REMEMBERING BILL KING: Hot Damage Control Tips From a Dead Golden Globe Sailor

Bill King on Galway Blazer II

I WAS AMAZED TO LEARN that Bill King, one of the nine sailors who in 1968 joined in the famous Golden Globe Race, the very first singlehanded non-stop race around the world, died late last week. I had assumed he must have died many years ago, but no… he’s been alive and kicking all this while, working his organic farm at Oranmore Castle in County Galway in Ireland. In the end he made it all the way to 102 years before finally passing on to whatever comes next last Friday.

For a man who thought himself timid and confessed often to feeling very afraid, King led quite the daring life. He commanded submarines for the Royal Navy throughout World War II, saw much action, and was decorated seven times. He turned to ocean sailing as a means of quelling the demons that haunted him after the war. He served as navigator for John Illingworth aboard the legendary Myth of Malham and cruised the West Indies with his family on his own 24-foot ketch, which he named Galway Blazer, after the hunt club he rode with in Ireland.

King had already started preparing for a singlehanded circumnavigation aboard a custom-built lightweight cold-molded junk named Galway Blazer II when the London Sunday Times announced it was offering two Golden Globe awards for the first and fastest to sail around the world alone without stopping. Though he wasn’t anxious to turn his own voyage into a competition, King felt he had little choice but to join in and at age 58 was the oldest to sail in the race. He made it as far as the Southern Ocean, where Galway Blazer was dismasted in a fierce survival storm. Thanks to an ingenious A-frame jury mast he had stowed on deck all ready to hoist and rig, he managed to make it to Cape Town without difficulty.

Galway Blazer II

Galway Blazer II during a test sail in the Solent. She was designed by Angus Primrose. Note the whale-backed deck and lack of stanchions and lifelines

Galway Blazer II drawing

Drawing of Galway Blazer II by Leonard Clow showing the integral jury mast stowed on deck

Determined to complete his circumnavigation, King set out alone again in Galway Blazer in 1971, but was holed by a submerged object or creature 400 miles off the coast of Australia. His description of how he coped with this emergency, from his book The Wheeling Stars (published by Faber & Faber in 1989), makes an excellent tutorial for any sailor forced to confront a similar situation:

AT ABOUT 1600, I was down below, doing some chore just forward of the mainmast and facing to port. Suddenly there was an awful bang: the boat shuddered and under my horrified gaze a giant carbuncle mushroomed inwards on the boat’s hull. It was 2 or 3 feet across. There were splits, rents and cracks across it, water was gushing into the boat. As the damage extended to below the waterline and it was on the lee side, we were sitting on top of it and it was well pressed down. One of the ribs across it which had previously been concave was now convex. It just held, but only just.

Panic! I raced up on deck with all the alternative causes racing through my brain. Navigation had perhaps gone haywire and we had hit Australia supposedly hundreds of miles away; although I had recently been on deck, had I failed to notice another vessel? Wreckage was a strong possibility. An iceberg was marked on the chart as having been recorded here in some bygone age. Killer whales were known to have abounded in the days of the South Australian whale fishery, preying on the unfortunate hunted sperm whales and actually aiding their human tormentors, acting as auxiliary drivers of the prey; finally the great white shark, another relentless killer, is known to inhabit these waters.

There was nothing in sight on the surface of the sea, a grey-green swirl was disappearing in my wake.

Many years previously, I was sailing a 30sq metre, Tre Sang, from moorings in the Clyde where she had lain all summer, for Gosport. We ran into a southerly buster in the Estuary and it transpired that planks had opened up in the sun and on one tack the water poured in. It did not take long to twig the fact that one must get on the other tack, allow the wind to press the boat over and lift the crack out of the water and then make a rough job caulking the leak. I had then two crew members with me and, although seasick, they were at that time able to help.

Out in the Southern Ocean, however, I suspect panic had clouded my mind and, if it had not been for a memory of that incident in the Clyde, I might not have made the quick and obvious decision to put the boat on the other tack, then alas pointing for Antarctica, and lift the damage upwards. Now the water was only splashing in from waves, the spouting had stopped.

I pumped out the water in the bilges and made a craven rush for my radio transmitter. ‘Mayday’ went out in hysterical yelps. A terrible feeling of guilt at calling out the rescue services swept over me, partly assuaged, I confess, by the fact that I was a personal friend of the senior naval officer in Fremantle. All this was a glorious waste of time. There was a defect in the transmitter: no signal got through. This did wonderfully concentrate the mind. I had at first thought out the alternatives: one, go gurgling down with the boat; two, get in my one-man inflatable life-raft and survive perhaps hours or days; or three, jump over the side and get it over.

Despair had set in as panic subsided. However, the boat was afloat; on the new tack the leak was containable. It was now up to me, someone I had never thought very much of, but who now, for a change, got it right.

I realized that repairs could be made and that they must be made quickly. If the wind subsided we should come upright, the damage would no longer be lifted out of the water and the leaks would no longer be containable; if it blew strongly the situation would probably become out of hand.

All through the long period of frenzied endeavour I raced between repair work and the pump. The first thing I tried was according to classic instruction. I should secure a sail over the damaged area on the outside. This ploy often works when the topsides of a boat are stove in. However, I doubted if sailcloth would be effective in rough seas below the waterline. Leaving the pumps for fifteen-minute intervals I dragged the storm jib up on deck and prepared it with fore-and-aft lines, a lowering line and a bottom line. It took hours, but by degrees I hove the sail down taut over the damage and slipped below to inspect the effect which it had. To my dismay the sail, being too big and clumsy to adapt itself to the wineglass hull, was acting as a water-scoop and vastly increasing the inflow. Laboriously I gathered the jib in and stowed the soggy mass below. Possibly it might have worked if we came to a stop, but this I dared not risk; the hole had to be raised above sea level.

