The Rolex that circumnavigated the world

One man, one ship, no crew - just a Rolex Oyster Perpetual.

Meryl D'Souza August 24, 2016

On 28 May 1967, eight years after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Sir Francis Chichester arrived in Plymouth in the United Kingdom, having completed an epic single-handed voyage around the world. 

The 65-year-old was greeted by more than 250,000 well-wishers who cheered and sang as his yacht crossed the finish line by the breakwater at 8:55pm. The Royal Artillery gave him a ten-gun salute as he was reunited with his wife, Lady Chichester, and son, Giles, who carried two bottles of champagne.

The bubbly was long overdue for a man who brought in his 65th birthday while he was still in the early stages of his single-handed journey. Legend has it that Sir Francis donned a dinner jacket to celebrate the party for one, as he sailed across the Atlantic with not another soul in sight. His wristwear that evening would also have been fitting of the occasion. 

After 226 days at sea, Sir Francis achieved what he set out to do: beat the average speed of the Australian clippers. He did it by covering more than 47,600 k/ms on his 16-metre ketch, Gipsy Moth IV, sailing from west to east along the fastest route available – the clipper route. 

Sir Francis took 107 days to sail the length of the Atlantic Ocean going south across the equator, around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin, before reaching Sydney. There, he rested for six weeks before circumnavigating much of the Southern Ocean past Cape Horn, for a return leg northwards along the Atlantic. The route was the most direct way between the major continents by sea before the Suez and Panama Canals were built.

As far as experience goes, Sir Francis was relatively young to sailing. He only took it up in the 1950s. But the man from Devon, England had a flair for the craft, winning the first-ever solo transatlantic race in 1960 when he sailed from Plymouth to New York in 40 days. 

Despite the throng of people there to greet him on the day he completed the journey, there were those that doubted his ability before he began. Most critics felt that a crew of eight would best handle his twin-mast ketch, but Sir Francis would have none of it. 

The man from Barnstaple, Devon, wasn’t going to concede defeat. He was a battled hardened man who was part of the Air Force Royal Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. To his mind, there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Sir Francis’ efforts weren’t lost on Queen Elizabeth II who knighted him for "individual achievement and sustained endeavour in the navigation and seamanship of small craft".

Friday 26th August marks the 44th anniversary since his death. That date could have been a lot earlier had his then unprecedented voyage gone wrong, which it more than had the potential to. He was armed with only a VHF (Very High Frequency) radio, a short-range electronic radio direction finder, and a watch.

He used the VHF radio to occasionally update his sponsors, a British newspaper, about his progress and used the short-range electronic radio direction finder to take bearings from any transmission stations within 97 k/ms. Apart from that, it was just the ocean and him.

EDGAR-Sir-Francis-Chichester-Rolex-03.jpg "Gipsy Moth IV needs repairs after capsizing in the Tasman Sea, but the Rolex ticks on happily."

That is of course, apart from his timepiece. Accompanying him throughout his journey was his Rolex Oyster Perpetual. It wasn’t just an ornament though; on occasions when bad weather made it impossible to use his sextant, he relied on the accuracy of his Rolex for navigation.

The Rolex – which took the same drenching and scrapes as he did on the stormy oceans – may well have saved his mission in the hairiest of moments, and also his life.