The sailing legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston shares his top tips for making the most of time on the water
‘I’ve introduced over 2,000 people to sailing as a sport. I’m pretty proud of that,’ says Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
He may have a sailing CV as long as his Farr 56 – the first sailor to achieve a non-stop solo circumnavigation of the world during the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race, further global voyages through the Jules Verne and Velux 5 Oceans races, Route de Rhum transatlantic race where he finished third, aged 75 – but it is Sir Robin’s role as The Clipper Race founder and executive chairman that really makes him smile.
‘Some 40% of the crew had never sailed before.
‘The other 3,000 had done a bit but they’ve gone to sea as a result of the race – and when I see their self-confidence and achievement at the end, watch them around the deck of a boat and realise how good they’ve become, that makes me very proud.’
Given his nautical credentials, you might think Sir Robin Knox-Johnston hails from a sailing family.
‘Good gracious, no. My Dad worked for a shipping company but he didn’t have a boat.
‘My mother’s cousin was a captain in the Navy, but on my father’s side it was farming.
‘I grew up in Beckenham, Greater London – you can’t get more suburban than that.’
It was during the Second World War, when his family spent time in Heswall on the River Dee that he first set sail, aged four, in a converted wooden orange box.
‘I stood on it and it sank – an early introduction to Archimedes’ principle,’ says the 82-year-old.
He was ‘determined to go to sea’ from the age of eight and to his headmaster’s ‘disgust’, Sir Robin, who would have made an Oxbridge candidate, quit school in the middle sixth, and learnt to sail in the Merchant Navy, a vital skill as the crew sailed the lifeboats if the ship sank.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston reflects on technological advancements
One of nine sailors to depart Falmouth in 1968 for the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, during his 312 days at sea, Sir Robin made a weekly radio call for two months, then his radio broke and he could only listen.
‘Communications are so much better now. It’s instant.
‘It was easier for me without the distraction, feeling you should be contacting this person or that person.
‘Actually you’ve got a boat to sail, so focus on that.’
Foul-weather gear, forecasting services and electronics were also in their infancy.
‘I was wearing Navy boating gear with a sweater over the top and that’s all I had.
‘We didn’t have polar gear.
‘By the time I got home, mine was porous, keeping the wind out a bit but not completely.’
Without satellites and therefore Global Positioning System (GPS) Sir Robin was ‘totally dependent’ on his sextant, plus the barometer, wind direction, and his charts.
‘You couldn’t tell in the Southern Ocean for instance how deep the depression might be; you might get caught in a really nasty one, and on a couple of occasions I did.
‘I couldn’t dodge them the way you can now.’
With the help of a friend, Sir Robin had created a self-steering system, using two vanes running each side of the mizzen mast:
‘It worked as far as Australia and then it finally decided to pack up.
‘Then it was a question of balancing the boat. I used to lie on the leeward bunk without the bunk wall, so if she gybed I’d be thrown onto the deck and even if I was very tired that would wake me up. Then I’d get up and gybe her back.
‘Eventually I got better at balancing her, and I still can to a certain extent. I lash the helm and can usually get Suhaili to sail a pretty good course.’
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston on embracing changes
Despite his skill with a sextant, which he still carries, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is delighted by the ‘fantastic developments in electronics’, GPS especially.
‘But AIS I think is contributing almost as much to safety as radar. It’s amazingly effective.’
He advises anyone wishing to cross oceans to use GPS, but also to learn traditional navigation.
‘If someone switches the satellites off, you had better know where you are – log your position at regular intervals.’
Sir Robin always uses ‘a little battery-operated GPS device’ as a back up to his main system and for staying up on deck, in busy shipping lanes.
Developments in boat design also have his approval.
‘Foiling is here, you’ve only got to watch the America’s Cup – it’s quite incredible.
‘I was lucky enough, Ben [Ainslie] took me out on his foiler and it was just a phenomenal experience.’
A big fan of the Vendée Globe, Sir Robin had hoped to attend the 2020-21 edition start, until COVID-19 restrictions scuppered plans.
