Saving Gipsy Moth IV

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The ketchmade famous by Sir Francis Chichesterran aground on a reef in the South Pacific.

Here’s how it happened and how they freed her

The ketchmade famous by Sir Francis Chichesterran aground on a reef in the South Pacific.

Here’s how it happened and how they freed her

Editor’s note: The historic 53-foot ketch Gipsy Moth IV in 1966-’67 carried Sir Francis Chichester around the world, making him the first man to complete a solo circumnavigation with just one

port of call. Gipsy Moth IV recently underwent a five-month $550,000 restoration and was once more working her way around the globe to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Chichester’s voyage when the incident described below occurred.

By Paul Gelder

Saturday,April 29, 1815 hours: It was twilight when Gipsy Moth IV struck the reef with a sickening crunch. The South Pacific may be a sailor’s paradise, boasting some of the world’s most exotic, enchanting waters but lurking beneath her cobalt blue, treacherous low-lying coral reef wait to test the skills of the most experienced yachtsman.

Two-hours earlier, Gipsy Moth’s crew of six motored through the Tiputa Pass on the island of Rangiroa – the largest atoll in the Tuamotus – accompanied by dolphins. They steered west for Tahiti and took photographs of the spectacular sunset. The Tuamotu Islands in French Polynesia are known as the “Dangerous Archipelago.” The Pacific Crossing Guide warns: “The atolls are only as high as the tallest palm tree whose roots are only feet above sea level.”

After hoisting the running foresail, 32-year-old skipper Antonia Nicholson went below to fill in the log, and 24-year-old first mate Chris Bruce went below to get supper started. Left in the cockpit were two teenagers and helper Linda Crew-Gee, who is 50.

With the noise of the engine, it seems no one heard the sound of pounding surf on the reef getting louder … and closer. It was a miracle Gipsy Moth wasn’t smashed to pieces when a big Pacific swell picked her up and hurled her toward a flat coral shelf that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. Instead, it carried her some 65 to 100 feet across the coral before dropping her, as if on a cushion of water.

There she lay, beyond the reach of successive waves that would certainly have pounded her to matchwood. The forces of nature had spun the 53-foot ketch 180 degrees so she was facing the way she’d come, lying at a crazy angle on her starboard side.

“I felt incredibly sad that she ended up there as part of our negligence,” says Crew-Gee.

It was another miracle that as Gipsy Moth lay at the mercy of the elements for the next week, the ocean swell remained benign while an international rescue plan was formulated. A tsunami warning three days after the grounding, following a sea quake in Tonga, turned out to be a false alarm, but not before it had caused several missed heartbeats among the rescue team.

Nicholson, who had to bear the ultimate burden of responsibility for the disaster, bravely stayed aboard that first night, having made sure the crew was safely led ashore by Bruce. While the others spent the night in a local police station, Nicholson huddled in Gipsy Moth’s cockpit, drenched by breaking waves, listening to the awful crunch of wood on coral and the sound of splitting bulkheads as her beloved yacht was rocked.

Now it was a race against time to save the ketch. Within hours of the grounding, a 24-hour emergency incident room was set up at the UK Sailing Academy headquarters in Cowes, Isle of Wight. Four days later the rescue team convened for its first meeting, at 0900 in a waterfront hotel in Papeete, Tahiti, 180 miles away from the wreck. Present were Richard Baggett, the UKSA’s lead skipper for the Gipsy Moth project, who had flown from England; Bert Kleijwegt, known as the “Red Adair of salvage,” a top consultant from Dutch maritime services company Smit in Rotterdam; Bruno Videau, a marine surveyor in Tahiti; and Peter Seymour, a director of the Blue Water Rally, who was already in Tahiti with other rally yachts. Seymour had flown to Rangiroa the day after the accident to assess the damage and liaise with the UKSA and local salvage experts.

The plan was simple; it had to be, since the remote Tuomotu islands have only basic facilities. But at least Rangiroa had a JCB-type excavator — the only one on the island — and it was quickly pressed into service, put on a barge, and dispatched across the lagoon to the wreck site. The JCB would be used to lift the yacht so a plywood patch could make the damage watertight. A port authority tug was standing by in Tahiti to head for Rangiroa. The cost, including the tow, was estimated to be 100,000 pounds (around U.S. $184,000), and the local salvage team needed signatures on contracts before work could start. Faxes flew between the UKSA and Tahiti.

