Bill King had many attempts to sail round the world on the first he was capsized and dismasted. The next time his rig failed. On the third attempt he was holed by a shark. Here he tells Dick Durham about his struggle and reflects on a long and adventurous life
The south-west wind is twisting the crab apple trees and the rain is hissing down flattening the white horses in Galway Bay. The grey stones of Oranmore Castle tower up out of the swirling tempest, and inside I am greeted by a bare-chested, sprightly old man dressed only in pyjama bottoms.
Bill King is in his castle and all is well with the world. ‘Do you want me to dress up grand or casual?’ he asks as we shake hands. ‘Casual’s fi ne,’ I say not wishing to put the legendary 97-year-old circumnavigator to any trouble.
‘Mighty good,’ he says as Optimus, the family parrot, makes a piercing screech. ‘That bird hates me,’ says Bill, ‘you know, he will sit on my son-in-law’s shoulder, but he’ll try to peck my fi ngers off.’
‘Father, get dressed,’ Leonie, Bill’s 59-yearold, blonde-maned daughter, commands affectionately. Bill, who is descended from the medieval Frankish King, Charlemange (‘We look on the Royal Family as the Johnny–come-latelies’) pads away barefoot across the flagstones of his 12th century Norman keep. Meanwhile Leonie, an artist who lives in the castle with her musician husband Alec Finn, explains her father is totally deaf in one ear and that I should funnel my questions into his left ear, where a hearing aid is fitted.
Bill returns dressed in a fleece and old trousers with a two-foot long patch on the left leg. He is still sockless, but now wearing sandals. Sitting in a glass conservatory, with occasional interruptions from the parrot, Bill tells me about his long and fascinating life.
After his father, William, a colonel, was killed from a shellburst in the World War I trenches, Bill’s mother, Georgina, took him up to her parents’ home in Dunstaffnage, near Oban, Scotland and it was here he learned to sail, around the Western Isles, aboard his granny’s 50-ton gaff cutter, Imatra, which had five paid hands!
‘I was sent to a frightful prep school where the headmaster was a flogging sadist,’ said Bill. But even though he got many a beating, Bill was angelic enough to be in the choir. Choirboys received a boiled egg for tea as a special privilege. ‘When my voice broke I masked it by singing in high key in order to get the egg!’ he said.
Aged 14 he was enrolled at the ‘ferocious’ Dartmouth Royal Naval College. In 1927 he went to sea as a cadet in the Navy’s newest battleship HMS Nelson and was in the crow’s nest when she fi red a broadside with nine 16 inch guns. ‘My hearing was affected – they didn’t issue mufflers in those days – and has never been the same since,’ said Bill.
From 1928 to 1930 he saw service in the Med aboard HMS Resolution, before being ‘volunteered’ for submarines. He then went to China and the Philippines and when war broke out in 1939 was commander of his own submarine, Snapper. In her he won the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) medals for dangerous spying operations
along the occupied coast of Norway.
Bill went on to command submarines in the Mediterranean and in 1943, while on leave skiing in the Lebanon he met Anita Leslie, who was an ambulance driver also on leave. They married three years later. Bill next saw action in the Far East where he sank a large Japanese submarine, for which he was decorated with a second DSO. He believes he is the only submariner to go right through the war as a commander. ‘I was never a dashing leader,’ Bill says modestly, ‘ but I must have inherited some nouse from my great-grandfather, who founded Galway University.’
He always noted the wind direction before diving below the surface. After sinking enemy vessels he would then go deep and motor upwind, as he knew the enemy warships would turn their engines off to listen out for him. This meant they drifted downwind and away from his position.
At the end of the war he was a physical wreck from eating bad food, the lack of oxygen and the stress of constant danger. He needed a cure and decided to climb Mount Everest, ‘But I was so weak I couldn’t climb the stairs,’ he said.
Instead he decided to go offshore sailing to re-build his fitness and crewed as navigator for yacht designer John Illingworth in his boat Myth of Malham, competing in the Bermuda and Fastnet races. Soon he was delivering yachts as well. Then in 1949 he sailed his own boat, Galway Blazer, solo across the Atlantic in 28 days from Gibraltar to Antigua. Galway Blazer was an RNSA 24, named after the fox-hunting group both he and Anita rode with.
