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Original Issue

A cheer for Chichester

Sailing for 40 long and lonely days through fog and terrifying weather, a London map maker beats his rivals to port by a wide margin in the first singlehanded transatlantic race

In the low sun of evening on July 21, a 58-year-old map maker from London picked up the bow line of his sloop Gipsy Moth III and tossed it to a waiting boat off New York Harbor. For 40 days Francis Chichester had sailed alone across the Atlantic. At the end of his voyage he looked only a little tired and very happy. In the first singlehanded transatlantic race ever staged (SI, June 13), he had won over loneliness and exhaustion, beaten the nonracing record for a singlehanded crossing by 16 days and left his four younger rivals far behind him. These included Blondie Hasler, the British wartime hero, who had the idea for the race in the first place.

The starting line had been set at Plymouth by the Royal Western Yacht Club, and the finish at Ambrose Lightship off New York Harbor by the Slocum Society Sailing Club. The route in between was left to the sailors. Chichester shunned the safe southerly course in favor of a faster one close to the iceberg line. This northern route has rightly been called the Everest of yachting. The weather is terrible. The winds are perverse and shifty. "I was changing those sails all day and all night to keep the boat racing," Chichester reported at the finish. "But there were times when I just got too damn tired to do it—just couldn't face it."

Chichester had fair, following winds only two days out of the 40. Most of the time it came straight at him, forcing him to tack and tack again. He covered 4,000 miles, all told, to make the 3,000-mile crossing. In summer, one gale is considered a ration for the course. Chichester ran into five of them.

"This boat," said Chichester, remembering his worst moments, "was built in Ireland. There must have been some disgruntled leprechauns left aboard. The boat wanted to be a ski jumper. She jumped off those crests. I don't see how the boat took it." The most severe gale, gusting to hurricane force, blew off his self-steering sail, a little jigger that kept the boat on course whenever Chichester was below. It was the one thing he couldn't do without. As the Gipsy Moth wallowed and pitched in a rolling sea, Chichester scaled the jigger's 14-foot mast hand over hand to get the steering sail up again. "When I got to the top of the mast," Chichester recalls, "the boat rolled and swung me to one side and then swung me back. I went right on around. On the next roll it swung me a bit faster, until I was going round and round the mast like a monkey on a stick. I just burst out laughing."

The first day out of Plymouth he was drenched by the flying spray, and he stayed wet for 37 days. A quarter inch of mildew accumulated in the cabin, but finally, as he slipped toward Long Island in fair, easy weather, Chichester got dried out and meticulously sponged the boat down. "My wife Sheila was waiting in New York," he explained, "and she hates to see the boat dirty."

For eight of his 40 days Chichester's lonely world closed in around him. In heavy fog, with no sun or radio beacons to give him bearings, he could count only on dead reckoning. In his younger days Chichester had pioneered in aerial navigation, flying alone from New Zealand to Australia, counting on his ability to hit two pinprick island stops on the nose. "I wasn't worried about hitting America," he said. "It's so big."

When the last fog encompassed him, Chichester was near Nantucket, where he ran the unhappy risk of hitting some rocky part of America all too suddenly. In this crisis he had to trust his ability to interpret radio direction signals to a half-mile accuracy ("a fascinating bit of navigation").

With one bit of fascinating navigation and another, on his 39th day he had put himself within 30 miles of Ambrose Lightship. He radioed his calculated position to the Coast Guard. Three press boats and a Coast Guard cutter streamed out to meet him. They found him where he said he was, his ship sailing along with the knowing roll of a boat that has been out a long time. Sitting in the cockpit with the flaps of his deerstalker hat over his ears, Chichester smiled and nodded to the press and obediently followed his escort into New York, where such fame as comes to yachtsmen awaited him.