Fifty years ago today – RKJ and Suhaili

22 Apr

Suhaili crosses the finish line 50 years later

I am definitely not one to dwell in the past but there are times when it’s good to look back and today is one of those times. It was fifty years ago today, April 22, that Robin Knox-Johnston sailed into Falmouth Harbor on the south coast of England to become the first person in history to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world. He was the winner of the first Golden Globe race and he did it, as he said numerous times in his book, for Queen and Country. What an incredible feat it was at a time when most people thought that it was not possible to sail all the way around the world without stopping. A couple of years earlier England, and indeed the world, had been inspired by another Brit, Francis Chichester, who completed a solo circumnavigation but Chichester stopped in Australia. Chichester was the first person to achieve a true circumnavigation of the world solo from west to east via the great capes and he was knighted for his accomplishment. Three short years later Robin Knox-Johnston closed the loop on a non-stop lap of the planet. This past weekend in Falmouth there have been numerous festivities and today, at the precise moment Knox-Johnston’s yacht Suhaili crossed the finish line, RKJ will recreate that moment, five decades later.

Fifty years ago – approaching the finish line

I say it good to look back because only by doing so can we see how far we have come in this sport we all love so much. Think about this; it took Robin 312 days to get around the world. He navigated with a sextant and used a taffrail log to get his  boat speed in order to estimate his position. These days the fastest time for a solo circumnavigation is 42 days and 16 hours, the record being held by the French sailor François Gabart. No sextant and taffrail log for Mr Gabart. He knew precisely where he was every second of the day thanks to modern satellite technology. What an incredible leap forward in just 50 years.

There was a time not so long ago that it was thought impossible to circumnavigate fully crewed in under 80 days, a timeframe that was a nod to the book Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. A group of sailors met on a barge on the Seine river in France to outline the challenge. I am not sure if any of them thought that it would be possible, at least in the short term, but just a couple of years later the French sailor Bruno Peyron and his crew, including American Cam Lewis, lapped the planet in 79 days and 6 hours to win the first Jules Verne Trophy. That record time now stands at 40 days and 23 hours. 

Frenchman Thomas Coville, who once held the fastest solo circumnavigation record, will set off later this year in his brand new Ultime trimaran to try and break not only the fastest solo circumnavigation time, but the fastest fully-crewed time as well and many pundits believe that he has a very good chance of doing so. Can you imagine if someone had told Knox-Johnston that in fifty years time someone would do what he had just done over seven times faster? Can you imagine if someone had told Knox-Johnston that in fifty years time one person would be able to manage a mainsail that was ten times the size of the mainsail on Suhaili?  Me neither, but I guess the question that bears asking is where will we be in 50 years? What will the records be and what about sail technology? I can’t imagine that there will be as much progress as we have experienced over the last 50 years but you never know. I won’t be around to see it but there are for sure some exciting times ahead.

Imagine just one person managing all that sail area

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This article was syndicated from Great Circle Sails Blog


  1. Norman Curnow

    Started sailing backin74 on Hurley 27ft sailed to med and back 4 times next boat westerly Konsort 29ft allso sailed med Canariesi on both boats ,then up a gear 45ft two of use Med again then 29ft same ,35ft trans Atlantic 5 times south America Cuba most of the Island on that side ,BLACK sea Gulf Mixico single handed No sponsors all for sheer fun and what a life I must say do it all over again yes Life s Adventure

  2. Emily Belanger

    To Kevin Olds…Slocum was indeed the first solo circumnavigator, but he stopped in many places. His book remains a great read for any sailor.

    I wish you had mentioned Jean-Luc van den Heede in this piece. Not only did he win the 2018 recreation of the GGR, but he did it faster than RKJ, and was the tender age of 73 when he crossed the finish line.

  3. Chris Myers

    My sailing days were back when a sextant and dead reckoning were the norm. Though I haven’t circumnavigated, I have put in 20,000 miles in a Sea Witch ketch. Can’t imagine handing those huge sails.

  4. Kevin Olds

    When I was a young tot , I was given a paperback who’s exact title escapes me but it was something like : “Solo Circumnavigation in Small Boats”. It regaled the many adventures of men who braved the seas to sail around the world. As I recall, the first to do this solo was Joshua Slocum before 1900.

  5. Roystdon Page

    I have also sailed for many years
    but the boats never got to the machine used now they cost a fortune and must be very hard to sail for hours, not day or weeks. The next 50 years also far beyond me in time and ideas but foills are an idea for the the future

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