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Galway Bay Sailing Club Plan Exhibition Marking Golden Jubilee of Commander Bill King’s Solo Sail Around the World

23rd May 2023
Commander Bill King completes his solo sail around the world on May 23rd 1973, when he arrives off Plymouth, its breakwater in the background
Commander Bill King completes his solo sail around the world on May 23rd 1973, when he arrives off Plymouth, its breakwater in the background Credit: King family archive

An exhibition this autumn marking the golden jubilee Commander Bill King’s solo sail around the world is one of a number of events planned by Galway Bay Sailing Club (GBSC) commodore Johnny Shorten to pay tribute to an “unsung hero”.

It is 50 years ago today, May 23rd, since King sailed into Plymouth in his junk-rigged schooner, Galway Blazer II, as recalled in accounts over the past five days on Afloat here.

 Bill King receives 'a little help from my friends to get moored' as a Royal Navy launch tows Galway Blazer II into Plymouth Harbour Photo Courtesy: King family archive Bill King receives 'a little help from my friends to get moored' as a Royal Navy launch tows Galway Blazer II into Plymouth Harbour Photo Courtesy: King family archive

King had been missing at sea for five months when he lost radio contact after leaving Australia, and a relayed telegram to his wife Anita and family in Oranmore, Galway, on May 13th was the first confirmation that he was alive.

Home at Last with Family (Anita and Leoine) Photo Courtesy: King family archiveHome at Last with Family (Anita and Leoine) Photo Courtesy: King family archive

Shorten, who has been working with Leonie King, the late commander’s daughter, on his log and other memorabilia for the Afloat reports, said that as commodore of GBSC, “it’s hard to ignore the profound legacy of Commander Bill King”.

Galway Bay Sailing Club Commodore Johnny ShortenGalway Bay Sailing Club Commodore, Johnny Shorten

“A lovely sketch of the great man hangs in our committee room, looking down across the table with a kind smile,” he says.

“ It is as if he were guiding us on from beyond the grave, a constant reminder of all of his extraordinary achievements. Sometimes, when tough decisions have to be made, we look and say “Well Bill, what would you have done?” in the hope that we might be enlightened,” he says.

“As you move outward from the committee room into the club facilities, towards the townlands of Oranmore, Galway and beyond, I have always had a sense that his memory and achievements fade with distance,” Shorten says.

“This was brought to my attention recently while doing an interview with our local radio station on sports in the general Oranmore area. When the principal of the local secondary school listed off with great delight all the sports that the school actively promotes, unfortunately, sailing was not on her list (and not for want of trying on behalf of the GBSC),” he says.

“When my turn came, I was quick to point out the considerable challenge of promoting sailing as a sport, ironic when the school is only 50 metres from the sea, and an even shorter distance from the home of one of Ireland’s and the world’s sailing greats,” he says.

“ One can’t help but think that our community fails to embrace the heritage that sits on its own doorstep,” he says, noting that he “may be soon summoned to the principal’s office for my comments, detention looms again!”

“In 2020, GBSC celebrated its 50th anniversary, and we had great plans to centre a lot of the events around Commander Bill King, with exhibitions and talks in the club, coupled with some educational programmes in the local schools to promote the club, sailing and Commander King,” he recalls.

“ Then came the cursed Covid, and the focus had to be on making sure the club made it to the 51st year and beyond,” he says.

“The idea of celebrating the legacy of Commander King had never left my mind, and we had tossed around some ideas of getting television and media coverage around the club, its thriving junior membership and its greatest member,” Shorten continues.

“ I was also acutely aware that there was a treasure trove of artefacts and documents associated with Commander King dispersed across various members of his family. There was also a shared vision among all concerned to bring this unique and historic collection into the public domain, such that his legacy would be preserved and available to future generations,” he says.

“Over the past months, I have attended many meetings with museums, universities and institutes on how best to mount an exhibition in this, the 50th anniversary of Commander King’s completion of his round-the-world adventure,” he explains.

Commander Bill King’s solo sail around the world

“ Many times, across different groups and individuals, a comparison between Tom Crean and Commander King has been made. While from different sides of the track, they both were unsung heroes who lived life to the full on their own terms and of their own choice. They both faced the prospect of death on many occasions, overcame extreme challenges and lived to tell the tale,” he says.

Commander Bill King’s solo sail around the world

“I hope that we can start that same process that brought Tom Crean in from the cold, applying those same learnings to promote and keep the Commander Bill King story alive,” he says.

“In the same heroic manner that Tom Crean sailed off for Elephant Island, Commander King hung by his toenails off the lifelines of Galway Blazer II for three days, attempting to patch a major hole in the hull with whatever bits and pieces he could find, while alternately bailing out the ever-rising water in order to stay afloat and more importantly, to stay alive,” Shorten recalls.

“These are the qualities that capture the imagination of children; that can-do attitude that anything is possible; it’s yours for the taking; never give up -qualities I feel that are sometimes lacking in today’s generation,” he says.

“Over the coming months, we will be embarking on an effort to ensure that the qualities, the legacy and the sense of adventure that made Commander King the legend that he is, endures,” Shorten says.

This plan includes:

  • Working with the King family to gather much of the artefacts and documents associated with Commander King;
  • The Marine Institute has made substantial progress in cataloguing the many documents they have received from the King family;
  • Scanning the recently received logs for 1970, 71, 72 and 73;
  • The Galway Museum will mount an exhibition in October to mark the 50th anniversary;
  • The Galway Museum will also start planning for a more permanent exhibition in their new extension, due 2025;
  • Possibility of the exhibition going on tour to other locations, nationally and internationally;
  • The national broadcaster, RTE, has committed to doing a Nationwide feature in September to be broadcast in October;
  • Creating the Commander King experience online at ;
  • Fundraising to support the above.

“The great hope is that in years to come, when we celebrate future milestones, his legacy will precede him and that a new generation will carry the torch, keeping the Commander Bill King story alive,” Shorten says.

“ Who knows, someday the town of Oranmore may erect a statue in his honour, a fitting tribute to this unsung hero…”

Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

Email The Author

Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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