Plymouth Celebrates Chichester’s Epic VoyageWriter Nigel Watson on the Gipsy Moth landing 50 year anniversary
It’s hard to believe the impact of the arrival of Sir Francis Chichester in Plymouth Sound fifty years ago, on 28 May 1967, unless you were there. An enthusiastic crowd of 250,000 people gathered on the Hoe, cheering and singing as he sailed his Gipsy Moth IV yacht home after breaking the solo record for circumnavigating the world. Hundreds of boats, blasting their hooters and sirens, surrounded him, and the Royal Artillery fired a ten-gun salute. Millions more watched the event on television, including myself Up North in Scunthorpe glued to the screen of our tiny black and white TV set.
Chichester had set off from Plymouth on 27 August 1966 and in 226 days he sailed an incredible 28,500 miles from west to east around the globe, in a test of skill and endurance. The epic journey, with only one stop at Sydney, Australia, was completed without the aid of sat nav or any other of the hi-tech equipment we take for granted today. It was a battle between man and nature, all the more remarkable for the fact that Chichester was aged 65 at the time, which to me seemed like he really was an Ancient Mariner.
The 55-foot-long, Gipsy Moth IV, was to the British, the equivalent of the US Apollo spacecraft that was at that time preparing to land men on the Moon and Chichester our equivalent of those astronaut heroes. It was such an outstanding feat that the Queen knighted him in July 1967 and a one shilling and nine pence stamp depicting him on Gipsy Moth IV honoured him. This week, 50 years later, the anniversary of the event was celebrated by the arrival of the Gipsy Moth IV to Plymouth Sound and his son Sir Giles Chichester mounted the same steps on West Hoe has his father had done all those years ago.
He was welcomed on those steps by a few hundred spectators, an impressive flotilla of yachts patrolled the sound and to pay further tribute there was a fly-past by a Gypsy Moth aircraft followed by an air display by Tiger Moth biplanes. The atmosphere was electric.
Sir Giles recalled his father’s arrival at Plymouth, to a gathering of journalists and film crews, saying that at the time he was impressed that the event was regarded as being so important that the TV schedules were scrapped, to enable them to show it live. He expressed empathy for the commentators who had the challenge of keeping up a lively commentary as they waited for him to slowly sail to the harbour steps. Sir Giles was sorry he wasn’t allowed to sail the Gipsy Moth this time, because of fears about the proximity of surrounding boats. He confessed he doesn’t do much sailing now so it was something of the relief not to have to navigate it through this traffic, especially since it had a £400,000 refit in 2005 and further repairs in 2006, making any mistake potentially expensive as well as dangerous.
This was a fitting celebration for an impressive achievement that fired the imagination of the whole Britain in 1967, and put Plymouth in sharp focus as a nautical city. Walking down to West Hoe on Sunday morning, it was great to see the restored Tinside Pool back in service for the summer season, and that new buildings and cafes have sprung up along the Hoe to make the most of the stunning views over the Sound. With its layers of history, from the Mayflower Steps to the Beatle Bums, Plymouth is evolving into a world class tourist destination as well as a safe port for the likes of brave and determined sailors like Sir Francis Chichester, the Royal Navy and holiday makers off the Brittany ferries.