Only one sailor completed the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Katy Stickland meets Sir Robin Knox-Johnston as he recalls 
his groundbreaking voyage which started 50 years ago

‘The waves are so much bigger,’ muses Sir Robin Knox-Johnston,
 as he remembers his first time sailing a yacht in the blasting winds of the Southern Ocean.

It was 1968 during the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.

‘Waves went straight over the top of the boat. Sitting in the cockpit, you’re crushed, bruised. I saw one particularly big one and I realised I couldn’t get 
to the safety of down below and went 
up the rigging, otherwise I would have been washed off. You have to learn 
how to deal with that. Every boat handles differently. I was incredibly lucky because I found Suhaili was
 very responsive once I learnt how 
to look after her. But, the only way 
to find out was down there.’

It is just over 50 years since Sir Robin left Falmouth on his Bermudan ketch Suhaili. His aim: to sail non-stop around the globe. Out of the nine entrants, he was the only one who finished.

So what drove the then 29-year-
old Merchant Navy officer, who had previously sailed Suhaili the 15,000 miles from India to Gravesend, Kent with his brother Chris and friend Heinz, to carry on whilst others retired?

Robin Knox-Johnston standing on the bow of Suhaili during the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was the one entrant to win the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Credit: Bill Rowntree/PPL/GGR

He admits the early days sailing 
in the Southern Ocean ‘were pretty frightening,’ where the impact of the waves ‘is like someone swinging an 
anvil against the hull.’

There were times that he felt ‘fed up’ but at no point did quitting cross his mind. It wasn’t until he reached New Zealand in November 1968 that he knew he was leading, by which point he had ‘too much to lose,
so any doubts I might have had went.’

A barely functioning radio meant he didn’t know his nearest rival Bernard Moitessier had dropped out of the race until 10 days before he crossed the finish line between Pendennis Point and Black Rock in Falmouth. What does he think would have happened if Moitessier had stayed in the race?

‘The French insist he would have 
been the fastest; actually, [Nigel] 
Tetley would have been. The French 
also insist he would have got back before me. Would he? They insist he would
but actually, where is the evidence? And 
he didn’t, so what is the point? He and 
I did not fall out over it,’ notes Sir Robin.

Past and present

The French are certainly the favourites in the retro Golden Globe Race, which started from Les Sables d’Olonne
 on 1 July. Sir Robin has his money
 on seasoned solo sailor and current record holder for the fastest solo westabout circumnavigation, Jean-
Luc Van Den Heede.

‘Don’t underestimate Jean-Luc. He is a real pro. He is going for this seriously. People ask who I think will win. I say Jean-Luc. He has been sailing the boat for three years. He is so experienced; 
five times singlehanded around the world. He has got to be the favourite.’

Sir Robin agrees that the likes of Britain’s Susie Goodall and Australian Mark John Sinclair are also well prepared. But, there are others who
 will inevitably drop out, those Sir
 Robin describes as ‘the dreamers’, 
who don’t know the magnitude
 of what they are taking on. ‘Just so 
long as they are sensible enough to 
say they are giving up,’ he notes wryly.

One thing is certain: for those who stay in the race, it will be unlike any other voyage they have sailed before.
 No GPS, no AIS, navigating with only
 a sextant, the sun and the stars.

Apart from safety gear and a few other exceptions, like self-tailing winches, the skippers must only use equipment that was on board Suhaili during the race.

Robin Knox-Johnston drinks from a metal tankard

A well deserved pint of beer after finishing the Golden Globe Race. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The list certainly won’t include razor blades (Sir Robin’s friend forgot to put them on board) and solder (he ended up having to melt the bottom of navigation lightbulbs to try and repair his fickle radio), both of which Sir Robin wishes he had taken in 1968/69, as well as 
‘a few more luxuries in the food line.’

‘It was all very, very simple because 
I couldn’t afford anything else. My luxury was six jars of pickled onions; that was all I could afford. I had no sponsor as such. I didn’t have very
much money. My last £16 I spent on 
a coil of 2in polypropylene rope which saved my life actually [he used it as 
a trailing warp to help keep Suhaili under control in the Southern Ocean]. 
I had no money for anything else.’

As for what he wishes he had left behind – a book ‘about some parasite 
in fish in some remote artificial lake somewhere in Russia,’ one of 100 
books loaned to him by the Seafarers’ Education Service. ‘Bertrand Russell
 was much easier to understand than 
that one,’ he laughs.

Home at sea

At the time of the original Golden Globe Race, there was speculation about
 what affect sailing around the world, alone, on a tiny boat while battling the elements would have on those taking part.

Some psychiatrists suggested entrants would go mad. Coping with loneliness was one of the questions 
a journalist put to Sir Robin before 
he left. His reply: ‘Dunno, if I am back 
in two weeks I am not [coping], it is as simple as that.’

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in a black t-shirt onboard Suhaili

Sir Robin onboard his beloved Suhaili. Credit: Graham Snook Photography

Like Moitessier, Sir Robin says he finds inner peace while at sea, alone.
 ‘I am happy at sea. It doesn’t mean 
that it isn’t dangerous. I am fully aware
 of that and I’ve lost a lot of friends
over the years but nevertheless, I am complete in a boat at sea.’

To win the retro race, the skippers will certainly have to find that connection between themselves and their boats,
 and to learn quickly how to handle 
them in the world’s toughest oceans.

Only then can they repeat the feat of
 this pioneering sailor.