However he shared a daily blog. ‘Just to give some idea of why it’s so exciting.’
Don’t sit there
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s ‘hard as nails, tough as hell and brilliant’ Northern Irish Granny Johnston taught him ‘do as you would be done by,’ and that ‘the Lord helps those who help themselves…
‘In other words, get on with it yourself, don’t sit there waiting for someone to help you.’
He cites Pip Hare’s performance in the latest Vendée Globe Race as an example, when Pip replaced a lost rudder in testing conditions:
‘It was a very, very good piece of seamanship, full marks to her.
‘But she’d trained for it. And she used Conrad Humphreys’ trick of weighting the old rudder with chain so it would drop out, because otherwise she’d have had an awful job, so it was very, very interesting.
‘You watch what people do, when faced with a problem, how best to solve it?
‘In my case, dealing with really big waves in the Southern Ocean, I couldn’t sail as I normally did, Suhaili was going to get smashed.
‘I threw 600ft of warp in a bight out the back and she swung perfectly downwind, which was largely down-waves as well, and it was very, very comfortable.’
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What Sir Robin Knox-Johnston looks for in a Clipper Race skipper
Sir Robin believes the best Clipper Race skippers have people management skills:
‘We take their Yachtmaster or Ocean Master with all its commercial endorsements for granted because they’ve got to have that. We’re looking for what experience they’ve got, and it varies incredibly.
‘Nikki Henderson [youngest ever Clipper Race skipper] was 23 when she applied and turned out to be absolutely brilliant.
‘Alex Thomson, only 24 when I took him on as a skipper, turned out to be an excellent motivator of his crew and a very good technical sailor.
‘He’s still a close friend, as is Nikki.
‘Sometimes you get someone who on paper, really should be good at it, but you end up saying “You’ve got to go – your crew is unhappy, your ticket is in my back pocket.”
‘It is crew management, absolutely vital.
‘You get a well-motivated crew and they’re likely to be safe because they will look after and help each other, which is exactly what we want them to be doing.’
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston usually takes one crew aboard Suhaili these days, whilst he doesn’t take his Farr 56 out unless he has four on board.
‘At 56ft she’s quite a big boat. Coming in and out of port, you’re manoeuvring, and it’s nice to have people put the lines ashore for you.’
He has modified his Farr to get nine aboard.
‘Last July to August, eight of us took her up to the West Coast of Scotland and had a marvellous time – the weather was fantastic.’
Another favourite destination is Greenland:
‘We went up there two years ago with the Farr and we got right up Scoresby Sund.
‘We wouldn’t have done that 30 years ago, the ice has thinned. There’s a lesson for everyone to think about as well.
‘The coast of Africa, from Mombasa down south is also absolutely glorious. Again, you see very little traffic, that’s the joy of it.
‘But there are still places I’d love to go and see, like the north-west coast of Australia, or Polynesia.
‘There’s still so much to do.’
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s tips for a cracking sail
Cruising in company
One of the loveliest things is to go on a rally with other boats.
My friends and I have a little group of six or seven boats. We say ‘Right, where are we going this weekend?’
And we go to that anchorage, or marina – have a pontoon party of course.
Just getting together and enjoying the sport, inevitably trying to race the others back.
And that’s one of the great pleasures of sailing, cruising in company with people you know and like, and the joshing that goes on between you is all part of the fun.
Food on board
I’ve got quite a smart stove on the Farr, but on Suhaili I only had one burner so I tend to be a one-pot cook.
I make Pot Mess, an old Navy dish where crew would just cook all their rations together to make a kind of stew.
The good thing about cooking in a pressure cooker is it cuts down on the cooking time and there’s a lid, so if the boat lurches, it doesn’t spill. Whatever you don’t eat can be added to the next meal.
SIR ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON SHARES HIS POT MESS RECIPE: It starts with onions, if you’ve got any – going around the world they run out after two months. Then bully beef, some vegetables: tin of carrots, peas, potatoes or tinned potatoes and absolutely vital – an Oxo cube. Cut up bacon and put it in – it acts as a catalyst, I don’t know why, but it just improves it. Then leave it to stew. I find it very rare that the crew don’t love it. Maybe because when you’re sailing one of the things you look forward to is the meals, it’s a big thing of the day. And it’s so easy to make, to eat, to digest and it gives you the energy you need, and the warmth.
