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Bill King: solo sailor, sub chief

Bill King, a decorated British World War II submarine commander and single-hander who sailed in the first solo around-the-world race, has died at 102.

Bill King on board Snapper, his first submarine command.

King was the only British commander to start the war in 1939 and finish it alive in command of a submarine in August 1945, a reflection of the terribly high rate of attrition among Great Britain’s World War II submarine sailors. At 58, he was the oldest entry in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first single-handed yacht race around the world.

King didn’t finish the race; his junk-rigged double-masted schooner Galway Blazer II capsized and broke both masts in 50-foot seas in the Roaring Forties between South Africa and South America. In 1969 he tried a second time but was derailed again off Australia. He successfully circumnavigated on a third attempt a year later despite a collision with what was probably a whale, which holed the 42-foot wooden hull. He went on to fix the hull, return to Fremantle for a full repair and finally finish in 1973.

“He was an interesting man, one of a breed apart who are fewer and fewer every year, sadly,” says Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the only one of nine entries to finish the 1968 Golden Globe and claim the 5,000-pound prize.

King was born June 23, 1910, into an Anglo-Irish family from Galway, Ireland. His father, a lieutenant colonel in the British army, died in 1917 on the Western Front in World War I at age 42. Reared by his mother and grandmother, who took up sailing when she was 75, King was a first-rate boxer and long-distance runner, and at age 12 was sent to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth from 1922 to 1927 to prepare for a career in the Navy.

After college, he was posted to the battleship Resolution as a midshipman. At the outbreak of the war, King — then commanding officer of the submarine HMS Snapper — was ordered on patrol in the North Sea, where he sank six enemy ships from 1939 to ’41. He went on to command the HMS Trusty in the Mediterranean and the HMS Telemachus in the Far East, receiving seven medals for his wartime service.

That service included supporting covert operations in Malaya; providing cover for the resupply of Malta; and torpedoing enemy ships in the North Sea, the Mediterranean and Asia. And there were some very close calls: taking a direct hit from a British aircraft off England that, though unnerving, left his sub undamaged; maneuvering off a sand bank off the Dutch coast, where he ran aground because he couldn’t take navigational fixes for such a long time; and surfacing under cliffs off occupied Norway to replenish his air.

King retired from the Navy in 1948, marrying writer Anita Leslie — herself a colorful figure who had served in Africa in the British Motor Transport Corps from 1940 to ’42 and as an ambulance driver in the French army from 1944 to ’45. The couple bought a run-down castle, Oranmore, on Galway Bay, fixed it up and took up farming.

King also took up single-handing — in self-defense, he said, to settle himself down after the severe hardship and stress of his war years as a submarine sailor, being the hunter and the hunted. By 1967, he was eyeing a solo circumnavigation. “A number of yachtsmen, mostly British, had decided quite separately that a full circumnavigation should be attempted, and Bill was determined to lead the pack,” Ewen Southby-Tailyour writes in his book “Blondie” about Lt. Col. H.G. Hasler, the retired Royal Marine who developed the junk-rigged Jester for racing single-handed across the Atlantic.

Southby-Tailyour says King put his head together with Hasler and yacht designer Angus Primrose to build a junk-rigged boat for single-handing around the world and racing in the Golden Globe.

King took up solo sailing as a release after his wartime submarine service.

“Bill’s boat, Galway Blazer, was of ultra-light build, 4-1/2 tons on a 30-foot waterline; 42 feet overall with four laminations of plywood, cold-molded and glued with a total thickness of three-fourths of an inch and high freeboard,” Southby-Tailyour writes. “Her cockpit was below the deck and had two circular access hatches into which hurricane covers could be fitted, one of which had a plastic observation dome. The two masts were unstayed and supported Chinese lug sails.”

Knox-Johnston says Galway Blazer appeared to be the favorite to win the Golden Globe, but she fell out with the other entries while Knox-Johnston’s 32-foot Suhaili, one of the race’s smallest boats, went on to complete the 20,000-plus-mile circumnavigation.

King wrote several books about his World War II and sailing experiences: “The Stick and the Stars,” about World War II; “Capsize,” about the Golden Globe; “Adventure in Depth,” about his sailing; “Dive and Attack,” an update of “The Stick and the Stars”; and “The Wheeling Stars: A Guide for Lone Sailors,” about single-handing.

King was one of a tough, adventurous, immensely resourceful generation that grew up in Britain either fighting in WWII or supporting the war back home as the fighting and constant bombings took a terrible toll on the British land and people. “I think we grew up with a besieged mentality,” Knox-Johnston says. “This idea that you’ve just got to get out there and get on with it — that influenced a lot of people of my generation.” And King’s, as well, he says. (Knox-Johnston was 6 years old when the war ended).

“There was a whole group of us in the 1960s going out and doing things,” he says. “We were looking for a bit more adventure in life.”

Bill King fit that mold.

December 2012 issue