CALIBRE talks to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston about making history, changing lives and what really gets under his skin.
There’s no shortage of great achievements accomplished by humankind; whether it’s Roald Amundsen and his expedition to the South Pole, or Edmund Hillary scaling Mount Everest. In their achievements, each of these figures demonstrates the strength of the human spirit in terms of perseverance, determination and unshakable patience – so much so they take on an almost mythic status.
This is something Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is familiar with, because, for those who don’t know, in 1969 he became the first person to complete a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. A colossal achievement at the time, and certainly no mean feat even today.
Not that Sir Robin gives much credence to talk of myths and heroes. In the intervening years between this, perhaps his most famous trip and now, he has developed a reputation for being a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. However, as is sometimes the way with reputations, the reality can be somewhat different, and Knox-Johnston was to prove warm, personable and plain-speaking; no bad traits in an age of spin and fabrication.
Knox-Johnston’s love of sailing was present from an early age, he always had a love of the water and bought a canoe when he was aged fourteen. It was this passion which encouraged him to join the Merchant Navy in 1957 where he spent eight years learning the ropes, the ways of the sea and how to sail – a profession which was to gradually develop into his passion.
But what was it about sailing and the open sea which was to prove so alluring?
“Freedom. You make your own decisions, you are your own boss, you decide where you are going to go. It is very hard to explain to someone what it feels like to be sailing along,” says Knox-Johnston. “The sea is a sparkling blue; the sky is sunny and the air is warm and you sit back and think that you wouldn’t swap this for anything.”
In 1968, he heard about The Sunday Times’ Golden Globe Race – a competitive race to find the first sailor to complete a solo circumnavigation of the world – and having recently completed a voyage from Bombay to England in his beloved boat, Suhaili, he decided to try and go one step further.
However, he was to face problems even before setting off: “I had gone to my company and asked them to support me but they said no. They also couldn’t give me a leave of absence, meaning I was out of a job effectively. So, I had no sponsorships but I was going and that was it.”
The question, whenever somebody sets out to achieve the seemingly impossible, is always the same: why? “I think all of us have something in us that makes us want to strive. After Chichester’s voyage around the world, there was only one thing left to be done and that was to go non-stop. You reach a stage in life when you think, ‘I just need to do this’. I was 29 and an aggressive, ambitious, young man.”
In the month’s leading up to the race, media interest was beginning to grow and, under the increased scrutiny, Sir Robin was at his belligerent best. “I had this chap who came down to me and said, ‘Are you this fellow who thinks he’s going to sail around the world non-stop?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to try’. He said it can’t be done and I said you don’t know me, you haven’t met me in a boxing ring, you don’t know what I’m like as a competitor!
“I remember saying to him, ‘are you a schoolmaster?’ and he said, ‘I’m not. Why?’ I said ‘because you’d be a bloody depressing one for your students’. He replied, ‘you can’t say that!’ so I said, ‘I just fucking have!’
“I didn’t want people’s advice, I had built that boat. I was a qualified navigator and a qualified deck officer, I just wanted to go sailing and this was something I really thought I would be able to do.”
Setting off from Falmouth on 14th June 1968, Sir Robin completed his solo circumnavigation on 22nd April 1969. All eight other competitors failed to finish the race. But was it as hard as he expected it to be? “Most of the hard work is done by the time you set sail. Once you have made your decisions an awful lot of the problems disappear.
“Initially the engine packed up and the boat was leaking quite severely, but, look, if it was easy it would have been done before, so just get on with it. You don’t have a choice in the matter. Do I pull out? Well, if I pull out I’d be letting down the ‘me’ that spent the past five weeks getting this far. Crack on, crack on.”
No Sign of Slowing Down
For most people managing to achieve something that no-one else had ever managed would be enough adventure for one lifetime, but then again, Knox-Johnston is no ordinary man. He continued to compete in various races throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but it is his more recent achievements which draw the eye. In 2007, he completed his second solo circumnavigation, which at the age of 68, made him the oldest person in the race to sail around the world. The name of the ship? Saga Insurance. More recently, he competed in the Route du Rhum – a solo transatlantic race – and finished in third place in the Rhum class. He was 75.
Now, aged 78, he must surely be thinking about putting his feet up and relaxing? “I can’t put my feet up and relax – as my wife said when she was alive, ‘the problem with you is that you’re restless’. She knew me better than anyone and she was right in a way. It is a good description. I cannot just sit down and watch television. I’ll think, ‘oh that job needs doing so I’ll just do that’, disappear into my man cave for three hours, fiddle about with something and be quite happy doing that,” he explains.
With us all living longer does he believe that more of us should be trying to push ourselves in our older age rather than reaching for the pipe and slippers?
“Absolutely. People should take up hobbies, especially hobbies that involve physical exercise. It has two beneficial effects: firstly, it keeps us in good physical shape and mentally alert and, secondly, it means we’re getting more out of our retirement years,” says Knox-Johnston.
“We shouldn’t assume that 65 is a dead end. I always joke about how at 64 and 364 days old, people still want my advice and experience – but at 65 years old they’re suddenly worrying I might have a heart attack climbing the stairs or that my brain’s turned to porridge. It just isn’t like that.”
It was at this point in the interview his famous outspoken side came to the fore: “I’m all in favour of extending the retirement age. People are living longer anyway and therefore there should be some adjustment as the country simply can’t afford it. If we carry on like this we’ll end up like France where 40% of the budget goes on pensions. Greece was even worse with people retiring at 55 on 80% of their salary – no wonder they went bust!” He exclaims.
“Having women retire at 60 is ludicrous – they live longer than men anyway! Why do civil servants retire earlier? They’re bloody idle, keep them working I say. Now, if you really want to get me going, this is the kind of thing!”
If it is this passion and drive that can help a man conquer the world’s oceans, then an impassioned dose of straight-talking is perhaps what the world needs now, more than ever.
Round the World
Nowadays, most of Sir Robin’s time is spent in the offices of Clipper, a company he helped establish back in 1996, and who offer members of the public the opportunity to be part of a team attempting to complete their own circumnavigation of the world. It was an idea that came to him while performing a suitably daring feat: “I was climbing in Greenland with Chris Bonington and I asked him how much it would cost to climb Everest – to which he said it generally cost over £40,000. I thought, ‘I wonder what the sailing equivalent is?’ Circumnavigation.
“I did some sums and worked out that I could do it for just over half of that. I could provide someone with the boat, skipper, training, equipment, food, and have people making a circumnavigation of the world. So, we put an advert in the paper and we got over 8,000 responses! That was the beginning of Clipper.”
No experience is required to join, in fact, it can be easier for those without any experience to adapt to the requirements. “Forty per cent of the people who sail with us have never been on a boat before. They’re the easiest to train because they don’t have any bad habits and we can turn them into bloody good seaman,” says Sir Robin. “It is very satisfying but there is more to it than that. You see them at the start and they appear nervous, apprehensive, lacking in confidence and by the end, they are standing straight and their self-confidence has boomed.”
And if there was a quote that summed up both Clipper’s and Sir Robin’s ethos, it would be this: “At the end of the journey, I want them to stand up and say, ‘this is the best thing I have done in my life’ and then I want to hear them say, ‘so far’.”