Chichester, Sir Francis Charles 1901-1972, airman, sailor, and navigator, was born 17 September 1901 at Shirwell, the younger son (there were later two daughters) of the Revd Charles Chichester, vicar of Shirwell, Devon, seventh son of the eighth baronet, and his wife, Emily Annie, daughter of Samuel Page, of Chitt's Hill, Wood Green, London. He was educated at the infants' school in Barnstaple, at preparatory schools in Ellerslie and Bournemouth and at Marlborough. He spent an unhappy childhood, left Marlborough at the age of seventeen, and emigrated in December 1919 to New Zealand with only ten sovereigns in his pocket. There he tried a variety of jobs, until as a land agent and property developer he was able to earn a substantial income and to accumulate some capital. In 1923 he married Muriel Eileen, daughter of M. L. Blakiston; they had two sons, the first stillborn, the second, George, who died in 1967. The marriage broke up within three years and in 1929 his first wife died. George was brought up by his New Zealand grandparents until Chichester's second marriage.
Chichester became the hero of the British people and achieved world fame when at the age of sixty-five he sailed solo around the world between August 1966 and May 1967, 29,600 miles in 226 days sailing time. Nearly forty years earlier he had established himself as a record-breaking pilot in small aircraft and his feats as a navigator became well known. Indeed navigation is the link between his exploits in both spheres. He would not have claimed to be either a natural pilot or a natural sailor and it is in the technique of navigation that he made his immediate contribution to the development of aviation and later demonstrated his capabilities at sea.
Together with his partner in the estate agency, Geoffrey Goodwin, he formed an aviation company, and learnt to fly at a New Zealand air force station. Returning after ten years' absence to England he took further flying lessons at Brooklands, bought a plane, a Gipsy I Moth, gained his A licence, made a preliminary tour of Europe, and then in 1929 set off for Australia. After nineteen days' solo flight and a variety of incidents, including twice damaging the plane, he landed at Sydney, New South Wales, to an uproarious welcome from thousands of people, being only the second pilot successfully to accomplish this hazardous operation.
Back in New Zealand Chichester determined to be the first to fly solo from east to west across the Tasman Sea. This necessitated landing on two small islands, roughly equally spaced across the ocean, to refuel. To do so demanded absolutely accurate navigation. His method was to aim off the mark and having reached the selected point, checked by a sun sight, to turn and sweep along the position line until he could see his target. He used a sextant, five-figure logarithmic tables, and a scribbling pad strapped to his knee, all in the very cramped space of a small cockpit. Having fitted floats to his Gipsy I Moth to enable him to land on the island lagoons, he made accurate landfalls at Norfolk Island, where he encountered engine trouble on take off, and Lord Howe Island, where his plane sank and had to be rebuilt, before reaching Jarvis Bay, south of Sydney. By his resourcefulness, skill, and determination he had triumphed. Continuing by stages what he now envisaged as a round-the-world tour later in 1929 he crashed in Japan after hitting telephone wires at Katsuura, seriously injuring himself and writing off his plane. Back in England he married in 1937 Sheila Mary, daughter of Gerald Craven, of Belle Eau Park, Nottinghamshire, the son of Thomas Craven, of Kirklington Hall, Nottinghamshire; they had one son, Giles. After a year in New Zealand together they returned to live permanently in England and Chichester took up a post as a navigation specialist with a firm of instrument makers.
Frustrated during the first years of World War II by the failure of the RAF to make use of his navigational experience, he was eventually appointed navigation officer at the Empire Flying School (1943-5). After the war he established his own publishing firm for maps and guides. He then took up ocean racing, first as a navigator and later, in 1958, with his own boat Gipsy Moth II. In 1958-9 he suffered from lung cancer but recovered and in 1960 with Gipsy Moth III he won the first single-handed transatlantic race. In the same race two years later he knocked nearly seven days off his previous record but came second. Gipsy Moth IV was built to circumnavigate the globe which he successfully accomplished with one stop at Sydney. What had been denied him in the air he had been granted at sea. He failed in his subsequent attempt in Gipsy Moth V to sail four thousand miles in twenty days, from Guinea Bissau across the Atlantic to San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua, but his time of twenty-two days established another record. The fourth single-handed transatlantic race in 1972 proved to be his last. Frail when he started, he became ill and returned to Plymouth. He died there shortly afterwards 26 August 1972.
Chichester was appointed CBE in 1964 and KBE in 1967, when he reached Sydney half way through his single-handed voyage round the world. The Queen dubbed him with Sir Francis Drake's sword at Greenwich after his return. He received many other honours and awards. He recorded his exploits both in the air and at sea in a number of books, but his personality and his philosophy can best be summed up in his own answer to a question after his tumultuous welcome at Plymouth. Why did he do it? Because, he replied, it intensifies life.
Francis Chichester, The Lonely Sea and the Sky, 1964
Anita Leslie, Francis Chichester, 1975
Contributor: Edward Heath