Katy Stickland talks to Gipsy Moth IV’s new owner Simon Oberholzer about his passion for the yacht and the plans for her future
More than 250,000 people jostled for space on Plymouth Hoe waiting to catch a glimpse of the return of Gipsy Moth IV after 226 days at sea.
It was 28 May 1967, and her skipper, Francis Chichester, had just set the record for the fastest voyage around the world in a small boat, beating the Clipper ship records.
He had done it with just one stop in Sydney, Australia, and by rounding the three Great Capes – Good Hope, Leeuwin and Horn.
His circumnavigation made him a national hero and he went on to popularise yachting, inspiring a generation to explore under sail.
It also spawned solo round the world yacht racing.
Just a year later, nine skippers set off to compete in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, with only one – Sir Robin Knox-Johnston – finishing.
Ocean racing had been born.
Today, skippers race in foiling multihulls capable of average speeds of up to 30 knots, as seen in the recent Vendée Globe, which calls itself the Everest of sailing, although Sir Francis clearly conquered first.
One wonders if the British navigator imagined that his success would create such a legacy.
One man who understands Sir Francis’s triumph against the odds is Simon Oberholzer, the new owner of Gipsy Moth IV.
The Cape Town-born sailor, who lives in The Hague, is no stranger to adventure; his father, Mo Oberholzer, was Sir Francis’s ‘kindred spirit’.
Having read Chichester’s book Gipsy Moth Circles the World, he announced the family would circumnavigate the globe.
He bought Sea Dog, a 45ft Van Der Stadt Agulhas, and after six weeks of learning to sail left South Africa in July 1980.
Simon was 11 at the time. Having sailed through Hurricane Allen, the family continued up the Caribbean chain to the United States.
Here they swapped the boat for a car, driving from Miami to New York, across to Seattle and down to Los Angeles and Albuquerque.
When Mo’s plans to fly a balloon to Australia were rejected by the rest of his family, they flew by plane to Australia via Hawaii where they drove from Sydney to Cairns before exploring the Far East, returning to South Africa in 1984.
Gipsy Moth IV: living history
‘The opportunity to own a piece of history like Gipsy Moth IV was too good to miss, especially since Chichester’s voyage and achievements had influenced my early life in this way,’ explains Oberholzer.
‘Aside from being a great navigator, the value of Chichester is that he always continued, he never stopped. Nowadays, with technology, we look at the destination and not the voyage; we don’t realise what it takes to get there.
‘Throughout his life, Chichester pushed the limits, even at 65 after having cancer, he did something that had never been done before. He was not copycatting anyone else; he sailed around the world because he thought it could be done.’
For the last 18 months, Gipsy Moth IV has sat on the hard at Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River after the Gipsy Moth Trust ran into trouble during the COVID-19 pandemic and had to sell her.
As was the case when the 53ft ketch was berthed alongside the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, rainwater has damaged her.
Boats like Gipsy Moth IV need to be in seawater, they need to be sailed.
The inner parts of the cockpit, which were reconstructed in 2005, are now completely rotten and her engine and mounts need a lot of attention.
Elephant Boatyard in Bursledon, which specialises in bespoke wooden yachts and was responsible for the restoration work of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili and Sanjula, has been entrusted with phase one of Gipsy Moth IV’s restoration.
Gipsy Moth IV is up for sale
New owners are being sought for Gipsy Moth IV, the legendary yacht which took Sir Francis Chichester around the world
Gipsy Moth IV finds new owners
Gipsy Moth IV, the legendary ketch which took Sir Francis Chichester around the world in 1966-67, has been sold to…
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Repairs to her topsides, hull and engine are already under way and should be finished by August so she can take part in the Jubilee Sail Pass during Cowes Week.
Her interior will be worked on over the winter.
Oberholzer wants to restore her to how Sir Francis had her in 1967, and has copies of the original plans by John Illingworth and Angus Primrose.
‘I look at her very much like a vintage car; you need to bring her back to her original condition to understand her achievements. If we create this time capsule,
then people will see the items from 1967 and you will see the impact of the boat and how advanced she was for her time.’
He is currently contacting clubs and museums to find the missing parts which were lent out by the Gipsy Moth Trust and the UKSA, which owned her during and after Yachting Monthly’s 2003 campaign to restore her.
This includes Sir Francis’s gimballed chair, which allowed the circumnavigator to stay level-headed when the boat heeled, and her compass.
Oberholzer already has some of the historic boat’s original sailbags.
He is funding the project solely by himself, and is planning to remove any parts that were added to the boat post-1967.
It is easy to forget how innovative Gipsy Moth IV was with her fast, multi-skinned, light-displacement hull, with watertight bulkhead forward in case of collisions with icebergs.
She also has shortened spars for singlehanded sailing, double fore, inner and back stays, double tracks, boom roller-furling and heavier than normal Hasler self-steering gear.
‘Chichester knew then, like every modern round the world sailor knows now, the dangers and challenges that he and Gipsy Moth IV would face rounding the Capes,’ says Oberholzer.
While owned by the trust, 1,700 people sailed on Gipsy Moth IV and tens of thousands stepped on board her during port visits and shows in the UK and abroad.
Oberholzer says she will be sailed, but not open to the general public to preserve her for the future.
He is planning to create ‘a unique sailing experience for the public to understand her importance and impact.’
The yacht has also been affiliated to the Royal Thames Yacht Club in London, and will remain under British flag and on the United Kingdom Historic Ships Register.
Oberholzer is sensitive to Gipsy Moth IV’s heritage and has initiated discussions with various museums, including the Royal Museums Greenwich, as well as marinas and expos to have her on display.
As envisaged now, Gipsy Moth IV will have three homes throughout the year: in London with the Royal Thames Yacht Club, in the Solent at Buckler’s Hard and she will also have a berth at the Scheveningen Yacht Club in The Hague.
‘Chichester is a legend for what he achieved and comparable to the likes of Sir Francis Drake and other great sailors, but Gipsy Moth IV survives him. Now, the story of Gipsy Moth IV continues and she is a symbol of perseverance and resilience; she went around the world in 1967, had her glory, and was discarded by Chichester and then both enshrined and entombed by the nation, slowly disintegrating.’
Around the world again?
‘She was resurrected and restored by Yachting Monthly following a £1 million campaign, and went around the world a second time in 2005 with a novice crew.
She survived being run aground on a reef (on Rangiroa, French Polynesia) and was repaired by the brilliant America’s Cup Team Emirates New Zealand. Since then she has been worked and worked – and finally left to sit on the hard. Now we will see Gipsy Moth IV back in the water – restored to her 1967 glory. She is the boat that doesn’t die.’
Oberholzer is always open to ideas about Gipsy Moth IV’s future and sees her as a force for good in this post-COVID 19 world, but also wants to ‘just enjoy her and the thrill of sailing her.’
‘She needs new objectives. She was originally purpose-built to go around the world and win her race. Yachting Monthly resurrected her to save her and do the same thing. I would now like to return her to singlehanded sailing and have her go around once more in honour of Chichester. She may have been cantankerous but she did her job. She was a fast boat. One-hundred per cent, she will go around the world again,’ says Oberholzer.
Like a phoenix from the ashes, Gipsy Moth IV has risen again.
Her next chapter could well be her most exciting yet…
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