Old School

15 Jun

In my personal pantheon of sailing heroes, no one comes close to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. On April 22, a month after his 80th birthday, the grizzled Brit celebrated the 50th anniversary of his historic win in the original Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world race by sailing his 32ft ketch, Suhaili, across the 1969 finish line off Falmouth, England, accompanied by a flotilla of friends and fans.

In case you went to sleep in 1968 and just woke up this month, the Golden Globe was the first nonstop around-the-world race and was, literally, the stuff of legends. The boats were small and the dangers great. Communication was hit-and-miss and navigation was by sextant. Of the nine starters, Knox-Johnston, sailing Suhaili, the teak double-ender he’d had built in India, was the only finisher. Frenchman Bernard Moitessier was in the lead as he entered the Atlantic but famously decided to sail on to Tahiti instead of finishing; Briton Donald Crowhurst committed suicide after faking his position reports; South African Nigel Tetley’s plywood trimaran broke up and sank as he closed on the finish.

Knox-Johnston himself was out of radio contact for four months during his 313-day circumnavigation and survived a bout of appendicitis while at sea. He lost his water supply early on and survived by collecting rainwater; his book A World of My Own chronicles the misery in the kind of detail that’ll have you wincing sympathetically. Whenever I read of some cruiser lamenting the lack of air conditioning onboard or weighing the merits of installing a washing machine, I have to smile wryly. RK-J and his peers were the kind of hard men that you once had to be in order to go ocean sailing.

Golden Globe aside, RK-J’s sailing resume is impressive by any measure. A Jules Verne record for the fastest-ever circumnavigation under sail: numerous other distance races, including the Whitbread, co-skippering a boat with his friend and fellow sailing legend Sir Peter Blake; a second solo circumnavigation on an Open 60 in the 2007 Velux 5 Oceans race; and in 2014, aged 75, a third in his class in the Route du Rhum solo transatlantic race on an Open 60, the aptly named Grey Power.

In 1993 RK-J founded the Clipper round-the-world race, a competitive pay-to-play circumnavigation that’s let thousands of amateur sailors live out their dreams of big-boat racing. That race has had its ups and downs, with a few deaths and a boat or two lost, but no one ever said ocean sailing was a safe sport.

The true measure of the man, though, was shown a half-century ago when, after winning the Golden Globe race, RK-J donated his 5,000-pound cash prize—a lot of money in those days— to Donald Crowhurst’s widow. That’s real sportsmanship for you.

Given that Sir Robin is as tough an old seadog as they come, I should also mention another formidable British sailor, albeit nowhere near as famous. In 2013 Jeanne Socrates became the oldest woman to circumnavigate solo and nonstop. Now she’s out there again, in the Indian Ocean south of Australia at the time of writing, sailing her Najad 380 in an attempt to become the oldest person of either sex to circumnavigate alone and nonstop. Socrates is 76. Better make some room on that podium, Sir Robin. 

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