If anyone but Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was at the helm of the 2013-14 Clipper Race, then the 600 or so people already signed up to take part could be forgiven for feeling a little nervous – and not just about the challenge ahead.
With only some five months to go to before the Gosport-based round-the-world fleet is due to set sail, the prospective ocean racers have yet to be told of a precise start date or, indeed, starting port.
Those signed up for the first leg – and having paid around £10,000 for a berth – only know they will end up somewhere in South America. Overall, only six of 16 ports that will host the event have so far been disclosed.
Meanwhile, the fleet of 12 brand new and striking-looking 70-foot yachts are undergoing extensive remedial work after early editions emerged from their Chinese yard with structural problems.
Added to that the bowsprits were rejected as not up to spec.
Though the issues have been identified and are being corrected – in both Hamble and the yard in Qingdao, China – the work has delayed commissioning of the yachts by several weeks as the proposed August start looms.
Typically, none of this seems to concern Sir Robin in the slightest, calmly at the helm of what will be the ninth running of the event since 1996.
Over the years he has seen off competitors and imitators, and managed the varied crises that go hand in hand with trans-oceanic yacht racing. There have been injuries along the way but – and a tribute to Sir Robin’s safety-first mantra – no fatalities.
In short, his calm approach serves him as well today as it did when he became the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world on the Golden Globe race in 1968-69 and on numerous adventures since.
‘I’ll never be where I want to be because I’m ambitious, but I’m probably where I’d expect to be, being realistic – I’m not losing sleep,’ he says when asked about uncertainties over route and boat-building.
‘Of course I’d like to be six months ahead, but that would be unrealistic.’
He added that the starting port ‘is probably pretty well decided’ and the start date ‘is becoming slightly more firm – I’m just waiting on one port to give me its dates’.
‘The programme’s there, just waiting on that one answer,’ he adds.
‘Of course I know the crews would love to have a schedule, but I’m not going to give it to them until I’m confident of it.’
Stitching together the 40,000-mile race route that takes in 13 countries including South Africa, Australia (twice), China, the USA (west and east coast) and Canada is no easy task, particularly as the host ports want the fleet to arrive when it suits them, rather than when it would suit Clipper.
‘When we go into port we take a lot of people with us, we fill a lot of hotel rooms and restaurants, and the ports don’t want us if they’ve got a big event on at the same time,’ said Sir Robin.
The demands of race management are a long way from his beginnings as a merchant navy officer, but while he would probably still be happiest somewhere offshore with a tot and a cigarette to hand, he takes pleasure in watching raw recruits slowly turn into race veterans.
‘It’s different,’ he admits. ‘But I enjoy watching them when they first arrive, apprehensive but enthusiastic, like the first day at school or when you first join a ship. Then you watch them slowly develop, slowly build up their confidence.
‘Of course there’s still apprehension the first time they set off across an ocean, but that’s normal.
‘When they get to the other side there will be four or five who now know more about sailing than I do and starting to give me lectures on it.
‘That doesn’t last very long once you bring them back down to earth and they realise there is so much more to learn.
‘There are many more who say ‘‘that was fantastic, I can’t wait for the next leg’’, and that’s lovely.
‘You see people at the end of the race, the 18-year-old has the maturity of 24, the chief executive who can now say he’s taken on nature. All that gives me a huge buzz.’
‘I can’t sail all the time so I may as well get some satisfaction from watching people’s lives being changed – they’ve got to choose, they’ve got to commit, they’ve got to get there and put up with the cold water down the back of the neck at two in the morning, can’t switch the channel when it gets nasty. It’s great to see.’
There’s no doubt the Clipper fleet will set sail later this summer and provide another 650 or so people with the experience of a lifetime. In the meantime, it’s keep calm and carry on, even if one of Sir Robin’s dedicated team ruefully remarked – ‘it’d be good to know when they’re going, I’d like to book my holiday.’
SIR ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON
· Born March 17, 1939 in Putney
· Served in the Merchant Navy 1957-1965
· Won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969 becoming the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world in 312 days. Donated his £5,000 prize-money to the family of Donald Crowhurst who committed suicide after faking his voyage on the race
· Co-skippered Heath’s Condor in the 1977 Whitbread Round The World Yacht Race
· Won the Jules Verne Trophy with the late Sir Peter Blake in 1994 after circumnavigating the world in 74 days, 22 hours and 18 minutes.
· Completes his second solo circumnavigation in 2007, finishing fifth in the Velux Ocean Race. At 68 he was the oldest competitor.
THE CLIPPER RACE IN NUMBERS
· 43,070 – the cost in pounds of sailing every leg of the race round the world, including training and foul-weather gear
· 7,400 – the longest leg of the race, from eastern Australia to Qingdao, China, via Singapore
· 47 – the number of nationalities already signed up for the 2013-14 race
· 43 – the average age of women crew, with the fleet split 50-50. The average age of men taking part is 47
· 40 – the percentage of crew who have never sailed a yacht before
· 20 – the number of crew on each of the 12 70-foot yachts
· 13 – the number of countries visited in the course of the race