Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

PUBLISHED: 11:17 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

Designed by William Atkins as 'Eric' in 1923, the Suhaili 32 foot Bermudan Ketch  design is based on the Norwegian sailing lifeboat designs of Colin Archer. She is the first boat to ever sail non-stop around the world.

Designed by William Atkins as 'Eric' in 1923, the Suhaili 32 foot Bermudan Ketch design is based on the Norwegian sailing lifeboat designs of Colin Archer. She is the first boat to ever sail non-stop around the world.

Never one to sit on his hands, sailor Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is planning a move to Hampshire - and thinking about getting his pilot's licence...

Words by Phil Riley

You refer to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston as 'old' at your peril. After all, the grizzled 68-year-old sailor has recently returned from a single-handed round-the-world race motivated in part by a desire to show that age is a barrier to nothing.

That said, however, he does fit all too neatly into the grumpy old man category, his ire stoked by the likes of 'supposed experts', computer software, health and safety regulations, snobs, satellite phone calls at sea and other irritants.

Face to face he is amusing, quick-witted and as affable as you like.
But present him with a clear case of incompetence or inefficiency, particularly where yachts are concerned, and it's wise to retire to a safe distance.

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Sir Robin is the first person to have ever sailed solo and non-stop around the world, this back in 1969 when it really was a step into the unknown.

He makes the point that even now the number of people who have sailed solo around the world is fewer than those who have been into space, and only a fraction of the hundreds who have climbed Mount Everest.

At the heart of such sailing is total self-reliance. Even in an age of instant communication there is no one else to call on.

Rough waters
This, then, is a man who is used to professionalism in his own actions, a commodity he finds sadly lacking in some of those he had to put his faith in during his recent participation in the Velux 5 Oceans round-the-world race.

His account of what was by any standards a troubled voyage, and his book of the great adventure, 'Force of Nature', are both full of wonderfully splenetic outbursts.

After a repetitive fault with his vital autopilot system was finally traced to inadequate cabling - this half way round the world after the attention of several specialists - he observed: "I couldn't help but think of all the time I had lost because of this piece of crass stupidity.

"This was a highly specialised piece of equipment and we had gone to some trouble to call in the appropriate specialist to fix it. But it served as another reminder that many so called 'experts' are not experts at all and can place a campaign in quite serious jeopardy through sheer incompetence."

And while he is in no sense a Luddite over new technology, he has some strong views about computer software - an attitude reinforced during the frenetic build-up to the start of the Velux race when he was saturated with information on the new equipment being installed on his yacht Saga Insurance.

"In the end it proved too much," he recalled. "I had to tell everyone they were lobbing too much new information at me too close to the start, and I could not take it all in.
"The engineers who arrived to talk me through the systems were helpful and well meaning, but even for an IT geek it would have been a tall order.

"I'm a seaman, and this is a hands-on profession, and I like to work with things for a while to make sure I fully understand them."And he added, so there's no misunderstanding: "I have no problems with computers, I just have some strong views about the programmes on them.

"We don't give a 17 year-old the keys to a car after pointing out the gear lever, brake and steering wheel, but computer people rush through their instructions then disappear leaving you to find your way around their programs mostly by trial and error."

In any event, by the time the autopilot glitch was fixed in Fremantle, Australia, Sir Robin already knew any chance of victory in the Velux race was long gone, and had been since the first few days of the race.

A philosophical side
In October 2006, he and six other solo sailors headed out into the Bay of Biscay from the start in Bilbao and into the teeth of an Atlantic storm, rather than the gale that had been forecast.

Mast damage forced RKJ, as he is almost universally known, back into port where he had to take an obligatory 48-hour time penalty.

He was in good company as all but two of the competitors - including Gosport's Alex Thomson and Warsash's Mike Golding - had also had to stop for repairs, but by the time he left he was into different weather from the leaders and playing catch-up.

"So I said to myself 'there's nothing you can do about this, just get on with it'," he recalled at his office in Royal Clarence Yard in Gosport.

This philosophical side emerges at other times too, usually at sea when he has the enviable quality of accepting the reality rather than raging at the lottery of weather.

Indeed one of his best times on the Velux, he reveals, was when he was stuck in a high off South Africa (thanks to a failed satcom weather receiver - grrrrr...) and just sat there "with a whisky and a cig and put the world to rights". But he added ruefully: "It wasn't racing."
Nor, by modern standards, was his first, and the first solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the planet.


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