King, William Donald Aelian ('Bill') (1910–2012), submarine captain and yachtsman, was born on 23 June 1910 in Church Avenue, Farnborough, Hampshire, the only son of four children of William King, army officer, originally from Co. Galway, and his wife Georgina Marie (née Mackenzie), a Scotswoman. His great grandfather William King (qv), was a professor of natural history, geology and mineralogy at Queen's College Galway. His father was a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Engineers, receiving a DSO before being killed on the Western Front in 1917. Bill was brought up by his mother and maternal grandmother, the latter often taking him sailing in her yawl. An unruly lad, he went to a tough preparatory school aged eight and to the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, aged thirteen.
Following service on battleships in the Mediterranean from 1927, he joined the submarine service in 1931 and became a lieutenant the next year. In April 1939 he was made captain of the Snapper, which campaigned in the North Sea during 1939–40. For sinking or damaging six ships in 1940, he was awarded the DSO (May), the DSC (September) and was promoted to lieutenant commander (December). After the Snapper was lost during his onshore recuperation from illness in February 1941, he took command of the Trusty and endured a largely frustrating period patrolling the Mediterranean and South China seas.
Worn out, he was relieved from operational duty in autumn 1942 and served at bases in Malta and Beirut, being promoted a commander in June 1943. He cajoled his superiors into letting him back into a submarine and from summer 1944 had more success ranging between Ceylon and Australia in the Telemachus. A bar was added to his DSO for sinking a formidable Japanese submarine, the I-166, off Singapore in July 1944. Physically and psychologically broken by the time the war ended, he became a naval officer at Forth, Scotland, and tried to unwind by skiing, mountaineering and sailing. He climbed the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc and spent two seasons in the late 1940s navigating on John Illingworth's innovative race yacht, the Myth of Malham. In 1948 he resigned from the navy.
Since 1943 he had been in love with Anita Leslie (qv), a witty if troubled young woman, from an eccentric family of Anglo-Irish landowners that had converted to catholicism a generation earlier. When she became pregnant in 1948 by another admirer, Peter Wilson, King was willing to meet her urgent need for a husband and ostensible father, refusing only suggestions that he become a catholic. They married in January 1949 at Anita's family seat, Castle Leslie in Glaslough, Co. Monaghan, settling in a romantic but draughty seaside residence at Oranmore Castle, Co. Galway (really a partially restored fifteenth century keep that often flooded during high tide). While erecting a two-storey wing beside the 'castle' and gradually joining both structures with a single-storey range, they built a cosy hunting lodge nearby, which became their main residence due to Anita's asthma. Wilson also lived at Oranmore until 1953 where he oversaw the building work and helped raise his and Anita's son Richard ('Tarka').
In 1949–50 the newlyweds, accompanied by Tarka, spent their five-month honeymoon travelling the Caribbean in a purpose-built, 37-foot ketch, the Galway Blazer. Having earlier crossed the Atlantic in this yacht with one helper, King then piloted the Galway Blazer single-handed in the New York–Bermuda race before sailing home in a trans-Atlantic race as navigator for another boat. He was awarded the 1950 Hammond Cup for sailing 8,000 miles in one year.
The couple had a daughter Leonie in 1951, as their marriage blossomed after a fraught start. Enthusiastic foxhunters with the Galway Blazers and the Bermingham and North Galway clubs, they were a dashing pair, notable for frequenting riotous high society parties. They hosted Princess Margaret at Oranmore in 1965 and occasionally visited Winston Churchill (Anita's correspondent and distant cousin). Adhering to an austere 'nature cure' regimen with an emphasis on a diet of raw vegetables, King was lithe and fit into advanced old age. He threw himself into developing an organic farm at Oranmore, converting the surrounding bog and rock into farmland. From 1953 he also ran the Leslie family farms at Castle Leslie and at Drumlargen, Co. Meath.
Inspired by Sir Francis Chichester's 1966–7 achievement in sailing solo around the world with just one stop, King became determined to achieve a solo, uninterrupted circumnavigation, despite not having engaged in serious yachting since the early 1950s. Assisted by one of Britain's leading yachtsmen, Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler, he produced a radical design – a 42-foot, junk-rigged, twin-masted schooner with a buoyant, cigar-shaped hull of extremely light displacement. This made for easy handling, though the light hull and lack of wire rigging for the masts were considered risky. The spiralling cost of building Galway Blazer II denuded his savings and obliged him to lease his farm grazing rights and sell livestock.
