WE don't seem to honour the elderly any more in Ireland -- at least not the way many other cultures do, and in the way our society used to. So it was a real privilege to attend the 99th birthday of Second World War hero and sailing legend Commander Bill King in Oranmore, Co Galway, last Tuesday.
Bill is the last of a kind. One of those real-life adventurers, the sort who circumnavigate the world single-handedly, ski down steep ravines on frozen glaciers for the hell of it, and survive attacks from great white sharks. He was one of the very brave submarine commanders of the Second World War.
Bill was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order, and the Distinguished Service Cross, and holds the Burma Star, the Arctic Emblem and the Battle of Britain Star following 15 years' outstanding service at the helm of submarines with the Royal Navy. After the war, Bill took part in the first round-the-world yacht race, The Sunday Times Golden Globe. He did it to find inner peace after the war. He claimed the conflict had left him "a nervous wreck". His tiny one-man yacht, the Galway Blazer, was struck by a great white shark 400 miles south-west of Australia and Bill had to sail the boat while keeping the massive dent out of the water. As he couldn't turn the boat, he drifted towards Antarctica for three days, before the wind changed. His radio had been water-damaged in the incident and nobody knew he was in such trouble.
Alone, adrift, freezing and unable to sleep because he had to pump out water to say afloat, he had successfully blocked the hole with a spare sail and propped up the internal timbers with books. He also used toothpaste as part of his repairs.
He attempted to sail around the world solo twice more, and it was third time lucky in 1973. He was then the oldest man at 57 to circumnavigate the globe alone.
He met his Irish wife, the author and renowned beauty Anita Leslie, in Beirut in 1943, where he was stationed for a while during the war. Anita had been an ambulance driver with the French army and had taken a break to go skiing after a tour of duty. He shared a tent with her, woke up the next morning and gazed at this beautiful woman who had poured her heart out to him during the night about being miserably married to one man, while in love with another. He vowed to win her heart and steal her away from both of these men. He did marry her and they had two children, Tarka and Leonie, who have grown-up children of their own. Anita, was also my father's sister.
Bill and Anita bought a field with an old ruined castle in it for £200. They got it cheap "because no wanted to live in a ruined old castle back then". They refurbished it and lived in it, growing organic vegetables and indulging their passion for fox-hunting. Though I may disapprove, I recognise that in this, their views were very much of the time. Bill's yacht, the Galway Blazer, was named in honour of the famous hunt.
Bill was also an author, writing about life underwater during the war and life over water after the war. One of his books, The Wheeling Stars, tells of his ill-fated round-the-world yacht race and the shark incident. Bill said he kept his spirits up by reading the Koran, the New Testament and a book on Zen Buddhism whilst alone at sea.
The round-the-world trip took three years and he was the first solo yachtsman to navigate "south of the inhabited world".
We all got to see a sneak preview of a short film about Bill's encounter with the shark called King of the Waves, at the birthday party. The film will be screened at the Galway film festival. Bill is amazingly good company, one year short of a century and was still on the dance floor at 2am.