Sir Robin Knox-John­ston

SAIL - - Cruising On The Wind -

Win­ner of the first-ever round-the-world yacht race, the 1968-69 Golden Globe, on his 32ft teak sloop Suhaili, Sir Robin Knox-John­ston is one of the great­est liv­ing sailors. In the years fol­low­ing that solo epic, Knox-John­ston and fel­low leg­end Sir Peter Blake set a Jules Verne Tro­phy record for the fastest ever crewed cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, Knox-John­ston started the suc­cess­ful Clip­per Round the World Race for am­a­teur sailors, and he crossed oceans us­ing only long-for­got­ten nav­i­ga­tional tech­niques. Oh, and he raced an Open 60 alone around the world at the age of 68. Andy Schell caught up with Sir Robin at a re­cent boat show.

You made a name for your­self be­ing the first per­son to sail around the world, but there was life be­fore that. How did you get started? Were you from a sail­ing fam­ily?

There was sail­ing on my mother’s side, but on my fa­ther’s side, no. They were farm­ers in North­ern Ire­land. From the age of eight I wanted to go to sea. And at 17 I de­cided I’d had enough of school and joined the mer­chant ma­rine.

I had to sign on for a four-year ap­pren­tice­ship. I thor­oughly en­joyed it, but I was al­ways in­ter­ested in sail­ing, and as part of the ap­pren­tice­ship we had to learn to sail. In those days, the lifeboats had masts and sails, so if the ship sank, you could sail your­self to the near­est port.

When did you de­cide you were go­ing to have your own boat and go on these big ad­ven­tures?

We were based in Bom­bay, so we could go sail­ing with the Bom­bay Yacht Club and bor­row their boats. Near the end of the con­tract I thought it would be fun to build a boat and sail it home. So that’s what we did. I sailed Suhaili home with my brother and a friend.

What in­spired you to em­bark on long-dis­tance sail­ing voy­ages?

I had a job as the cap­tain of a ship running up and down the south­east coast. That’s when [Sir Fran­cis] Chich­ester went past on his voyage around the world, and I be­gan to think about it. Then I saw him come up the Thames, and I thought, there’s one thing left to do. Let’s go around with­out stop­ping.

In the mid­dle of get­ting ready for the trip, they an­nounced a race that the Sun­day Times was or­ga­niz­ing. There were four of us at the time. And that num­ber slowly grew to nine.

It was to be a round-the-world, non-stop race. The rules were pretty slack. There was no check­ing on our abil­ity or any­thing. They de­cided the race would start in Oc­to­ber. I told them that I wouldn’t be able to wait that long. “I’ve got to get around Cape Horn early Jan­uary.” You don’t want to go around Cape Horn in the win­ter. It’s a nasty place.

I told them I was in­ter­ested in be­ing the first to do it, and not in win­ning their race. They ended up chang­ing the rules so that you could leave any­time be­tween June 1 and Oc­to­ber 31. I left on June 14.

What was it like, do­ing the Golden Globe?

I wanted to get go­ing. I was ready to go. Un­for­tu­nately, I had a bit of an at­tack of hepati­tis. It was just be­fore I left, so for the first month I was nurs­ing my­self a bit. I wasn’t very fast. After two months I lost the ra­dio, so I had no way of know­ing what was go­ing on un­til I got to New Zealand.

I was pretty cer­tain I was in the lead, but I didn’t know by how much. I was at least four weeks ahead of [Bernard] Moitessier, and three weeks ahead of him by Cape Horn, so he hadn’t gained much. And he wasn’t go­ing to catch me if I kept on. But I didn’t know that at Cape Horn. It wasn’t un­til I got about a week from home I learned he was in the In­dian Ocean, and that he wasn’t fin­ish­ing.

Do you have a ro­man­tic no­tion of ocean sail­ing? Do you en­joy the peace and soli­tude? Or is it about the chal­lenge?

I don’t look at it as a ro­mance. I en­joy be­ing out there. I en­joy be­ing on my own some­times, and I en­joy sail­ing with a crew. Some­times it’s just me and the boat and we’re just go­ing from here to there. It’s my choice. I’m mak­ing the de­ci­sions here, not some civil ser­vant. And I en­joy that free­dom.

Did you think you could use the Golden Globe ex­pe­ri­ence as mo­men­tum for later projects, or was it just to have done it?

Just to have done it. I was go­ing to go back to the mer­chant navy. That’s what I liked do­ing, that’s what I’m trained to do. I’m good at it. Un­for­tu­nately, the mer­chant com­pany got taken over, so I started build­ing mari­nas and running a boat­yard. It was quite fun. I went racing from time to time. I al­ways saw it as my hobby.

Is that where your true pas­sion was?

I ab­so­lutely love racing. But I en­joy busi­ness. I re­ally en­joy the Clip­per race, that’s some­thing that we’ve taken 5,000 peo­ple out on now over 20 years. Forty per­cent have never been on a boat be­fore. They be­come re­ally good sea­men.

What are you most proud of?

I think it’s a com­bi­na­tion of Clip­per Ven­tures and the Golden Globe Race. One of the two. What we’ve achieved with the Clip­per I think is pretty fan­tas­tic.

What was the in­spi­ra­tion for that idea?

I was climb­ing with Chris Bon­ing­ton, a well-known British climber, and he was talk­ing about what it cost to climb Mount Ever­est. I won­dered about the sail­ing equiv­a­lent. How much I would have to charge if I sup­plied the boats, the skip­per, train­ing, cloth­ing, food, ports and ev­ery­thing else. And I came to the con­clu­sion it was just over half of what it costs to climb Mount Ever­est. So, we put an ad­vert in the news­pa­pers and got 8,000 an­swers.

