Chay at sea
In 1966, whilst serving in the army, he was part of a two-man team that rowed across the Atlantic in a 20-foot open dory. The journey took 92 days and involved many near-death experiences. In 1971, he became the first to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world against prevailing winds and currents, being honoured with a CBE for his efforts.
Subsequently, Sir Chay accumulated a staggering list of racing successes, taking part in numerous round Britain, transatlantic and round the world races. His high profile successes include breaking the two-handed transatlantic record in 1981 and co-skippering the successful Blue Riband transatlantic attempt on Virgin Atlantic Challenger III in 1986.
In 1997, he was knighted for his services to sailing. Now 73, he lives in Gloucestershire with his second wife. This is his story:
"People often describe the achievements of my life in terms of bravery. But I don’t see it that way. For me it was always a simple matter of recognizing an opportunity and taking advantage of it. A lot of the adventures I’ve been involved with have been very tough. Many times I came close to death. To survive those moments I needed to be resourceful. For me, courage didn’t come into it. I just happened to have the right attitude and determination to succeed once I’d set myself a challenge.
From an early age I realised that life could be extremely boring if you allowed it to be. Being a working-class lad, I was expected to do what all the other lads did and work all my life in the factory. I quickly learnt that the nine-to-five grind wasn’t for me. At fifteen, I left school to work in a local knitwear factory as a frameworker.
I was a teddy boy at the time and didn’t take any nonsense from anyone. One day I broke the machine I was working on. I was chatting up one of the factory girls at the time and wasn’t concentrating. The foreman came up and started pushing me around, so I biffed him one on the nose. I got the sack and said my goodbyes to factory life.
At eighteen, I joined the army serving in the Parachute Regiment and within three years became the youngest sergeant in its history. It was here, working in desert and Arctic conditions, that I learnt all I needed to know about survival.
In 1966, my army officer John Ridgway advertised for a volunteer to row with him across the Atlantic. I might have seemed like an unlikely candidate in that my only experience at sea was an English Channel crossing by steamer. I couldn’t row, sail or navigate. I didn't even learn to swim until I was twelve. But there was no question of me not doing it. Having served in the Paras, I had the arrogance to believe that I was invincible, capable of achieving absolutely anything I put my mind to.
We set off from Cape Cod in a 20ft dory called English Rose 111. The general consensus was that we were both barking mad and had little chance of making it to the other side alive. The Coast Guard told us that our hands would drop off after three weeks and that we had a 95 percent chance of committing suicide. No matter. We’d both decided that we were ready for this physical adventure, to pit our wits against nature, and nothing anyone said was going to deter us.
The first sign of trouble came just a few days into the journey. On our transistor radio, we heard that Hurricane Alma was making its way up the Eastern Seaboard and was expected off Cape Cod by the next morning. We knew we were about to be battered by these ferocious storms. All we could do was prepare ourselves as best we could and wait for battle to commence. It all kicked off around 11pm. These massive waves hit us from all sides, the foaming sea water completely submerging our small boat. At times like those, you’ve got no time to feel fear. Every last fibre of your being is focused on survival as the storm repeatedly lashes your boat.
For close to 36 hours the storm raged. We survived but a lot of our rations had been destroyed. We’d only travelled a few hundred miles but, from that point on, we had to severely reduce our diet. At times we got by sucking on boiled sweets. We even kept the wrappers on to make them last longer. A few days after the hurricane, we were hit by a violent gale that, if anything, provided us with an even sterner test. We were blown off course with waves attacking from all sides. Again, we gave no thought to the possibility of dying. If anything, it was living. At the height of the danger I promised myself to be more appreciative of life when I made it to the other side.
Physically it was very tough. We suffered from severe backaches, swollen feet, blisters and painful neck sores. There were times when the sense of isolation weighed heavily on us. That sense of isolation from the rest of the world intensified when our transistor radio was swept away by a wave. It happened when we were listening to the commentary of the World Cup Final. Only when we arrived home did we find out that England had beaten West Germany. Out at sea, we were also unaware that two other sailors, David Johnstone and John Hoare, who’d set out on the same voyage a few days before us, had capsized and drowned in the middle of the North Atlantic.
"Having served in the Paras, I had the arrogance to believe that I was invincible, capable of achieving absolutely anything I put my mind to."
After 92 long days and nights at sea, we finally approached the Aran Isles off the west coast of Ireland. Even then, we faced one last grueling test when we found ourselves in the middle of a Force 9 gale that threatened to blow us against the rocks. Somehow we made landed at the little Irish village of Inishmore.
I now had the taste for adventure. In 1967, having left the army, I entered the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race around the world, my participation effectively ending when my thirty-foot sloop broached eleven times in one day.
