Paying Tribute to Ocean Racing Pioneer Les Williams

The British maxi yacht Condor of Bermuda, co-skippered by Les Williams & Robin Knox-Johnston as they compete in the 1977/8 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Peter Blake was First Mate. Credit: Alastair Black/Barry Pickthall


Eight bells have rung for Les Williams, one of sailing’s pioneering mavericks from the 1960s to the 1980s, who passed away in late January. Les was a member of Royal Southern Yacht Club for more than 40 years.

During his Royal Navy days, Les was charged with forming and organising the training programmes at the UK’s Joint Services Sailing Centre (JSSC) based at Hasler, Gosport, in the central Solent, on the south coast of England.

He first came to fame with his fourth-place finish in the 1968 Single Handed Transatlantic Race in a yacht he later sold to Sir Chay Blyth. “As a young Lieutenant in the Navy, Les was one of the prime movers in starting the Joint Services Sailing Centre,” Sir Chay had to say of Les. “Les finished a very creditable fourth in the 1968 OSTAR, sailing a Gallant 54 named Spirit of Cutty Sark. Les then went on to skipper the 80-foot maxi Burton Cutter in the first Whitbread Race in 1973, winning the first leg by more than a day. A young Peter Blake was his number two on board. The big moment for Les was opening a new racing route after the Equator. Instead of going down the side of South America, he showed it was possible to sail close hauled through the Southeast Trade Winds which won him the first leg of the race.”

Sir Chay added, “Les was unassuming and very happy to stay in the background. As a leader, he always generated great camaraderie onboard, and crews adored him.”

The 80-foot Barton Cutter was built in Poole by a company more used to making fuel tanks than boats. Before the start of the first Whitbread Race in 1973, Burton Cutter’s crew was cutting wood to make berths as they sailed out of the Solent. There would there be no time even to hoist her sails before the race. For Peter Blake, then a keen-but-green 25-year-old, the experience was a baptism by fire. “We had a big drum of rope in the cockpit, and I was cutting off the sheets to size each time we hoisted a new sail,” he recalled years later.

Improvisation during the race was key. Arriving late for measurement at HMS Vernon, Burton Cutter was found to be unbalanced, the bow rising too high in the water. Skipper Williams was at a loss as to how to reballast her in the short time available. But owner Alan Smith had a solution. A West Country businessman who was more about hunting and shooting than sailing, he simply rang up his gunsmith and arranged for lead shot to be poured into her skeg.

Les would also race with Robin Knox-Johnston, with whom he won the 1970 Round Britain and Ireland Race aboard the 71-foot monohull Ocean Spirit. Sir Robin said of that time, “Les and I sailed together over seven years from 1971 to 1978. We won the 1970 two-handed Round Britain Race, achieved Line Honours in the first Cape Town to Rio Race, and then shared skippering Heath’s Condor in the 1977/1978 Whitbread Round the World Race. He proved an agreeable companion, good seaman and excellent sailor, and has left me some very happy memories.”


‘Challenger’ 1981/82 Whitbread Round The World Race: FCF Challenger skippered by Les Williams Credit: Barry Pickthall


Les’s sailing credits though the ‘70s and early ‘80s include Single Handed Transatlantic Races, Round Britain Races, the first Cape Town to Rio Race and three Round the World Races. Les returned for the 1981/1982 Whitbread with the 80-foot maxi FCF Challenger, which was dismasted during the last leg.

In the earlier days of ocean racing, Les was a true pioneering spirit.