Two in the morning dry-dock town
The river rolls in the night
Little gypsy moth she's all tied down
She quiver in the wind and the light

Yeah and a sailing ship is just held down in chains
From the lazy days of sail
She's just a lying there in silent pain
He lean on the tourist rail

A mother and her baby and the college of war
In the concrete graves
You never wanna fight against the river law
Nobody rules the waves

Yeah and on a night when the lazy wind is a-wailing
Around the Cutty Sark
The single handed sailor goes sailing
Sailing away in the dark

He's upon the bridge on the self same night
The mariner of dry dock land
Two in the morning but there's one green light
And a man on a barge of sand

She's gonna slip away below him
Away from the things he's done
But he just shouts, "Hey man what you call this thing"
He could have said, "Pride of London"

On a night when the lazy wind is a-wailing
Around the Cutty Sark
Yeah the single handed sailor goes sailing
Sailing away in the dark

Lyrics submitted by Dasch

"Single Handed Sailor" as written by Mark Knopfler

Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

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Single-Handed Sailor song meanings
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  • +5
    General CommentI listened to this song many times years ago without understanding the meaning. Then I moved to London and visited Greenwich with the reference to the Cutty Sark in this song in the back of my mind. Listening to the song and reading the lyrics I later realised that it all makes sense now. If you are ever in London, visit Greenwich, take a copy of the lyrics to this song and see how many references you can find.

    This is my interpretation:

    The "dry-dock town" is Greenwich in London and the river is the Thames. The "Little gypsy moth" is Sir Francis Chichester's Gipsy Moth IV in which he circumnavigated the globe single handedly. The boat is quite small and is overshadowed by the impressive "Cutty Sark" tea clipper which is also in dry dock nearby.

    At the time Knopfler wrote this song, the Gipsy Moth IV was in a dry dock at Greenwich "she’s all tied down", "a sailing ship just held down in chains" and slowly rotting away in quite a poor state "lying there in silent pain" after years of neglect and walked on by millions of tourist feet "He lean on the tourist trail".

    I am not sure who the "mother and her baby" are but the "college of war" is the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

    The second half of the song seems to have darker overtones. Chichester hated the boat ("hey man, what do you call this thing") and said 'Gipsy Moth IV has no sentimental value for me at all' ("he could have said 'pride of London'") and sold it for 1 pound and a gin and tonic.

    In June 2005 the Gipsy Moth IV was relaunched after a full restoration and is now sailing around the world again, this time crewed by a group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sailing away in the dark.
    Skippy19on February 21, 2006   Link
  • +3
    General CommentAn ode to Sir Francis Chichester, who skippered \"Gypsy Moth IV\" around the world single-handedly in the late 1960\'s at about 80 years of age.
    Gypsy Moth IV is moored permanently on land next to the Cutty Sark at Grreenwich, London.
    The guitar riff is reminiscent of Dave Gilmour\'s lead solo at the end of Pink Floyd\'s \"Another Brick in the Wall Part 2\".
    chrisb1on April 23, 2005   Link
  • +3
    General CommentMark Knofler is the single handed sailor. He can't sleep and is wandering Greenwich at 2 am and the scene unfolds. The mother is pushing a baby carriage for some unkown reason on one side, the "College of War" is on the other and between them are the sad sights of two great ships held down in chains.

    The line "What do you call this thing" is indeed spoken by a man sliding by on a barge, not by the man on the river bank in Greenwich. The river is rolling away in the night (the Thames is tidal at this point) so the barge is slipping away downriver. A boat going downriver shows its starboard side to Greenwich, so from Greenwich you would see a green light on the boat.

    Perhaps Mark Knofler is thinking of going it alone rather than staying with the band at this point, perhaps he's conttemplating the fact that great success can end in concrete graves or, worse empty tourist-trail popularity.

    In any case he is the single handed sailor in dry-dock land who could say that these boats are the pride of london but he just wanders off away from the scene in the dark without resolving anything.
    seanbradyon January 14, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentYes, I agree with the previous answers, but I also think the the "mother and her baby" is another reference to the big Cutty Sark and the baby Gypsy Moth, right outside the Naval College of War.

    Incidentally, the Cutty Sark has just been extremely badly damaged by fire, possibly started deliberately. It made me think of this song again, after many years.
    uffyon May 24, 2007   Link
  • +1
    General CommentIt could be allegorical as others have said. However it could also refer to the ghost of Sir Francis Chichester that goes "sailing away in the dark".
    chrisb1on March 20, 2010   Link
  • 0
    General CommentYeah, but what actually _happens_ in the song, and how do the two verses hang together?
    I'd say the man "upon the bridge" in verse 2 is not Sir Francis Chichester at all, but a nameless guy who is a shadow of his former self. He's lost his way, he's vaguely decided to quit by hopping into the river, why else should he visit the boat at two in the morning? We don't get to know the reason, there's just a veiled reference to "the things he's done" and which he cannot live with. So he cries out, presumably drunk, "Hey man, what you call this thing?", jumps or falls in, the current takes him, and the Thames becomes, in a sense, the river of Lethe for this single-handed sailor.

    Sure, this is a bit speculative, but Mark Knopfler (remember, he's a literate man) is really using the same "iceberg method" as Ernest Hemingway here, and many of the songs on "Communique" are stories about men who try and fail ("News") or veer into the psychopathic ("Where Do You Think You're Going?"). Two years later, Mark would return to this vein in "Private Investigation", also a song about a disturbed man.
    Beautiful guitar work. I love the calypso/blues feel of the solo at the end.
    tinderboxon June 02, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThough I've been to London, I wasn't fortunate to stay long enough to check out the riverboats of the Thames. I wonder if anyone who knows can confirm the location of the Riverboat "Pride of London"
    (… ) and whether it might have any relation at all to this song.

    Seems likely, it is mentioned in a different 'scene' (two in the morning on the self same night), so he may not be talking about the Gypsy Moth in this scene. Perhaps he's strolled down the Thames a bit and come upon the Pride of London.

    This is one of my favorite songs, and Mark Knopfler one of my favorite artists forever. As Douglas Adams once ventured, he could charm the angels down from heaven with his guitar.

    trickyelfon April 18, 2009   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI love all the contributions, thanks folks.

    The only bit I would want to contribute is - as Skippy19 also mentioned - I think the single-handed sailor is Chichester himself and the song isn't so much that he was actually there at 2:00am (he could have been several times!), but more that if he *were* there this is just Mark's imagining what Chichester would have done/said. It's really a negative or forsaken attitude portrayed toward the sailboat (Gypsy Moth IV) which was factual - Chichester disliked it very much after the global journey and didn't hesitate to quickly detach from it for several reasons ("...sailing away in the dark"). Found this after reading up a bit on the topic.

    Mother and baby are just referring to the Cutty Sark (mother, larger) and the Gypsy Moth IV (baby, being much smaller). They were next to each other at one point, perhaps they still are.
    discosauron July 05, 2018   Link

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