least was fifteen meters high and very steep. Imagine being under a wave like that. My cockpit was flooded five times and in one case it took me a good quarter of an hour to empty it. The anemometer stopped registering at 60 knots. My rudder could do nothing…. I felt helpless.”

Yet Chichester succeeds. He also crossed the Atlantic, and on May 28, 1967, 274 days after his departure, he returned to England, hailed as a hero. The feat earned him the title of Sir, in a festively decorated London. Queen Elizabeth II uses for the ceremony the same sword used centuries earlier to knight another Francis, the famous Drake, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.

Despite his success and age, Chichester would not stand still, and in 1970 he managed to sail 1,000 miles in five days, in the Caribbean Sea, thus proving that it is possible to sail over 200 miles a day. He died in Plymouth, of lung cancer, on August 26, 1972, after charting the course of modern ocean racing and relaunching the hunt for records around the world. But also some phrases that remain mythical in the world of sailors. Like that day when, loading crates of gin onto a boat, he let loose: “Any fool could sail around the world, but it takes a sailor with the attributes to be able to do it drunk.”


The story we told you is from the volume “Adventures and Myths in the Seas of the World.” There are adventures worth telling and remembering. For this we drew on our historical archives and selected stories of people and sailings that have made sailing history. We tell you about them with extraordinary images and exclusive texts in our special issue “Adventures and Myths in the Seas of the World.” From Jack London to Joshua Slocum, via Moitessier, Tabarly, Robin Knox-Johnston and Peter Blake, all the greatest sea myths are collected for the first time in one special volume.




1 thought on “Francis Chichester, the first great navigator of the contemporary era”

  1. Ma state scherzando? Chichester un “grande navigatore”? Lo raccontano gli inglesi per darsi un tono… Semmai grandi navigatori lo erano Slocum, Dumas, e tutti quelli della prima Golden Globe (a parte quel poveretto, Crowhurst 🙁 )…
    Tra l’altro nominate pure la Ostar, dove Chichester Ă© arrivato “primo” con un Camper & Nicolson di 16 metri disegnato apposta per la navigazione d’altura in solitario… ma con Hasler che Ăš arrivato secondo con una FolkbĂ„d di 7,25 metri concludendo in 48 giorni invece dei 40 di Chichester… e per di piĂč la FolkbĂ„d era armata a giunca che rende parecchio meno del frazionato originale!

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