Sir Robin Knox-Johnston: 'I had no idea what was going on'
In 1968, you set off to sail around the world without stopping. What possessed you to do that?
”It came about quite simply, really. I was sailing my boat back from India, where I’d built it, when I read that Francis Chichester had sailed around the world with one stop. I just thought: ’Well, that’s it then – there’s only one thing to be done.’ I wrote to 52 companies asking for sponsorship for the journey, and they all wrote back saying no. So I said: ’Well, I’m going anyway.’”
So where did you get the money to do it, then?
”I got an overdraft from the bank. I just had to be clever, so the bank didn’t know what I was spending it on. By the time they found out, I’d sailed myself into solvency.”
What was the toughest thing about a challenge like that?
”The hardest thing was actually making the decision to go. Once you’ve made that decision, an awful lot of the problems actually disappear. The next thing is finding the money to set off, and that is hard work. In my case, I was unsuccessful asking for money from potential sponsors, so my journey was more of a gamble. My biggest problem, though, was that I had a touch of jaundice, so I wasn’t able to be too energetic for the first four or five weeks. I’d had jaundice before, so I knew if I went to a doctor, they would have sent me to hospital. I just decided that I wasn’t going to say anything, but just sit around and take it easy. That was quite hard at times, to begin with.”
And you were alone on the boat for 10 months. What was the longest time you went with no contact whatsoever?
”I had a link every Thursday on the radio, but I lost the radio after two and a half months in a storm. I spoke to a vessel off the coast of Melbourne, and had a chat with a fisherman off New Zealand. But, after that, I didn’t speak to anyone until I was close to home. So it would have been about five or five and a half months.”
How did you keep track of the other competitors in the race?
”I didn’t – I had no idea what was going on. Without the radio, I had no idea how anyone else was doing. By the time I rounded Cape Horn, I was 20 days ahead of the second-placed Bernard Moitessier, who later withdrew, but I only found that out afterwards. I was in France soon afterwards, and they were saying to me: ’Moitessier was ahead of you when he pulled out of the race!’ I rounded Cape Horn on January 17. Moitessier did it on February 9. Only in France does that put him ahead of me.”
How did it feel finishing the race?
”It was fantastic, but it was also a bit of a comedy situation. I was going to finish at about 9am, so I told people on the shore and I was asked to slow down because the mayor and mayoress were going to greet me – and the mayoress had her hair appointment at 9am. They asked me to slow up, so I did. But then the wind changed, so I didn’t end up finishing until past 3pm [pictured above], by which time the poor dear’s hairstyle was ruined anyway.”
Do you enjoy the solitary time on the boat?
”Yeah, I’m one of the few who does. I don’t mind it. I’m perfectly content in my own company, or I’ll sail with crews just as happily. But I’m probably one of the few who doesn’t mind sailing alone. You miss company from time to time, but on the whole you’re out there for a reason – so you just get on with it.”
How do you pass the time alone for that long?
”You don’t have time to be bored. Bear in mind there were no satellites or GPS equipment, so you’re spending at least two hours a day navigating. Then you’ve got maintenance to do. And, apart from the normal things like sail changes and so on, you’re just checking the boat and making sure she’s alright. Then there’s constantly checking the weather. All the boat had was a barometer, so you’re watching the clouds and the wind direction to try and establish what’s going on. People think you can just sit back with a gin and tonic in your hand, but sadly it isn’t like that.”
Do you prefer that to modern, technology-filled boats?
”The problem with sailing today is people expect to hear from you, and that puts pressure on. When I went around the world again in 2007, I’d snarl if my satellite phone went off twice in a day. Tell me if you’re going to call at a certain time, or else please do not bother me. By the time I’d got below to answer it, the person would be gone, and they’d have interrupted me when I might be doing a sail change or something. Then I’d start again and the phone would go off again. To hell with it. I just couldn’t be bothered!”
So, what was the idea behind the Clipper Series?
”It started in 1995, when I was in Greenland climbing and someone told me how much it cost to climb Mount Everest. I thought: ’Whoah, that’s a lot of money. What’s the sailing equivalent?’ Just as total amateurs climb Everest, our idea was to get amateurs sailing around the globe. We put an ad in the paper and got 8,000 replies, so we thought we’d better do it.”
Were you surprised by the level of interest?
”Yeah, I really was. An awful lot were just people dreaming. But we had enough to fill eight boats, and that was the beginning of the Clipper races.”
What advice do you give people ahead of the races?
”Train hard and sail easy. The easiest people to train are the ones who have never sailed before, because they don’t have any bad habits. But anyone can be a great sailor as long as you train hard. You’re doing a once-in-a-lifetime event, so why not learn as much as possible about the boat so you get to enjoy the event all the more? Learn to navigate, learn about the boat. It’s about building up their confidence and their awareness of what’s going on around them.”
This year sees the ninth staging of the Clipper race. Will you be jealous when you watch the race start?
”It depends what I’m doing at the time. I love seeing the start and all the excitement and nerves among the crews. They’re really good sailors by the time they come back, and that’s probably one of the things I get most satisfaction from. It’s not just the sailing – you notice the extra self-confidence and it really shows.”
Mark Coughlan @coffers83
For more information about the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, visit www.clipperroundtheworld.com