We started in­ter­view­ing and build­ing boats. I built eight boats, iden­ti­cal 60-foot­ers. Rushed off, ar­ranged the route, and eight months later the first race started. It was quite a busy year.

You do a lot for youth sail­ing. Where do you want the in­dus­try to go?

I would like sail­ing to be on the school cur­ricu­lum, in ev­ery school, in

one form or another. It could be one day a week, or it could be do­ing a tall ships race. You make kids re­al­ize they’re ca­pa­ble of more than they thought. I think it helps shape them and gives them con­fi­dence.

You sailed to Amer­ica with an as­tro­labe. Can you de­scribe what an as­tro­labe is? And what mo­ti­vated you to try that?

It goes back to the An­cient Greeks. It’s ba­si­cally a cir­cle with a lever called an al­i­dade pinned to the mid­dle, and you turn it round un­til it lines up with the sun, and then you can read off the an­gle of the sun. It will work out a lat­i­tude for you, pro­vided you know the move­ment of the sun. I was cu­ri­ous as to how well you can nav­i­gate with an as­tro­labe. Con­sid­er­ing a de­gree of 60 miles is about a mil­lime­ter, you can gauge it pretty ac­cu­rately. And by de­priv­ing my­self of any­thing else and just us­ing that, I forced my­self to dis­cover things about us­ing it which I’d never have found if I sat at a desk. Things like black­en­ing the re­flec­tive ser­vice with can­dle smoke so that the lit­tle pil­lar of light would show up much bet­ter. Peo­ple have tried us­ing an as­tro­labe, but not prac­ti­cally, on a voyage. I sailed Suhaili from the Ca­nary Is­lands to San Sal­vador. I was alone. It took me 35 days, 100 miles a day. Same as Columbus, roughly.

Where did that in­ter­est come from?

I was al­ready in­ter­ested in nav­i­ga­tion tech­niques, from me­dieval times to the Phoeni­cians, even back to the Vik­ings. They found New­found­land with a sun com­pass, 500 years be­fore Columbus. I did it out of pure cu­rios­ity. I won­dered what in­stru­ments were they us­ing and how they used them. Once I started ask­ing ques­tions, I re­al­ized there was no one who’d done it. I de­cided I was go­ing to go and find out.

You sailed the Jules Verne with Sir Peter Blake. What was it like sail­ing with him?

Peter first sailed with me in 1971 in the Cape Rio race. And then he was my mate in the Whit­bread in 1977. We were both on the Whit­bread com­mit­tee when we heard about the Jules Verne ( Jules Verne Tro­phy for the fastest cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the world). We de­cided to team up and do it.

We wanted to beat 80 days. We thought it was pos­si­ble. Ev­ery­one told us it wasn’t. We bought a big cata­ma­ran and we com­pletely re­fit­ted it and off we went. Un­for­tu­nately, we hit some­thing. Had to pull out. And then our spon­sors asked if we would like to do it again, so off we went. It was good sail­ing with Peter. He was a very, very good or­ga­nizer and a good mo­ti­va­tor.

What in­spires you?

I tend to come up with my own ideas. I wouldn’t say they’re al­ways all mine. It can well be that I heard some­one say some­thing. But I tend not be with a crowd when I’m mak­ing those de­ci­sions. It’s usu­ally me. I’ll go away and think about it. If I think I can do it, then I do it. Just get on with it.

What are you most in­ter­ested in?

His­tory. Par­tic­u­larly mar­itime his­tory. I’m very in­ter­ested in that. It ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nates me.

Do you buy into the old mar­itime su­per­sti­tions?

Some. I don’t like sail­ing on a Fri­day the 13th. Other Fri­days are OK. I don’t be­lieve in the Ber­muda Tri­an­gle, that’s a bunch of rub­bish.

Do you still have that feel­ing of ap­pre­hen­sion?

Oh yeah, less now be­cause I’ve got more ex­pe­ri­ence. But even so, my mind races with, “Have I thought of this? Have I thought of ev­ery-

thing? What have I for­got­ten?” A lit­tle bit of ap­pre­hen­sion be­fore you set off isn’t a bad thing.

How do you han­dle fear?

It’s usu­ally a bit late. When a wave is com­ing to­wards you and it’s 80ft high and stretch­ing from hori­zon to hori­zon, break­ing at the top, what can you say? Why did I de­cide to do this? You’re not go­ing to get away from it. It’s go­ing to hit you. And all you can do is hope you’ve got the boat safe so she’ll prob­a­bly be swept but she won’t be rolled. It de­pends on how you han­dle the boat.

Do you think that when you have a dra­matic in­ci­dent, and peo­ple snap, that’s some­thing you’ve learned or you’re born with?

I do be­lieve we’re born with dif­fer­ent at­tributes, but I don’t be­lieve that you can’t train them. I think that when things go wrong, if the lead­er­ship is strong, clear and firm, the crew im­me­di­ately feels that some­one is in charge. You need peo­ple who’ve got ex­pe­ri­ence and are able to pro­vide that lead­er­ship. That isn’t nec­es­sar­ily born into you. That’s some­thing you learn with ex­pe­ri­ence. s

Sir Robin KnoxJohn­ston ‘s eyes tell the tale of his many voy­ages

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