Bill King has tried many times to sail around world. On the first attempt he capsized and was dismasted. Next time, his rig broke down. He was holed on the third try by a shark. Dick Durham tells him about his life and struggles.
The white horses are flattened by the rain in Galway Bay as the south-west winds twists the crab apple tree branches. Oranmore Castle stands out from the stormy swirling wind, and a young man wearing only pyjama shorts greets me inside.
Bill King has his castle in place and the world is happy. ‘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. Leonie explains that her father, who lives in the Castle with her musician spouse Alec Finn, is completely deaf in his right ear. I should direct all my questions towards his left ear which is where a listening aid has been fitted.
Bill returns in an old fleece with a patch of two feet on his left leg. Bill is still without socks, but now he wears sandals. Bill tells his story in the glass conservatory. The parrot will interrupt him from time to time.
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, ImatraFive hands were paid!
‘I was sent to a frightful prep school where the headmaster was a flogging sadist,’ said Bill. Bill, despite his many beatings, was still good enough to sing in the choir. As a privilege, choirboys got a boiled eggs for tea. ‘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. Snapper, his own submarine was the commander when war broke in 1939. For dangerous spying, he was awarded both the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross), and DSO (Distinguished Service Order), medals.
Along the occupied coasts of Norway.
Bill was a submarine commander in the Mediterranean. In 1943, while skiing in Lebanon on leave, Bill met Anita Leslie. She was an ambulance driver on leave. They were married three years after. Bill then saw action in the Far East, where he sank an enormous Japanese submarine for which he received a second DSO. He believes that he was the only submariner who remained a commander throughout the war. ‘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 would always note the direction of the wind before diving beneath the surface. He would dive deep after sinking an enemy vessel and then motor upwind. This was because he knew that the enemy warships were going to turn off their engines in order to hear him. They drifted away from him and downwind.
He was physically wrecked at the end of war due to the bad food he ate, the lack oxygen and the 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.
He decided to sail offshore to improve his fitness, and worked as a navigator on the yacht designed by John Illingworth. Malham MythSoon he was delivering yachts as well. Soon, he began delivering boats as well. He sailed his first boat in 1949. Galway BlazerSolo across the Atlantic from Gibraltar up to Antigua. Galway Blazer Anita and him rode in a group called RNSA 24.
Tarka, a 1946 baby boy named after the novel, was with him in Antigua. Tarka the OtterBill had been charmed by the story of Henry Williamson for a long time. ‘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. Bill was inspired in 1968 to return to blue-water sailing after the Sunday Times announced the Golden Globe solo around the world race. The race included Robin Knox Johnston, Bernard Moitessier and Chay Blyth. John Ridgway, Donald Crowhurst, Chay, and John Ridgway were also participants. 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 constructed by Souters in Cowes.
Bill was 1,000 miles south-west from Cape Town when he found himself in the middle of a hurricane which capsized, rolled, and demasted his 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. A former submariner in Cape Town, who now works for a shipping business there, was able get GBII sent home at no cost.
Galway Blazer II underwent a refit at Souters in 1969. Blondie Hazel designed a higher-peaked junk-rig while she was in Cowes to help the boat sail closer to wind. Bill set out from Plymouth in the summer of that same year for his second solo circumnavigation. He diverted to Gibraltar after he realized that his rig wasn’t working in the Atlantic.
Back in Cowes, Blondie reinstalled Galway Blazer II’s original rig and in September 1970, Bill set sail once more.
In the Southern Ocean, the cold polar air caused him to lose his finger tips, leaving him with a raw hand. He was forced again to divert, this time towards Fremantle in 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 after setting sail, a great-white shark rammed his boat and ripped a hole in the 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. Bill immediately repositioned the vessel and made a patch using a sail spare and 13 lines. He used a piece if timber to brace against the plywood skins that were shattered, and this pushed them 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 co-authored four books with Anita, his late biographer wife. Adventure in Depth, The Stick and the Stars, Capsize You can also find out more about the following: Wheeling Stars. Anita Leslie also wrote a touching biography of Sir Francis Chichester, and a book on her Caribbean cruise with Bill called Love in a Nutshell. Unfortunately, they are all out of print.
Bill left Fremantle in December 1972 for Cape Horn. The second time, nothing stopped him and he returned to Plymouth in the year following 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 his driveway, which was full of potholes. There were empty soft drink bottles and crisp packets littering the driveway. He leaned down to pick them up and dumped them in a trash bin 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 article first appeared in Yachting Magazine in 2007. Bill King died in 2012, at the age 101.
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Bill King: the sailor that was capsized, dismated, and holed by sharks appeared first on Yachting Monthly.