In Antigua he was joined by his wife, and their baby son, Tarka Dick, born in 1946 and named after the novel Tarka the Otter, by Henry Williamson, a story which had long charmed Bill. ‘We soon discovered that Anita suffered badly from seasickness – unless she was helming. So she steered while I looked after the baby down below,’ said Bill. In 1952 he sold Galway Blazer because he was ‘penniless’.
Both Anita and he made cruises in friends’ yachts down through Brittany and in Greece. But in 1968 Bill was inspired to go back to blue water sailing when the Sunday Times announced its Golden Globe solo round the world race, which included Robin Knox-Johnston, Bernard Moitessier, Chay Blyth, John Ridgway and Donald Crowhurst. Bill’s specially designed boat was the 42ft, junkrigged schooner, Galway Blazer II, designed by Angus Primrose after consultation with Bill’s wartime friend, legendary solo yachtsman Blondie Hasler. She was built by Souters of Cowes.
When 1,000 miles south-west of Cape Town, Bill found himself in a hurricane that capsized, rolled and dismasted the boat. ‘It was the worst mistake I ever made at sea,’ says Bill, ‘I was steering downwind, but as the storm continued, I thought I’d get tired. So I lay ahull, putting her beam-on instead of end-on.’
Using two alloy poles – already stowed on deck in case they were needed – he made a jury rig and limped into Cape Town. Luckily, an old submariner contact in Cape Town now worked for a shipping company there and he was able to get GBII shipped home for nothing.
During 1969 Galway Blazer II was refitted at Souters. While she was at Cowes, Blondie Hasler designed a newer, high-peaked junk rig in an attempt to get the boat to sail closer to the wind. Later that year, Bill set sail from Plymouth for a second attempt at a solo circumnavigation. However, in the Atlantic he discovered the rig was not a success and diverted to Gibraltar.
Back in Cowes, Blondie reinstalled Galway Blazer II’s original rig and in September 1970, Bill set sail once more.
Down in the Southern Ocean, cold polar air caused his finger tips to peel off, leaving him with raw hands. He was forced to divert once again, this time to Fremantle, Western Australia. Armed with turtle-oil cream, surgeon’s waterproof gloves and a pair of Antarctic explorer’s gauntlets he set sail again. Seven days out he was rammed by a great white shark, which holed the boat on her port side.
‘Seeing that blue water through my hull was definitely my worst moment at sea. It was time to ring up God, but I didn’t have the number,’ said Bill. Instead, he immediately put the vessel about and using a spare sail and 13 lines, made a patch on the outside of the hull. On the inside he used a piece of timber braced against the shattered plywood skins, which pushed them back into place. ‘It made the water squirt in instead of pour in,’ he said.
Back in Fremantle a Yugoslav shipwright, Marko, repaired her for £50. ‘You’ll never be a millionaire,’ Bill told him. ‘Friendship is more important than money,’ came the reply. Bill has written four books in cooperation with his late wife Anita, a biographer: Adventure In Depth, The Stick and the Stars, Capsize and The Wheeling Stars. Anita Leslie wrote a poignant biography of Sir Francis Chichester and also a book about her Caribbean cruise with Bill: Love in a Nutshell. Unfortunately, all are now out of print.
It was December 1972 that Bill finally left Fremantle bound for Cape Horn. This time nothing else held him up and he arrived back in Plymouth the following year, finally achieving his dream.
It’s been a long morning and Bill announces we’re off for a ‘run ashore’ – a euphemism for a visit to his local pub. Outside the castle, Atlantic waves were rolling up Galway bay and slapping against Bill’s old stone causeway, once used to unload turf from traditional Galway hookers. He surveyed the waters then looked down in disgust at his own pot-holed driveway. It was littered with crisp packets and empty soft drink bottles. He bent down to gather them up and dropped them in a litter bin up in the village.
‘There are a lot of yobbos about today… we haven’t had a war for a very long time,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Most of my friends are at St Peter’s Gate.’
This feature first appeared in Yachting Monthly in 2007. Bill King passed away in 2012 at the age of 101.
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