Stooped low in the spartan cabin of his yacht, like a bear in a cage that might have been poked one too many times by a malicious circus handler, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston barely looked up to shake my hand. Making my way along the narrow jetty in Gosport, a few minutes earlier, I’d wondered if coming to see him today was a mistake: the legendary yachtsman that the French sailing press refer to as ‘The Don’ was barely 12 weeks away from his return to single-handed racing after a seven-year hiatus, and he was clearly busy. What’s more, Sir Robin was in the process of being sued by an employment lawyer who had dropped out of his most recent Clipper Round the World yacht race, claiming she had suffered ‘victimisation and harassment’.
I tried to shrink into a corner of the tiny space as he worked on his boat, busy with a mass of cables that snaked between laptops, GPS transceivers and satellite phones. “This bloody stupid lawsuit,” he grumbled, as I juggled a notepad and a Dictaphone, “I’m getting very irritable.” I noticed a single bed, slung on one side of the cabin’s bare carbon composite shell, that looked for all the world like a stretcher you might see on a battlefield or being wielded by a mountain rescue team. It didn’t strike me as the kind of space that would appeal to most 75-year-olds.
He became a household name in 1969 after winning the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race – with it claiming the title of person in history to sail solo and non-stop around the world, a feat that many experts at the time thought was impossible. Nine men started the race in 1968, six withdrew partway round, one sank and was rescued and another committed suicide. Sir Robin was the only finisher, and a psychiatrist that profiled him after spending 313 days alone at sea described the 30-year-old, who had had to dive into shark-infested waters early in the race to repair the leaking hull of his 32-foot wooden boat, Suhaili, as “disturbingly normal”: an assessment that to most of us, might seem wide of the mark with 45 years of hindsight.
What’s your first adventure memory?
Probably walking across Pagham Bay when I was 11. I was in Selsey and wanted to go to Bognor, so a friend and I walked across Pagham Bay. When we came back from Bognor, the bay was full of water and we had to walk round it.
Your first big trip on Suhaili was in the mid-60s. What inspired or motivated you then, and how have you continued to find motivation for so many years?
It came from a desire to build a dhow [a type of traditional sailing boat used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean for many centuries] and sail it home. I was trading between Bombay and Basra in the merchant navy in those days and we saw a lot of dhows,not least the ones carrying arms into Oman. I wrote to a chap called Alan Villiers and he said: “Don’t bother, you’ll never resell it.” So I ignored him, got hold of some plans and built Suhaili.
Proving people wrong became a theme throughout your career. Did you draw motivation from the naysayers?
I think that “Fuck you!” factor is very strong in most people who go out and do things. Before I set off round the world, first of all a Sunday Times reporter said “Don’t bother with Knox-Johnston; he won’t make it.”
And the reason was that they asked me if I would beat Chichester [Sir Francis Chichester, the winner of the first solo round-the-world yacht race, on Gipsy Moth IV in 1967] and I said, “I don’t know”. Well of course the press don’t want that, do they? They wanted me to say “Yeah I’ll beat that old bugger!” But I didn’t, because I’m an honest bloke. So they went back and said, “Oh, don’t bother with him.” The result was that I was the only one in the race that the Sunday Times didn’t have a contract with, out of the nine of us. Which was a big mistake on their part.
I was over in Cowes working on the boat one weekend and I remember hearing another reporter saying: “There’s old Robin – thinks he’s going to sail single-handed, nonstop around the world.” I said, “Well I’m going to try.” “It can’t be done and in any case you couldn’t do it,” he said. And I remember thinking, ‘You don’t know me. You’ve no idea of my background.’ I said, “Are you a schoolteacher or something?” “No, why?” “Because you’d be bloody depressing for your students if you were.” “You can’t say that!” he said. “I just fucking did,” I said, and went back to work.
What is your proudest moment?
Oh gosh, there are so many – so many things that give you huge satisfaction. Watching your daughter grow up. I suppose it has to be getting back into Falmouth in 1969, but there are so many other things that have given me pleasure.
Clearly there was an awful lot of attention from the media and the public when you got back to the UK in 1969, but how did you feel in yourself?
It was a bit of a dream, really. You know, I was just a captain in the merchant navy, and this isn’t what went on at sea. All this fuss about me: what was that all about? I didn’t know how to deal with it. I had no sponsors, so I had no PR firm helping me. I didn’t know anything about it. So I got back, sorted the boat out, wrote the book and then I thought, “Well, I’d better go back to sea.”
Did you find it hard no longer having an enormous, overarching goal you were working towards?
No. I was thinking, “What’s next?” I’d written a book: bang. That’s ok. And then you go round selling books. I had a very good publisher and a deal with a paper, the Sunday Mirror. Though I remember my literary agent saying we were meeting the editor of the Sunday Mirror, and he asked me if I’d ever read it. I said “Certainly not!” and he said, “Well, you’d better get reading then.” They turned out to be a bloody good bunch of people, two of whom are still very good friends: the journalist and the photographer.
Who still inspires you?
That’s a point, isn’t it? It’s very hard. In my 20s and 30s I could give you a very clear answer. There were three people: Drake, Cook and Nelson. Since those days, no one really. I mean there was Éric Tabarly [holder of multiple transatlantic sailing records], but I went and beat him. I still admired him immensely, but the three times we raced, I beat him. Did that lower my opinion of him? Absolutely not. But did he inspire me after that? No. So it’s a bit tricky that one. I’m not sure there is anyone now, which is rather sad.
