A sailor’s tale
- Credit: onEdition
Berkhamsted School alumni Robin Knox-Johnston was the first man to sail the world solo, and then the oldest. Here he recounts his incredible career on the water, which shows no signs of dropping anchor
On June 14 1968, a 29-year-old Merchant Navy officer was at the south coast port of Falmouth in Cornwall with eight like-minded men. With few possessions other than Suhaili, his unassuming boat fitted together with old planks of wood, the officer launched into the waves, becoming part of a small flotilla of nine boats setting sail on one of the most ambitious expeditions anyone had ever attempted.
After 313 days and 30,000 miles, the officer returned to the same port in Suhaili after becoming the first man in history to sail around the world non-stop.
That man was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, a Putney-born and Hertfordshire-raised adventurer, who succeeded where his eight colleagues – and anybody else for that matter – had fallen foul of the extreme elements, mental hurdles and physical challenges that needed to be overcome in order to circumnavigate the globe.
The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, as the competition to sail the world was known, was highly controversial. Seven competitors failed to finish and one, Donald Crowhurst, apparently committed suicide. But the hardships and tragic struggles of others only served to enhance Knox-Johnston’s achievement further.
With the smallest boat in the race – Suhaili was just 32ft – communication was limited to a radio, which broke, leading to long periods of solitude. Suhaili didn’t prove to be the easiest of companions either. Both her engine and self-steering broke at various times, as did the boat’s structure. Knox-Johnston was forced to repair the hull in shark-infested waters just 30 days into the voyage. Triumphing over all these obstacles, on April 22 1969, Knox-Johnston took his place in the history books and was awarded the £5,000 prize money, which he compassionately handed to Crowhurst’s bereaved family. Knox-Johnston was later awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours List for his remarkable achievement.
Reminiscing now, this mild yet serious 75-year-old says the race is now ‘a kaleidoscope of memories,’ some pleasant, some distressing. ‘I remember very vividly setting sail from Falmouth. I wasn’t too well actually, I had jaundice, so it wasn’t the best of starts in that respect.
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‘You tend to remember both the best and the worst of it: when I had to patch the boat up on the equator, overcoming the first storm, overcoming the worst storm – there were times when I thought I was definitely going to sink. I had appendicitis for three days. Again, I thought I was going to die. But there are the joyous moments too. When the sea was calm and the sun was shining and the sky was blue and sparkling, those were the glorious moments, the moments you sail for. There were plenty of those, too.’
He says the experience altered him permanently. He came back ‘a calmer man - it changed me that way, probably because I had got something out of my system’.
His burning ambition to sail the globe was formed early and fostered in Hertfordshire. He was the eldest of four brothers, and it was his experiences at Berkhamsted Boys School that helped shape his world record-breaking destiny. At the school at the same time as novelist and playwright Graham Greene, Knox-Johnston says teachers encouraged his interest in sailing. ‘I had it before I went there. I had the desire to do it before school. Gosh, yes, it was a good school.’
He left the county to join the Merchant Navy in 1957, but hasn’t forgotten his roots, even when his life has taken him around the world and back.
‘I do go back. My grandparents lived there and so I’ve lots of very good memories of Berkhamsted and the surrounding area. It’s not just the countryside; it is also the people you were with when you were there, the friends you made, it was a happy time in my life.’
Looking to today’s highly sophisticated boats and sailing equipment, Knox-Johnston admits Suhaili would be of little use in the modern world. ‘Boats are bigger now, they’re better designed for the job. We didn’t even know what the right boat was for different competitions 45 years ago.’
One constant throughout the years however has been his passion for sailing. His other notable feats include winning, in 1994 alongside sailor Sir Peter Blake, the Jules Verne Trophy, a prize for the fastest circumnavigation of the world by any type of yacht. And in 2006 he became the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage in the VELUX 5 Oceans Race, at the age of 67.
In 1996 he founded, and continues to lead today, the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race event for amateur crews. ‘It’s expanded much more than we anticipated. It’s become a much bigger event with a lot more people involved than we could have imagined 19 years ago. That’s a sign of people’s interest.’
Even though he’s now 75, Knox-Johnston’s personal relationship with competitive sailing isn’t confined to the past. Far from it. In November he finished third in the solo transatlantic single-handed race the Route du Rhum, steering his 60-footer Grey Power to a time of 20 days, 7 hours, 52 minutes and 22 seconds on the 3,542-mile St Malo to Guadeloupe route, and claiming a podium place in his class. ‘It was a surprise,’ he says, ‘I never expected to beat so many lighter, more nimble boats. I got competitive and pushed hard. It was fantastic.’
Competitiveness is a key feature of his character and a driving factor in his all-out sailing style. ‘Well frankly, competitiveness is a pleasure, so I would say I sail for pleasure.’
And he has no plans to stop what he loves any time soon. ‘I just enjoy it. Ask a mountaineer why he still climbs. Why does Sir Ranulph Fiennes keep on with his expeditions? We just like doing it.’
Applications are now open for the 10th anniversary series of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (clipperroundtheworld.com), which starts this summer.