Knox-Johnston: Sir Robin itching for an encore

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The solo-sailing pioneer will sail around the world again in the Velux 5 Oceans Race

The solo-sailing pioneer will sail around the world again in the Velux 5 Oceans Race

At 67, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is past retirement age, but the British sailing icon isn’t stepping back from either sailboat racing or single-handing, as the name of his latest raceboat — Grey Power — aptly suggests.

Read the other story in this package: He’s one of 11, thus far  

Knox-Johnston, the first to sail solo non-stop around the world (when he was 29), plans to do it again as an entrant in the Velux 5 Oceans Race, which starts Oct. 22 in Bilbao, Spain (www.velux5oceans.com ).

“Just because we are over the bureaucratically agreed-on retirement age of 65 doesn’t mean our brains turn to porridge, we get a heart attack every time we climb the stairs, and we forget everything that we ever learned,” said Knox-Johnston July 5 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He had just crossed the Atlantic with three crewmembers on Grey Power, an Open 60, and was about to sail it back to England by himself to qualify for the race.

Knox-Johnston has given up his chairmanship of the single-handed, five-stop Velux — formerly the Around Alone and before that the BOC Challenge — but only so he could race in it.

He is on a hectic schedule. He bought Grey Power in May, sailed it from England to Nova Scotia in June, and was to solo it back to England in July. Before the race’s start, he wanted to complete a refit of the 60-foot Finot, winner of the 1998-99 Around Alone with Italian Giovanni Soldini skippering.

“I just felt there was another race left in me,” says Knox-Johnston.

His sailing resume gives him plenty of laurels to rest on. Knox-Johnston was the only one of nine starters to finish the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe, becoming the first to solo around the world non-stop. He co-skippered the 89-foot catamaran Enza New Zealand with Peter Blake to win the Jules Verne Trophy for fastest non-stop circumnavigation in 1994; has crossed the Atlantic more than 20 times short-handed; double-handed in the Around Great Britain a half-dozen times, winning twice; and competed in two Admirals Cups and a Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Collecting those laurels isn’t a big motivator anymore, but Knox-Johnston is still up for a challenge. Every 10 years or so, he gets the bug to “go out and sail on my own,” he says. “I’ll probably do it again when I’m 77.” A garrulous man, he says being out on the water alone for weeks at a time has no particular attraction to him, but facing the tough challenges of racing across oceans alone does. That energizes him.

“What’s the point of doing something easy?” he asks. “There’s no satisfaction in that.” He says he gets his greatest satisfaction while overcoming obstacles— the more difficult, the better.

Five days from Halifax, Grey Power bumped a whale in the dead of night, throwing sleeping crewmembers out of their bunks and breaking a rudder bracket to the self-steering gear. The crew jury-rigged a fix at sea and repaired the damage in Halifax, but the incident was a reminder that the ocean is full of surprises, and crossing them is almost never problem-free.

Knox-Johnston relishes racing in the Velux against some younger bucks; at last count, 10 of the world’s best single-handed sailors had signed on. He knows he will need some extra wind in his sails to win, but that doesn’t bother him. As the underdog, he believes he has a psychological edge. “They really ought to beat me because I’m not the agile youngster I was 40 years ago,” he says. “If they don’t, they’ll have some explaining to do.”

As much as Knox-Johnston enjoys sailing, it is his second love. His first is Suzanne, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 42 years, who died of cancer in 2003. He was at her side to battle the disease, and he has grieved her loss. “I’ve not done much sailing for the past six years,” he says. He’s not sure he’ll ever fill the void left by Suzanne’s passing — he had known her since she was 6 years old — but it’s time “to go off and do what I like doing and just get back to the sea,” he says.

Knox-Johnston is eager to try his hand at racing the light, fast Open 60. Grey Power is almost twice the length of Suhaili, the 32-foot Bermuda ketch he sailed around the world in 1968-69, but it weighs almost the same and carries four times the sail area. “They are exciting boats,” he says. “They do go very, very quickly. Basically they are oversized Lasers.”

Knox-Johnston’s record-breaking non-stop solo circumnavigation on Suhaili took a monumental 313 days to complete. The Open 60s finish the 30,000-mile course in about a third of that time: 112 days.

His Clipper Ventures Plc (www.clipper-ventures.co.uk), founded in 1995, owns the Velux 5 Oceans and the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race — which pits amateur crews and professional captains against each other — and manages Zapcat, a race circuit of motor-driven tunnel-hull catamaran inflatables.

Knox-Johnston hopes that as he races Grey Power he can be an inspiration to others who have crossed into senior citizenship. “You’re not over the hill,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of life left; a part of life with bright colors. You don’t have to lounge around in your chair and watch TV.”

If you’re Sir Robin, you can race around the world alone instead.