Well, one word: satellites. When I went round the first time, the radio packed up after two months and I had no communication. But that was fine: that’s my job. I’m a professional navigator, so it wasn’t a problem. After having been in the merchant navy for nearly 14 years, I knew I could survive on the boat. Most of the stuff I could do with my eyes closed. I’d had a tough apprenticeship, and I was used to dealing with problems at sea.
Nowadays we’re living in a time when everything is dependent on communication. If I can’t get the weather I need, I’m not competitive. Hence I now have all these means of communications: an Iridium phone, a Fleet One, an Inmarsat C. They’ve become essential.
4 0 , 0 0 0
Length of Clipper around-the-world sailing race in nautical miles.
Age of Robin Knox-Johnston when he became the oldest person to complete an around-the-world solo voyage.
3 1 3
How many days it took to become the first person to sail single-handed.
You last raced this boat in 2007. Was there a demand for social media then – to tell the story as you raced?
I was writing a blog for my grandchildren and I wrote that my toenail came off, and I couldn’t find any Savlon to put on it, so I got the whisky out to clean it up, but because I was short on whisky, I drank it. Of course this was pure fiction, written for the grandchildren. I didn’t realise it was being published all over the place. By the time I got to Fremantle, I had 28 bottles of whisky waiting for me.
Do you feel that the information overload of this era – the daily updates and the live imagery depreciates the power of modern adventure?
No! What depreciates the power of modern adventure is the increasing interference by health and safety. It’s totally out of control. Ran [Sir Ranulph Fiennes] and I underwent a BBC risk assessment for a programme, and they decided we couldn’t light a Primus stove without being supervised: that Sir Ran and Sir Robin couldn’t be trusted to light a cooker! I mean, how many decades have we been doing this? This is the sort of nonsense that’s interfering with adventure. I’ve just had a load of stuff through from this French race I’m doing in November [The Route du Rhum, a 3,500-mile transatlantic single-handed yacht race that takes places every four years) and they say I’ve got to take seasickness pills. I don’t need bloody seasickness pills!
I was out sailing with my grandchildren in the harbour here, they were all in lifejackets and I wasn’t wearing one, and the patrol came up and said, “You should be wearing a lifejacket. It’s the law.” And I said “No it isn’t. The reason I’m not wearing a lifejacket is that if one of them falls in, I want to be able to swim after them. A lifejacket would be a hindrance.” “Well our advice is that you should wear one.” And I said, “So what qualifications have you got?” He said, “I’ve got my Boatman’s Licence.” And I said, “Well I’ve got a class one Masters’ Certificate, and I don’t need advice from a ruddy boatman. So fuck off.” It was only because he was officious that he upset me.
I was asked this in one of my favourite interviews, and I’d be interested to hear your response. Philosophically, does the constant supply of information steal our ability to imagine, or replace our dreams and the necessity of achieving? In other words, if it is being done somewhere by someone and we can participate virtually then why bother leaving the house?
Because there’s no satisfaction at all in staying at home. It’s a very simple thing that I say to all the crews [Sir Robin organises the Clipper Round the World yacht race that has taken place every two years since 1996] and there’s nearly 700 of them: “You’re showing up, and I’m proud of you for this, because you’re not doing something easy. Sailing round the world is tough: you’re doing a hard thing. But you’ll have something to be proud of when you’ve done it.” Otherwise, if you just do the easy things, what’s to be proud of? Go for the tough things. That’s how you get satisfaction in life. And what fun it is, to go out in life and to take something on.
Do you think you’re happiest up against a challenge? Clearly you haven’t sought the path of least resistance.
I think life has always got its challenges anyway; it’s more a question of how you deal with it. I don’t want unnecessary problems any more than anyone else does, but they occur – especially when you’re at an extreme end of the sport. You have to say: “Well, I didn’t expect this to be easy, otherwise loads of people would be doing it.”
The Clipper Round the World yacht race has been going for 20 years now. What are you looking forward to?
I’m already training the next crews. We’re something like 70 per cent full. And we have a big training programme going on. They all have to do my training, which is three weeks, and it’s deliberately hard to make sure they don’t get on the boat to do the race and find that it’s unexpectedly difficult. Every time the race finishes you look at the crews, 40 per cent of them have never been on a boat before they come to us, and realise they’ve become good racing sailors. And I think ‘Yeah!’ That’s very satisfying. All those people can now get the same pleasure from going out in boats that I do.
I’m perfectly content with what I’ve achieved. I’m just doing this because I can still do it. I’m not going to beat the 20 and 30-year-olds*. They’re far more agile than I am. It’ll be fun just getting back in the circuit. I’ve got an old boat, I mean she’s nearly 15 years old. But you know… she’s a tough little boat. If they foul up, I’ll be on them.
*Four months after our interview, Sir Robin came third in the Route du Rhum, soundly thrashing an elite field of professional sailors including Nils Boyer (aged 20), Benjamin Hardouin (aged 25), Julien Mabit (aged 35) and Ricardo Diniz (aged 37). His boat was called Grey Power.