Sir Robin Knox-Johnston looks back on ‘wonderful’ quest to sail solo non-stop around the world
THE year 1969 was arguably one of the most inspirational years of the past century.
Mankind set foot on the moon, the first Concorde test flight was held in France, and a 30-year-old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed a 32ft boat non-stop around the world – becoming the first person to do so on a solo voyage.
Since then, thousands of people have completed a similar journey – either alone or with a team – with many looking to Sir Robin for both inspiration and guidance.
Inspired by his father, Sir Robin took an interest in life at sea from a very young age, joining the merchant navy before setting out on his epic adventure.
Now 80 years old and living in Portsmouth, Sir Robin is setting sail this morning on a celebratory journey to Falmouth, where he crossed the finish line half a century ago.
Sir Robin’s adored vessel, Suhaili, is one that he built himself, along with two friends.
He said: ‘Since I was eight years old I was saving up to buy a dingy. Eventually, when I was 14, I bought a canoe.
‘With Suhaili, we built her from scratch and by 1965, she was ready to go.
‘We took her out around Karachi and Bombay - immediately I knew she was a very seaworthy ship.’
Aside from his father, Sir Robin also took inspiration from another British round-the-world sailor - Sir Francis Chichester.
Sir Francis was the first person to sail solo around the world, but did not do this non-stop - instead stopping off in Sydney at the halfway point.
Finishing just two years before Sir Robin did, his adventure was the driving force behind the trip, reaffirming Sir Robin’s belief that this was possible.
‘I remember watching him come in, it was an incredibly special day’ he recalled.
‘The thing that came to my head was that the only thing left to achieve was to sail solo non-stop around the world.
‘At this point in time, the British were the absolute best in the world when it came to sailing, but the French were nipping at our heels. We knew if we didn’t do this soon, they would beat us to it.’
It was the rivalry with the French, albeit friendly, that spurred Sir Robin on as he set off on his quest.
But although people knew that this could be achieved, nobody really knew what to expect from sailing solo around the world like this.
Sir Robin set sail from Falmouth on June 14 1968 as part of the Sunday Times’ Golden Globe race, heading past west Africa before turning east at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, past Australia and Cape Horn in South America, before sailing back up to Falmouth.
He said: ‘Nobody knew what it would be like; some people didn’t believe that a boat was even capable of circumnavigating the globe non-stop.
‘Luckily, I knew my boat very well, and Suhaili was robust, strong throughout the journey, even when I was not.
‘Having a boat I knew inside and out was vital, as was having the experience to match.
‘To be honest though, a lot of people had actually written me off; the French were chosen as the favourites to complete the route first.’
Although there were many perils to endure, both with the boat and physically in himself, Sir Robin looks back on the journey with very fond memories.
‘It was wonderful,’ he said, ‘I had no crew to worry about, nobody on my back and HMRC didn’t have a clue where I was.
‘Occasionally I did feel lonely, I must admit - but I don’t think people realise just how busy you are when you’re sailing solo.’
In a typical day out on the water, Sir Robin would be up at the crack of dawn to work on navigation - which he says would usually take a couple of hours to do.
After that, it would be time to cook, before following his navigation plan and steering Suhaili for a few hours.
Sir Robin says that the time spent steering was also the time where he could be alone with his thoughts; in his case, he used that time to start writing poetry.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing - in fact, Sir Robin found himself in a number of trials and tribulations.
From losing fresh water and relying on rainwater for sustenance, to needing a coil of rope to keep the stern in the water, there were a number of challenges to overcome.
But by far Sir Robin’s biggest test was what he described as his three days of ‘agony’ when he found himself doubled up in pain.
What he didn’t learn until a year later was that he had actually had appendicitis - but 10 days from land and with a record to set, he knew he couldn’t stop.
Sir Robin said: 'At the time though I wasn’t certain that it was appendicitis – for a while I thought I had just poisoned myself with some dodgy cooking.
‘It wasn’t until a year after that doctors confirmed that my appendix had burst and then re-healed itself.
‘I don’t really know how I survived.’
The third sailor to start the Golden Globe race, Sir Robin was the only one to complete the voyage.
‘I wasn’t the fastest sailor of the bunch,’ he said, ‘but I was the one who looked after my boat the best.
‘I was in New Zealand when I found out I was four weeks ahead of everyone else; from there I knew I just had to push on and look after Suhaili.
‘But crossing the finish line I wasn’t thinking about it too much - I was more concerned about where I was going to moor my boat.
‘It wasn’t until I shared some navy rum with my brothers afterwards that it really started to sink in.’
Looking back on his adventure, Sir Robin feels a great deal of pride - and hopes he can inspire the next generation to get out on the water.
He said: ‘It’s never too late to start sailing - and I would love to see more people in the Portsmouth region taking an interest in it.’