A Grand Adventure it was

15 Jun
Forty nine years ago yesterday marked the start of one of the greatest sailing adventures in modern history. A young British naval officer by the name of Robin Knox-Johnston set sail aboard his double-ended wooden ketch Suhaili on a quest to win the Golden Globe Race. The race, sponsored by the Sunday Times newspaper, was the first ever circumnavigation race and Knox-Johnston and eight other sailors left the shores of England and set off to sail around the world via the five great capes. There was no formal start; it was up to each competitor to leave when they felt ready anytime between the beginning of June and the end of July 1968. Robin chose June 14 as his departure date and set off from Falmouth on England’s south coast. His yacht was loaded down with enough cans of food to last him a year. He had no idea how long it would take him or even if it was possible to make it the whole way around without stopping.

The reason I call this one of the greatest sailing adventures is because it was. Just think about it. These men were going to sail their very unsophisticated boats non stop for almost a year, navigating with a sextant and using a fairly basic wind vane to steer the boat when they needed to sleep. There was no good weather information about what they might encounter along the way and very little means of communication. If you are not convinced that this was a great adventure just think about eating canned food for three meals a day for almost a year. Right there that makes it a grand adventure.
Robin and Suhaili
Robin Knox-Johnston wrote a wonderful book about his experience called A World of My Own. I was a young kid growing up landlocked in South Africa when I first read the book and it filled my head with dreams of doing something similar. When things got rough on board Robin told himself that he was doing it “For Queen and Country.”  I thought that was just fantastic. Imagine biting down hard on a rope and telling yourself that the Queen of England would be proud of you. Just keep on keeping on and you will be fine and he kept on keeping on until 312 days later he returned to England. As he approached the coast the British Coast Guard came out to greet him and as was their custom they asked him from whence he hailed. “Falmouth,” was his reply and it was true. His last port of call had been Falmouth. Robin told me years later that he surprised even himself that he had made it around unscathed and won the race. He was the only person to finish and he claimed the £5,000 prize money.

I write about this now because in a years time a recreation of the Golden Globe will take place. Race founder Don McIntyre has put forth a comprehensive and fairly strict set of guidelines for competitors. Essentially he wants the race to mirror the one that took place 49 years ago. Canned food, sextant, full length keel, etc. Most definitely no iPad, no satphone and definitely no auto pilot. I think it’s a wonderful idea and so do many others. For a while there was a wait list to get in as McIntyre restricted entries to a maximum of 30. 

Robin and his tins before leaving

When I was a kid I might have jumped at the chance to do something so wonderful but now almost six decades into my lap of this planet I don’t feel the same. I challenged myself on this wondering if it was just an age thing or maybe I had lost a bit of spark but this is what I came up with and I wonder how you feel about it. To be sure when Robin, now Sir Robin, set sail it was a different world. Yes I know that’s stating the obvious but he didn’t know any better. It was a grand adventure and a very difficult undertaking for sure but he had no idea at that time that five decades on people are lapping the planet in just over 40 days. I think it’s going to be much much harder for the competitors participating in the upcoming race because they do know better. They know that satellite navigation replaced the sextant. They know that the auto pilot replaced the wind vane. They know that they could take along enough movies to watch a new one each and every aday and that they would be screened in HD on a small handheld device. That, my friends, is the reason I have told myself why I am not up for entering the Golden Globe Race. Simply put, I know better.

So I am staying home and will watch how the race unfolds. I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who have signed up for the challenge. They all know better yet they have chosen to undertake the mammoth task of a solo, nonstop circumnavigation in an old leaky boat munching on cans of sardines being blown by the wind and being guided by the sun and stars. It’s the most purest form of living and one awesome adventure.

Note: I wrote a piece about sailing with Robin aboard Suhaili – you can read it here

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Brian Hancock – owner Great Circle Sails

This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog


  1. Warren mangan

    He gave the $5000 to the family of Donald Crowhurst after his loss at sea after his fail attempt at the race in Teignmouth Electron ( trimaran) . A very sad story in its self.
    Robin was a huge inspiration to me as a kid in the 60’s
    Cheers Warren

  2. Ron Shafer

    We’re all dreamers….some of us, like Sir Robin….make those dreams come true, whilst others continue to dream!

  3. Ralph Hilbert

    Great write up Brian.
    I agree it was a terrific accomplishment by Robin. He had guts to tackle the unknown! Not many could do it without todays electronics nor could todays boats carry that many caned foods.

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