Accept that we all make mistakes, it’s the degree of the mistake that matters.
If someone’s helped you on the boat and the reefing lines are in the wrong place, then that can be sorted out, it’s not life-threatening.
I remember bringing Suhaili back from India, going down the coast of Arabia and a bloody great tanker came storming past us, missing us by about 20ft.
There was no one on the bridge. Its wave smashed us about and I thought ‘you bastard, you’re paid to be up there, keeping lookout and you’re not doing it’. That was pretty frightening.
Another time, going into Lisbon with Suhaili, with the family on board in thick fog, I said, ‘We want the Echo sounder, we’re going in close, because a big ship will go aground before it hits us if we go inshore’.
Anyone who goes to sea without a knife or two is pretty stupid.
If someone gets caught on a rope and it starts to tighten up on them, cut it and save a life.
I don’t always wear one, but I have set rules.
For instance, on my big boat, I don’t mind you sitting in the cockpit without a lifejacket, but the moment you go outside, or if it’s blowing up and nasty weather, or there are children on board, then put one on.
I’ve nearly been drowned because of a lifejacket – I gybed and slid under a rail which was now under water and my lifejacket automatically inflated and
I was jammed.
Luckily the crew saw it and gybed the boat back – but I’m not against lifejackets. If in doubt, shove one on.
With the Clipper Race we take MOB drills terribly seriously.
I do it occasionally with my crew, as much as anything to make them think about not falling over the side in the first place.
I throw a weighted fender over the side. Then it’s time to stop the boat, as fast as you can, which isn’t always easy in big seas and big winds.
Know your knots
One of my ways of checking people for The Clipper Race is to make sure they can tie knots.
You’ve got to take it seriously and keep up with your training because crossing an ocean isn’t a joke. You’d be a danger to yourself and other crew members and that’s not fair.
Make sure the crew understand what the plan is, even if it’s just gybing or tacking.
I have a very simple rule on my boats, if you’re in doubt, ask.
I’ve never, ever bollocked anyone for waking me up because they’re uncertain, but my goodness, I have if they didn’t and they should have done.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s top tips to get into sailing
Just go sailing
It’s the most wonderful pastime, where you can get at one with nature. Give youngsters a simple job like holding a fender as you come alongside and they develop a sense of responsibility. When you see their little faces it gives you such a lift.
Make sure your boat is ready to go – check everything.
Silly things happen in boats. The Coastguard and RNLI have to deal with so many unnecessary problems. They’ll assist, of course, but then you hear the reason sometimes and think ‘Why is that idiot allowed out?’
RYA gold standard
Seek training. Britain leads the world with the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) qualifications, they’re looked upon as the gold standard.
We’ve got them here, they’re not hugely expensive but what you learn from it is vital.
Join a sailing club
Start off with a sailing club if you’ve got a good one locally.
People often think the strength of British sailing is in the big, national clubs. No. The strength of British sailing is in the local clubs, that’s where so much of the training goes on.
And it’s all willing volunteers, spending their time teaching people how to sail, making them safe and supervising them.
A social sport
Sailing is a very friendly sport, a community of people who share the same passion.
Show willing and those of us who love our sport love sharing it.
Gerry Hughes – the first deaf person to sail single-handed around the world past all five capes – has been very complimentary about my support.
If you look at the rules for avoiding collision, deafness would be a hindrance, but actually with all the equipment we can put on a boat these days it is no longer the hindrance it was.
I felt very able to say we should get behind this bloke. And Gerry, bless him, went and did it.
The great era of home-boat-building was the 1950s, when the use of glues developed in the war for wooden aircraft, like the Mosquito, suddenly spread out and we had this great ‘do it yourself’ thing.
That’s really when sailing went from being a wealthy person’s sport to an ‘any person sport’.