The day after the grounding, April, 30, I joined Videau, and we flew from Tahiti to Rangiroa to join the Techni Marine salvage team already on the spot. Looking down from the plane, we saw the old wreck of another yacht that had hit another part of Rangiroa’s reef. We were met at the airstrip by a large dory with a 50-hp outboard, which sped us across the lagoon to the wreck site, 40 minutes away. On the way we stopped twice to load up with sandbags, 14 truck tires and wooden planks.

My first glimpse of Gipsy Moth, a mile away through a gap in the mangroves and palm trees, was heartbreaking. She lay on her side on a wild, barren stretch of reef, her red ensign still fluttering from the mizzen mast. We waded ashore to unload materials. Beyond the strip of beach, a crude A-frame shelter had been made for skipper Nicholson, who had been joined by John Jeffrey (due to sail on Gipsy Moth from Tahiti to Tonga). The yacht’s lifebuoy, fuel cans, a sail and Chichester’s old paraffin stove formed a sort of base camp for the enormous task ahead.

From here we waded through knee-deep water for another quarter-mile to get to the ocean side of the coral ledge where Gipsy Moth lay stranded. From the undergrowth behind us emerged the excavator, trundling across the beach like some prehistoric creature, belching smoke as its tracks crunched on dead coral.

With only seven hours of daylight left, the lifting operation began. Using strops, first the stern and then the bows were raised. Sandbags and tires were placed under the hull to get the damaged area above water. An oil drum crumpled under the weight of the yacht. Once the hull was high enough, workers crawled underneath to assess the damage: one broken frame, plus a hole 12 inches across and several smaller holes. The damaged area was about 8 feet long and 3-1/2 feet high.

By 1500 the first of two big plywood patches coated in Sikaflex sealant were nailed and screwed to the hull. It was difficult and potentially dangerous work, as waves washed across the reef and workers struggled in chest-deep water. If one big wave had moved the yacht, they could have been crushed. Another big plywood patch was placed over the others, a sort of giant Band-Aid. By now it was 1800, and a sliver of moon behind a bank of trade wind clouds illuminated an eerie scene. Further work was impossible, and the excavator clanked and clattered its way back across the reef to dry land.

Early the next morning wooden planks were nailed to the hull as a kind of sacrificial skid on which Gipsy Moth could be pulled across the reef to deep water. Quick-setting cement was poured into the damaged hull area from inside the yacht. An orange trysail was lashed to the side deck, with a line under the hull, ready to use in an emergency if the hull was further damaged.

The moment of truth was close. The tug was due to arrive from Tahiti. Would Gipsy Moth break her back as she was pulled over the edge of the reef into deep water? Would the patches hold? Would she leak … or sink?

It was decided that Jeffrey and UKSA’s Baggett would be aboard as she was pulled off the reef. The breaking surf would have made it impossible to board her afterward, except from seaward, and we’d run out of time. The yacht’s safety gear, lifebuoy and other items were brought from base camp. The inflatable Avon dinghy was tied to the yacht as a “life raft.” Life jackets were found, and at 1215 local time the tug arrived and fired a messenger line to pull the heavy tow line ashore. We shook hands as Baggett and Jeffrey scrambled aboard for what John described as “a boys’ own adventure.” The night before, with a swell of 16.5 feet predicted, John joked: “It’s either good for surfing or getting a boat off a reef.”

As the tug maneuvered to take up the slack tow line, marine surveyor Videau, on the reef, talked to the tug skipper on a hand-held VHF. For the first time in a week Gipsy Moth started to edge back toward her natural element in three heart-stopping maneuvers. A ghastly grinding of wood on coral could be heard over the crashing surf as she was dragged around so her bows faced the reef edge. A second pull bought her into the surf. As a big wave broke around her, a final yank slid her into the deep, blue Pacific, and she suddenly sprang upright to loud cheers from the salvage team.

It was 1240 local time May 7, and a new chapter in Gipsy Moth IV’s charmed life was about to begin. Some 321 days after she was relaunched last June at Camper & Nicholsons, the Restoration Part II could now begin.

Paul Gelder is editor of the British magazine Yachting Monthly and was in Tahiti to meet Gipsy Moth IV. He joined the salvage team on Rangiroa.