Returning to England, I discovered I was completely broke and took a job as a travelling salesman for a beverage company. This proved to be a major turning-point as it meant that I learnt enough about business to enable me to get the sponsorship I needed if I wanted to continue my adventures.
I was restless and was looking for another physical challenge that would expand my horizons. I seriously considered crossing the Andes and canoeing down the Amazon. My wife Maureen said, “Why don’t you try sailing solo around the world the wrong way?” This immediately captured my imagination. It would involve travelling east to west in the high southern latitudes against the prevailing winds and currents. Sir Francis Chichester had described this as, “the impossible voyage.” That was enough for me. I just had to attempt it.
Again, I didn’t see this adventure in terms of bravery. As with anything else, I’d analyzed the situation to the best of my ability, worked out what the risks were, and decided that I was ready to take them. With the help of sponsorship, I had a modern steel yacht that I confidently expected to get me all the way around. Though I knew this would be no easy cruise.
In August 1970, I started out from Hook Buoy near Southampton Water on a 292-day adventure that would take me south to Cape Horn, travelling west against the Roaring Forties, across the Indian Ocean, around Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic to England. It was around Cape Horn that I first ran into trouble. Driven south into the ice fields by a Force 9 gale, my yacht was turned on its side and I suffered a painful head injury. But the injury was the least of my problems. As the boat overturned, my self-steering gear was smashed beyond repair. This was a major set-back as it meant that I would have to mostly steer the yacht myself for the rest of the journey. At times, I’d be awake at the wheel for nearly 24 hours at a stretch. At times I was so tired that I would start hallucinating very badly.
In February 1971, the yacht was hit by a graybeard wave which bent the mast and damaged the rigging. When I crossed the southern Indian Ocean, I was battered for five days and driven five hundred miles off course by the most horrific storm I’d yet experienced, and one which I could not have possibly survived if my yacht hadn’t been so well constructed.
When I finally landed back in England, I was totally unprepared for the reception I got. The first person I met when I stepped on shore was Prince Philip, followed by Prince Charles and the Prime Minister Ted Heath. A pretty serious line-up. I was on the front-page of newspapers for days afterwards. One paper even described my achievement as, “the most outstanding passage achieved by one man alone.” Wherever I went people asked for my autograph and I quite enjoyed the fame. But I had no interest in dwelling on something I’d done. I wanted to move as quickly as possible onto the next adventure.
The logical next step was to go into yacht-racing and so, in 1973, I took part in the Whitbread round-the-world race. My crew won the race in 144 days but one of my crew members was lost when he fell into the icy waters of the Roaring Forties between New Zealand and Cape Horn. I’m sometimes asked, “How can you carry on when something like that happens?” The simple answer is that we were all ex-paratroopers and we all knew the risks when we started out. Our attitude was, “If something goes wrong on the battlefield, you bloody well get on with it.”
In 1984, I found myself in another sticky situation when my yacht capsized off Cape Horn en route from New York to San Francisco. We ran into this incredible storm and just had sufficient time to get into our survival suits. The boat was turned upside down and we were effectively trapped in the boat underwater. We had to cut our way out and then had to spend nineteen hours in the freezing cold water before being rescued. When you’re in a situation there’s not much else to do but wait and try to catch up on some sleep.
The following year, I had to be rescued again when my boat, the Virgin Atlantic Challenger sank in the Atlantic. That’s when I realised that time was ticking on. I didn’t stop taking on adventures but increasingly I devoted my energies to the business side of things and to encouraging others to do extraordinary things. In 1989, I founded Challenge Business which provided the opportunity for people from all walks of life to take part in sailing events. The advice I give to others is the same advice I’ve been following myself all these years: seize the opportunity of a lifetime in the lifetime of the opportunity. In other words, life is too short to spend it sitting in front of a TV set. It’s only a question of attitude and application. Someone might feel they don’t possess enough knowledge to try something adventurous. But knowledge dispels the fear that stops you doing something. The more you do something, the more knowledgeable you become.
Why have I lived my life so adventurously? Because, like everyone else on the planet, I’ll have to face my final curtain sooner or later. When that moment arrives and I’m lying in bed looking at my toes, I’ll be asking those toes some hard questions. Have I enjoyed life? Have I taken all my opportunities? Have I done everything I’ve wanted to? Unless all the answers are in the affirmative, I’m going to be really, really pissed off.
Faced with two alternatives at any point in my life, I’d like to think I’ve always taken the bolder option. You can call that brave. You can call it what you like. All I know is that it’s made my life far more interesting than it would otherwise have been."