Sir Robin Knox-Johnston: ‘I’m no ancient mariner’

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Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the 75-year-old founder of the Clipper round-the-world yacht races, is to sail solo across the Atlantic 45 years after becoming the first man to sail non-stop around the world. Chris Owen reports.

From the picture window high up in Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s house there is a sumptuous view of the sea. Of course, there had to be. You would expect nothing less.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Picture: OnEdition

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Picture: OnEdition

Outside, a storm is raging and that misty, spray-filled vista across the narrows at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour is filled with a churning sea.

‘There’s no way I’d try to sail through there in this. Wouldn’t be foolish enough to attempt it,’ he says.

I find this puzzling. For downstairs, with pride of place above his kitchen table, is a painting.

It depicts a mountainous sea and in the trough beneath what to me looks like an enormous wave is a Lilliputian lone yacht, dwarfed by the hundreds of tonnes of water about to crash down upon it.

06/10/14  CO''Sir Robin Knox-Johnston who is about to return to single handed racing checks the chart as he looks out across Portsmouth Harbour from his home in Old Portsmouth.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (142875-3) PPP-140610-163021003

06/10/14 CO''Sir Robin Knox-Johnston who is about to return to single handed racing checks the chart as he looks out across Portsmouth Harbour from his home in Old Portsmouth.'Picture: Ian Hargreaves (142875-3) PPP-140610-163021003

The yacht is Suhaili and the artwork is a representation of what this knight of the sea went through 45 years ago in the roughest ocean on earth – the Southern.

In 1969 the mercurial mariner became the first sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Alone and without stopping.

Overnight he became a national hero. He did it as part of a nine-yacht race. He was the only one to finish.

‘That wave wasn’t that big – only about 50ft high,’ he muses. ‘It’s not uncommon in the Southern and Pacific Oceans to have waves 90ft high. They’ve been measured accurately from space.’

But surely, if you’ve sailed solo in seas of that magnitude, coaxing a yacht out of Portsmouth Harbour in an early autumn storm can’t be that difficult?

‘I really wouldn’t fancy it,’ adds Sir Robin peering through binoculars.

Naturally, he was right. Hours later it emerged that three of the Royal Navy’s patrol vessels had been forced to turn back to safety from the harbour entrance, such were the conditions.

A fortnight tomorrow Sir Robin, having left his Old Portsmouth home next Wednesday, will be alone again at sea.

For he is returning to his solo ocean racing roots when he takes part in the French single-handed classic, the Route de Rhum from St Malo across the Atlantic to the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.

At 75 he is the oldest entrant. His yacht is called Grey Power.

Why come out of retirement? ‘I have never retired,’ he fires back. ‘Yes, I’m 75 now, but age has absolutely nothing to do with it.

‘You are what you feel, not what you’re counted as bureaucratically and I’m not anything like my age.

‘I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve got a strong body. I’m fit.’

To emphasise the point he leads me through his house and points mockingly to a lift. ‘Look at that. Crazy isn’t it? When I moved in here four years ago the builders suggested I was knocking on a bit and I might need it. I let the grandchildren play with it,’ he says bounding up four flights of stairs to that room with the view.

As with most adventurers Sir Robin, the co-founder and chairman of Gosport-based Clipper Around The World, is marvellous company and, in the fine tradition of British explorers, is modesty personified.

But beneath the amiable exterior he is shot through with an iron-willed determination to succeed, to win. It is as strong today as it was during those 312 days at sea in 1968/69 when he triumphed in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.

‘Will I win it? No! Of course not,’ he laughs. ‘But I shall have loads of fun participating in it.’

But then the smile fades and his eyes twinkle. ‘But you know, once I’m out there I shall get rather competitive.’

The founder of the Clipper Race (there have been nine now and his Clipper company employs 90 in Gosport) last completed this race in 1982.

‘Last year I took part in the Sydney to Hobart race and I loved it. I realised how much I’d been missing ocean racing. I came back, looked at my racing boat Grey Power looking a bit forlorn and thought I’d go for it.

‘It happens every two years and I thought ‘‘I might find I’m suddenly getting older in two years. This could be my last chance’’.

‘Solo sailing is where I feel most at home – no-one else can benefit you or let you down. It’s all in my hands.’

A life at sea seemed most unlikely for the boy born six months before the start of the Second World War... in Putney.

‘My whole life has been dictated by a whim I had when I was seven or eight,’ he recalls.

‘I only really learnt to read when I was seven and then I did it voraciously.

‘I was given a five shilling postal order and I bought a Hornblower book. Between the ages of eight and 12 I bought the whole series and from that moment I knew I had to spend my life at sea.’

His early years were an indicator of the solo sailing career path he would follow.

‘I wasn’t any good at team sports. My main interests were long distance running, swimming and boxing.’

He went to sea in the Merchant Navy in 1957 as a deck officer with the British India Steam Navigation Company gaining his Master’s Certificate in 1965. He also served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

He had married his childhood sweetheart Suzanne in 1962. She died in November 2003 from ovarian cancer. Their daughter Sara was born in Bombay while he was at sea. She now lives at Southsea, the mother of his five grandchildren.

It was while in India that he picked up the teak ketch Suhaili which would go on to define the rest of his life.

‘I’m working on her with a bunch of friends to get her back sailing again.’

How does he cope with the solitude on those solo trips? ‘It’s absolutely wonderful. There’s no-one else to worry about, just yourself.

‘My wife knew perfectly well that every eight to 10 years or so I needed to go off. It was not a reflection of our relationship, I knew I needed to go to sea again.’

Looking out of that window again, he adds: ‘The sea is a dangerous place. You don’t take unnecessary risks. Which is why I wouldn’t want to be out there today.’

The Ainslie effect

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is convinced that, given a fair wind, the ‘Ben Ainslie effect’ could have a game-changing spin-off for Portsmouth’s economic future.

He lives around the corner from the fast-emerging America’s Cup headquarters being built for Ben Ainslie Racing.

Sir Robin is passionate about the impact the arrival of this new boat-building string to Portsmouth’s bow could bring.

But he has controversial views about how it can be capitalised on.

He has built eight marinas all over the UK and he believes they hold the key to a new boatbuilding economy rising from the ashes of the once-proud warship-building industry.

He says: ‘We have to take advantage of the Ben Ainslie effect. Ben coming here is going to draw a lot of the top skills in boatbuilding, skills which will be the norm in 20 years’ time, but skills which are only just developing now.

‘What we have to do now is, on the back of all this, provide the jobs to enable young people to come in to do apprenticeships and start learning those skills.

‘And those jobs can only exist if we have marinas.’

But where could they go? ‘Langstone Harbour and Portsmouth Harbour,’ he says. ‘The problem is they are environmentally protected. No-one loves nature more than me or any sailor, but there comes a point surely when we have to say ‘‘hang on a minute, it’s time to think about humans, about jobs’’.’

He adds: ‘We have the opportunity to turn Portsmouth into the capital of boatbuilding and boat technology in Britain, but we must have the places where those skills can be learnt and, in my opinion, that can only come from having more marinas around Portsea Island.’

He adds: ‘Where are most of those skills at the moment? On the Hamble. Why did they go there? Because 40 years ago we built marinas there. There was a limit of 3,000 boats then, now it’s 4,000.

‘That’s the kind of thinking we need in Portsmouth.’