Boat - Gipsy Moth IV

Gipsy Moth IV

Gipsy Moth IV by Flt Lt Pete Cooper (RAF Valley)

Just after we left the security of the atoll we were surrounded by tropical storms, which had us reaching for our waterproofs.

RAF personnel on boat mast. The aim of the exercise was to deliver Sir Francis Chichester’s recently restored yacht Gipsy Moth IV safely to Djibouti. Our route would take us from Sri Lanka, across the potentially hazardous waters of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden before finally arriving in Djibouti.

Our experienced crew consisted of skipper John Jeffrey, an ex-RAF pilot; expedition leader Rob Soar, a Tri Star co-pilot from RAF Brize Norton; and me, the 2IC. The remaining crew were Glen Hymers, an RAF Policeman from Germany; Dominic Clarke, a PTI from Waddington; and Danny Walton from HMS Middleton.

After a nerve-wracking 5-hour drive from Colombo, the first day in Galle was spent preparing the boat for the journey ahead. The most pressing item was the cooker. The previous crew had had problems with it but, after a couple of days’ work, Rob thought he had it sorted. Conditions on board were interesting to say the least. The boat was originally designed for 1 person in 1966 and the facilities were basic; no shower, no fridge, no hot water and the temperature downstairs in the high 30s most of the time.

Gipsy Moth IV is known for being a boat that rolls a lot and is uncomfortable to live on. This was apparent in the first few days after our departure. A large swell had built up which had the boat rolling uncomfortably, making life difficult for some onboard as they succumbed to sea-sickness. After a few days of this, the swell moderated, allowing the guys to recover and start appreciating the situation that we were in. We had dolphins playing around the front of the boat, clear blue
sky during the day and spectacular star-filled night skies.

Studying maps. Rob’s work with the cooker proved in vain though, as it once again stopped working as we approached the Maldives. It would allow us to warm food through, but just didn’t get hot enough to cook on or boil water for drinks.

Our anchorage in the Maldives was in the middle of a reef so our approach was slow and careful. A few months earlier, when Gipsy Moth IV was in the Pacific, she had ended up aground on some reefs and holed, something that we couldn’t let happen again; the banter would’ve been unbearable. Danny was our trusty lookout, hoisted to the top of the mast on reef-spotting duty so he could see down through the clear water to the razor sharp reefs. Charts in a remote location can be limited in their accuracy, so we had to rely on the Mk 1 eyeball as a backup to our route in through the coral heads. It took a few attempts but eventually we got our anchor secured in a prime spot.

Now, before you get the idea that The Maldives are all luxury hotels and beach-front bars, stop right there. We were in the most northerly atoll that also happens to be strictly Muslim. That meant no alcohol, none, nothing, zip. The other main feature of the island is that it is also one of the most undeveloped islands in the Maldives chain. That meant no restaurants, banks, or anything really apart from the concrete huts of the inhabitants and a couple of very basic village shops. With a cooker that didn’t work that gave us a problem, but we found the solution: for a small fee the locals would cook us dinner in their houses. It gave us an opportunity meet them and to sample some of the local cuisine, which mainly consisted of watery curries and chapattis washed down with sweet, clear tea.

The never-ending boat work and maintenance continued; all mornings and quite a few afternoons were taken up with either cleaning the boat or fixing something. For Rob, this meant attacking the cooker again. We got to know the locals even more by playing them at volley ball (and losing!) so, by the time we left the island, we had gained a pleasant insight to their unspoilt culture.

Washing fruit on boat. The journey from The Maldives to Djibouti started with rain! Just after we left the security of the atoll we were surrounded by tropical storms which had us reaching for our waterproofs. The next week was spent attempting to avoid these tropical downpours. With the temperature still in the high 30s, if we did get caught by one we found that half the crew were trying to control the boat in the squally winds while the other half were reaching for the shower gel to make use of the torrential rain.

The main talking point of this leg was the cooker completely dying. Rob did his best with lots of unsuccessful resurrection attempts before we finally called time on the blasted thing. Our back-up was a microwave that we were going to run off the boat’s power supply. Unfortunately, this was also the time that the power supply played up! The highest power setting the microwave could get to without tripping off was a paltry 100 watts, which is okay if you are defrosting food but useless if you are trying to cook! After this, our diet consisted of random tins of food, tipped cold into a large pot, stirred to mix the flavours and slapped into our bowls. You won’t see that on Ready Steady Cook anytime soon. We were now forced to ration out what food we could eat by this method as we couldn’t use any of our rice or pasta. Our situation was further complicated when we found out that some of our cereal had rather more “body” than it should have had: we discovered weevils, small beetles about 3mm long that infest wheat products. Knowledge of what they were didn’t help; when you are halfway through your cereal and you realise that there is a mass beetle-drowning going on in your bowl, I defy anyone not to gag.

