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?
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.
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.’
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.