The first thing I had to do was plug the worst of the rents and cracks. I used a combination of toweling which I had used to keep the spray and rain from going down my neck, combined with strips of rubber sponge which I had on board by pure chance.

All this had to be done with delicacy to avoid enlarging the damage. About every fifteen minutes I had to break off to pump the bilges. As my repairs improved the situation, the intervals between pumping became mercifully and progressively longer. My main fear was that the bent rib would give way, and I next attended to this.

I had a spare main boom and I cut this off to a suitable length to make a shore. The inner end bore up against a strength piece on the hull opposite to the damage. The end bearing on the rib I first positioned by lengths of rope tightened in three opposing directions; then I hammered in hard wood wedges to make a firm support.

Repaired sailboat hull

Completed repairs inside the hull

I next tackled the outside of the hull. I inspected the damage with a sinking heart–it looked appalling. My idea was to nail something over the damage, preferably a square of canvas. I hung myself upside down over the side by my heels and started to hammer long, boatbuilders’ saw-nails into the hard mahogany. It was a failure: I could not hammer them in straight in the existing conditions. On my subsequent voyage I took shorter, broad-headed tack nails; now they were six hundred miles away; water was pouring up my nose to discourage me further.

I then remembered from my old battleship days ‘the collision mat’. This was an article for damage control, to cover a hole in the hull caused by an enemy torpedo.

It consisted of a large square mat, about 20 feet across with eyelets at each corner. It was made of canvas with oakum worked into it so that one side of it looked like a tatty fur coat. A chain bottom-line was kept permanently rigged and this was attached to the lowest corner of the mat; a lowering line opposite this was manned by a group of strong Royal Marines. Their buddies then hauled away on the bottom line on the other side of the ship. The remaining corners were attached to lines leading well forward and aft and manned by seaman. The Royal Marine tug-of-war team hauled so strongly that they almost lifted the battleship out of the water. With the fore-and-afters taut the oakum ‘thrums’ made a watertight compress. Meanwhile, the shipwrights below would be shoring up bulkheads and trying to isolate the damage.

So I decided to make a collision mat. The bottom-line had to be passed by sitting up in the bows, throwing the loop of a line over the stem and paying out both ends as I wriggled aft on my bottom. I had two partial failures with first a square piece of canvas locker-top, then a pair of mackintosh trousers, too small. I did, however, improve them by passing more lines under the boat and hauling them taut on top of the mats to clamp them. But square sides don’t fit on a curved surface and wineglass hull form. The battleships had been slab-sided.

Suddenly I thought of a long-lost lesson in applied mechanics: a four-legged chair with one short leg will rock, a three-legged chair cannot. In a burst of light I visualized a triangular mat. Working at fevered pace I unpicked the triangular strengthened tackpiece of the storm jib which I had previously used as a jury sail. It was easy to fit, had an eyelet at one corner and sail tapes, which could be knotted, up the sides. In place, hauled taut and clamped down with two more ropes over it, the trick was done. I foresaw that I should soon dare to sail on the other tack with the damage underneath me.

Sailboat hull repairs

Completed repairs outside the hull

Some very tricky fine work had then to be done. I worked some sticky tape impregnated with yellow goo (mercury chromate) into all the remaining fine cracks and then made three timber pads to cover the weakest parts of the carbuncle of cracked wood. These were held in place by three more shores positioned like the shore on the rib, but lightly wedged with soft wood to avoid splintering off the damaged portion. All this took three days, during which I was sailing in the wrong direction. Mercifully the wind stayed as it was, pressing the boat over, keeping the damage high and relatively dry.

Sometimes I would rest, getting up to pump as necessary–but not much rest.

At last I had the confidence to tack and head for Fremantle. The pace was slow, the thirteen ropes around the hull acted as a brake and made a drumming noise in the water. The repairs held and I sailed home thankfully.

I OFFER THIS LENGTHY EXCERPT not only to illustrate exactly how a hole in a boat’s hull can be staunched in extremis, but also to show how incredibly persistent and creative King was in effecting his repair. It is fair to ask, given his “craven rush” for his busted radio, whether he wouldn’t have called for an evacuation if he had an EPIRB aboard, but still I would never, ever, sell this guy short. Even if it had been possible, I think in the end he would have focussed on bringing his boat home himself.

And yes… Bill King did eventually–after again repairing Galway Blazer–complete his solo circuit of the globe in 1973. Proclaiming that his wartime nightmares had at last been exorcised, he then retired from sailing. Later, at age 78, he took up hang-gliding.

Bill King hang-gliding

In a word, the man was indomitable.

RIP: William Donald Aelian King (June 23, 1910 – Sept. 21, 2012)

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7 Responses
  1. Nick Kats

    Great Charlie!!
    Today’s issue of the London Times features a full page obit on Billy.
    I know his Norman castle in Oranmore at the head of Galway Bay. I had long admired it & wondered about who lived in it. Only found out when I read the obit this morn.

  2. Charlie

    Hey Nick: Coincidentally my wife’s sister from Galway was visiting over the weekend when I heard the news. Her uncle-in-law (in Newfoundland) died the day after King.

  3. Charlie

    @Max: Galway Blazer was owned by a Peter Crowther for some 20 years after Bill King was done with her. I believe in the end she was lost in the North Atlantic. cheers! charlie

  4. Frank Smith

    Peter Crowther mentioned above keeps the Green Dragon in Stoke Fleming South Devon.

    @Max: Galway Blazer was owned by a Peter Crowther for some 20 years after Bill King was done with her. I believe in the end she was lost in the North Atlantic. cheers! charlie

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