The area around the Gulf of Aden was known for pirate attacks. Change your romantic notion from Pirates of the Caribbean; the real ones are much more unpleasant and normally come with AK-47s. We prepared for a possible pirate attack by talking through the different scenarios and our actions if approached and boarded. To make a more difficult target we joined up with 5 other yachts making the same journey, hoping that safety in numbers would deter all but the most determined of pirate attacks. We got our first taste of a suspicious approach about halfway along the Gulf of Aden. At 0400 one morning, a boat that we could faintly see on radar came near to our group with all their lights switched off. We closed up our formation and watched him on radar as he shadowed us for a few miles. Eventually the interloper slowly moved away and we all gave a sigh of relief.

About 20nm out of Djibouti we started relaxing and preparing for the imminent landfall. However, a call on the radio from one of the other boats about a powerboat approaching at high speed from the South had us all out looking. Sure enough there he was, heading at speed for the rear yacht of the group. The adrenaline started pumping when 4 large guys appeared in the speedboat and it was obvious they hadn’t come here for the fishing. The 6 boats in our group all started closing up quickly. We turned as hard as we could and attempted to make ourselves look as aggressive as possible by pointing straight at the speedboat; just after this he stopped. The speedboat held off about 200 yards away and tried to reassess his options. Around this time we put out emergency calls to try to get some assistance. The time we gained as the pirates considered their next move allowed us to look around for options. We saw a warship on the horizon and started trying to get 2-way communications with him. The pirate speedboat then moved into a position 1nm behind us and started shadowing us. Another speedboat entered the fray at this stage, following the same profile of the previous one. He also thought better of attacking and moved behind us. The warship turned out to be an American Assault ship and after some explanation of the situation they promised to send out their Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB). For most of us, the expression “RIB” brings images of the RNLI and 21’ long lifeboats. Not the American version, theirs was armed to the teeth and full of US Marines, also armed to the teeth. By this stage the pirate boats were becoming specks on the horizon and moving away rapidly. It was possible to see the relief on everyone’s faces as the warship then moved into a position behind us while we moved as fast as we could into Djibouti port.

As we dropped anchor in Djibouti port the setting couldn’t have been any more different to The Maldives. Our view was a busy container port and a run-down naval base. We were keen to get ashore for our first cold beer for weeks, but Customs and Immigration had other ideas as they worked through our passports at the speed of a startled sloth! Djibouti is a poor country with lots of shanty-towns containing refugees from the various civil wars around West Africa. There are very few Westerners around, mostly diplomatic staff or Coalition military. We spent the rest of our days in Djibouti fixing the bits of the boat that had broken and deep-cleaning in preparation for the next crew.

Getting one of the most famous yachts in the world across the Indian Ocean was always going to be adventurous. We came as close to a pirate attack as you would ever want to get, made friends on a remote desert island, saw parts of Africa that most people don’t know exist and managed to work as a close-knit team from the very start. Life would’ve been difficult without the teamwork that was shown by everyone at all stages. As any situation got more difficult the jokes would become funnier and we would get through it with grins on our faces. Our thanks to skipper John Jeffrey, UKSA, the other yachts from the Bluewater rally and to our colleagues who allowed us to go!

This was a multi-unit expedition with the following participants:

  • OIC Flt Lt Rob Soar – RAF Brize Norton
  • Skipper Mr John Jeffrey – Civilian
  • 2IC Flt Lt Pete Cooper – RAF Valley
  • Crew 1 Cpl Glen Hymers – RAF APU Hannover
  • Crew 2 Cpl Dom Clarke – RAF Waddington
  • Crew 3 OM Danny Walton – HMS Middleton

Sir Francis Chichester Inspired by the great 19th century Australian wool clippers, Chichester commissioned Gipsy Moth IV. In total, preparations took over 4 years and Sir Francis was 64 years old when he set out on his epic voyage from Plymouth on the 27th August 1966.

Gipsy Moth IV entered Sydney after 107 days, an amazing achievement. By the end of the voyage Sir Francis had established a number of records:
* Fastest voyage around the world by any small vessel
* Longest non stop passage that had been made by a small sailing vessel (15,000 miles)
* More than twice the distance of the previous longest passage by a single hander
* Twice broke the record for a singlehander's weeks run by more than 100 miles
* Established a record for single-handed speed by sailing, 1,400 miles in 8 days

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