From 80ft waves to blue whales, Portsmouth’s Sir Robin Knox-Johnston speaks about record-breaking race before 50th anniversary

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston stands on the deck of his boat Suhaili. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston stands on the deck of his boat Suhaili. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
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SAILING legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston has revealed he never entered the race that saw him float into the history books as the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world.

Fifty years ago, he circumnavigated the world in 312 days on his wooden vessel Suhaili, which he helped hand-build in India.

This Thursday marks five decades since he set sail from Falmouth, in Cornwall, to compete in the 30,000-mile sail.

Ten months later, he went on to win the Golden Globe race of 1968/69.

Speaking to the Press Association, Sir Robin, who lives in Old Portsmouth, said: ‘They announced I was in it ... they hadn’t consulted me.’

His winning boat is kept at Gosport Marina and Sir Robin, who founded the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race which is also based in Gosport, called it his most valuable possession.

‘I can’t imagine life without her,’ he said, revealing he will often to talk to Suhaili who he said is ‘stubborn’.

He added: ‘I am aware of most of her little foibles, but she can still surprise me on occasions.

‘When I can’t climb out of those steps it is time to give up sailing, that is my test.’

Wanting to go to sea from the age of eight, it was at four years old that Sir Robin said he first attempted to get afloat by making a raft out of an orange box.

At 32ft and five inches long, Suhaili was packed full of the tinned food which would sustain him during the endeavour - so much so he admitted he had to climb over it.

During his record-breaking voyage, Sir Robin only had a wind-up chronometer, a barograph, navigated using a sextant, and caught rainwater to survive.

Written off as a serious contender for the record and race win, he said other people’s doubt never worried him, and said he had ‘total confidence’ in getting Suhaili around the world.

As the other competitors sank or retired from the race, he eventually became the only entrant to cross the finish line.

During the race Sir Robin enjoyed encounters with petrels and albatross, had to tackle two sharks that tried to attack him, and came incredibly close to a large blue whale.

He said: ‘I was in the engine room doing something and I suddenly heard this sound like a steam train letting off steam.

‘And the hair on the back of my neck went up, I thought “there’s no steam trains here, I am in the middle of the Pacific”.

‘I popped up and there was a blue whale about 200 yards away ... I thought “if he gets amorous then I’ve got problems”. I sort of tiptoed past him.’

Sir Robin also survived batterings from 80ft waves, and recalled one particular storm where he was on deck and saw a huge wave heading his way.

He added: ‘It was breaking and I knew it was going to sweep the boat, and I realised I could not get down below where I was safe.

‘So I just climbed the rigging and the wave covered the boat. So it was me and two masts and nothing else in sight for about 1,500 miles in any direction.

‘Then she popped up - of course the hatch had been knocked open so I spent the next three hours pumping out three tonnes of water.’

Asked if he ever thought he would not make it home, he said ‘no, I don’t think like that’, adding that he ‘couldn’t let down the me that had got there’ by quitting.