In my first season I sailed that boat 2,510 miles, including three races. Our racing record was one of the worst in the club, but I was learning.
Next season in the North Sea Race one of Gipsy Moth II’s crew was an ex-wartime naval commander, who claimed to have sailed a lot. He had been maddening the rest of the crew throughout the race across the North Sea. We crossed the finishing line in the dark, running downwind with spinnaker set in a fresh breeze. Two of the crew were lowering the spinnaker, I was at the helm, and I asked the fourth man of the crew, my naval friend, to take in the rotating log trailing astern. When he said he must have someone to help him do it I was so enraged that I felt a hot flood in my belly as if something had burst inside me.
On the way back from Rotterdam to the Solent I began to feel ill. Sailing down channel I asked this same man to pump the bilge, but he refused. I pumped it myself, but shortly afterwards was in agonies. Later in the season, before the start of my first Fastnet Race, I was becoming a sick man. The race took us six days, and before it ended, I had to be helped out of my bunk to the cockpit, and had difficulty in holding on while navigating. I went off to a hospital where a specialist, after examining the X-ray, said that I was a typical case of chronic arthritis.
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I certainly was in a bad way; I could not open a door without great difficulty, even using two hands, and once I dropped a full plate of soup over myself because I was unable to grasp it. I started visiting the hospital regularly for treatment. One day my nature-cure family doctor said to me, ‘Ask your fellow patients how long they have been receiving this treatment, and then decide for yourself whether it seems likely to cure you.’ This made me think hard, and as a result I underwent a severe course of nature-cure treatment at Edstone. Shortly after I arrived there I sat down on the ground on a fine autumn day and was unable to get to my feet again. I had to wait there until someone happened along who could pull me up. Fortunately the treatment succeeded; it seemed to take a long time, but by next spring I was a fit man and started a hard season’s racing in Gipsy Moth II. The first race of the season was the 220 miles race from Southsea to Harwich by way of the Hinder Lightship in the North Sea. Gipsy Moth II won this race outright. It sounds terrific, but the truth is that the going was very slow in light airs as far as the Dover Straits, and many of the other competitors gave up. One of our own crew said we must stop racing and put him ashore. I said, ‘There’s the shore; you can swim for it if you wish, but Gipsy Moth is racing on.’ Perhaps the real reason why we won was because we had Marston Tickell, a Sapper Colonel, on board, who is one of the best ocean racers that I know. The way he made Gipsy Moth sail was a revelation to me. When we reached our mooring at Harwich at the end of the race we found the Ann Speed not only moored up but all her crew were away ashore. We were much depressed to think of one of our competitors having got in so far ahead of us. It seems extraordinary how this deep depression can go with success; our rival had given up the race at Dover, and cut across the Thames Estuary to shorten the distance by 45 miles.
The next year we raced hard again. The Cowes-Dinard Race was interesting. Sheila sailed in it, and two other members of the crew were Martin Jones and Michael Jones. Martin had crewed for me in a number of races, and I regarded him as hard to beat as a deckhand and helmsman. Michael was a lieutenant in the Navy, and later became the Queen’s Sailing Master skippering Bloodhound, the Duke of Edinburgh’s 34-ton yacht, and a very different proposition from Gipsy Moth II. There was a fresh wind with a choppy sea, and I was cutting the corner fine at Guernsey, standing in as close to the rocks as I dared in the hope of avoiding a tack and the loss of time that it would cost. Mike did not like being in so close, because he had been wrecked on these rocks in another boat, and Sheila was gossiping with him below about social nothings because, she told me afterwards, she thought the atmosphere was too tense. I barked harshly at them (a sure sign that the skipper is too tense himself) because I wanted to be ready to tack at a second’s notice. At that moment I saw a column of water shoot 20 feet straight into the air, where a wave had hit a submerged rock a cable’s length (200 yards) on the beam. I said nothing to Mike, because I thought he would have a fit, but I laughed to myself and carried on – if the rocks were going to show up as clearly as that, I need not worry. We managed to scratch past without having to tack. Sheila was presented with a cup by the handsome commodore of the Dinard Yacht Club, and I think nothing could have given her more pleasure.
At the end of Gipsy Moth’s fourth racing season she had started in sixteen RORC races and I had learned a lot about sailing; perhaps more important, I was aware how much more there was to learn.