Other yachtsmen had similar ambitions and he ended up being one of nine participants in the Sunday Times' Golden Globe Race, a non-stop, single-handed, around-the-world yacht race, leaving Plymouth in a blaze of publicity on 24 August 1968. The Galway Blazer II was not built for speed and he soon reconciled himself to defeat. In the event he was caught in an out-of-season hurricane, 1,100 miles southwest of Cape Town, capsizing briefly on 31 October and losing his main mast. Radioing for help, he erected a jury rig and made for Cape Town, being towed the last 200 miles.
For his second attempt in 1969, he tried high-peaked sails for going faster, but they proved unworkable and he quit at Gibraltar. He reverted to the original rigging and set off again in September 1970, subsisting as before on supplies of biscuits, raisins, sultanas and almond nut paste; he also grew bean sprouts and cress in jars while frying the occasional flying fish that landed on deck. When becalmed, he read great works of literature and the holy texts of the main world religions. In February 1971 the damage done to his hands by the polar air in the Southern Ocean forced him into port at Freemantle, Australia, completing the longest non-stop voyage in any boat under five tons.
Resuming his now staggered circumnavigation that December, King was 400 miles off Australia when his boat was struck by either a whale or a great white shark and holed on the waterline. He lifted the splintered section out of the sea by tacking to the other side, though waves washed in, forcing him to pump frantically. In the fifteen minutes initially available to him between pumping sessions, he improvised repairs using rope, nails, cloth, tape and rubber. After nine days of hard work and little sleep, he lowered the damaged side into the water and limped back to Freemantle, still pumping regularly. A testament to his physical and mental fortitude and capacity for thinking clearly and creatively under pressure, his survival of this fifteen-day ordeal earned him the Royal Cruising Club's Seamanship Medal.
His obsessiveness is best explained by his own words: 'The hardships of sea are clear cut and simple. You just act in a certain way or die … It's always wonderful to leave trivialities for the sweet clean life of a ship' (Leslie, Love in a nutshell, 207). Thus, he reached Plymouth on 23 May 1973 following a five-month journey from Freemantle in which he became the first sailor to pilot an unstayed, junk-rigged vessel around Cape Horn, doing so steering blind in 50-knot winds and icy fog. The Cruising Club of America conferred him its Blue Water Medal, the world's most prestigious award for deep-sea sailing in a small craft. He also received the freedom of Galway city. This experience finally banished his wartime demons, making him far more carefree. Financial necessity, however, forced him to sell the Galway Blazer II, which sank during a race in the Atlantic in 1996.
Farming desultorily at Oranmore, he kept sailing, crossing the Atlantic in a three-man crew in 1981, and travelled extensively, relying mainly on Anita's income from writing biographies. With her help, he completed two memoirs: The stick and the stars (1958, revised in 1983 as Dive and attack: a submariner's story) dealt with his wartime experiences; Adventure in depth (1975) was an account of his attempts to circumnavigate the globe mingled with flashbacks to the war. He also published Capsize (1969), a journal of his 1968 voyage; The wheeling stars: a guide for lone sailors (1989); and a novel, Kamikaze: the wind of God (1997). His great grand-nephew Luke Leslie produced a short film King of the waves (2009) dramatizing his struggle after the Galway Blazer II was holed off Australia.
Despite his very English manner, he identified increasingly with Ireland and was a popular member of Oranmore's community, being known locally as 'the commander'. (He donated to the Galway Museum the Irish Tricolour that he had flown on the Galway Blazer II while rounding the five great capes.) After Anita's death in 1985, he sold the hunting lodge and moved into Oranmore Castle to live with his daughter Leonie and her family. She had married Alec Finn, a traditional musician and founder of the Celtic folk group, De Danann. In 2004 King was visited by Akira Tsurukame, whose father had died when King sank the I-166 in 1944; they planted a reconciliation tree at Oranmore. King travelled to Japan in 2005 for a reconciliation ceremony where he was greeted by one of the few survivors of the I-166.
Taking up hang-gliding in his late seventies, he was spry and mentally sharp beyond his hundredth birthday, dying in Oranmore Castle of a respiratory tract infection on 21 September 2012. He was the last surviving second world war submarine captain. Following a funeral service at St Nicholas' collegiate church in Galway city, he was buried beside his wife Anita at Castle Leslie. There is a portrait of him by Augustus John in Oranmore Castle.