At 70, the conqueror of the oceans accepts another award and hints at adventures yet to come
Four decades ago, when Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed around the world non-stop and single-handed - a feat never before achieved - it was a very different world. GPS hadn't been invented. Nor satellite phones. Nor EPIRBs.
"There was just nothing then," says Knox-Johnston, 70, recipient of the Cruising Club of America's Blue Water Medal for a lifetime devoted to the advancement of sailing, sail training and youth development. "You did it the way Capt. Cook did it, which was not a bad method. It worked. It just took time."
Knox-Johnston, who began his seafaring career as an officer cadet in the British merchant navy, sailed his 32-foot teak ketch, Suhaili, around the world in 312 days. He was the only sailor to finish the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Nine sailors started the single-handed race, one finished, one died.
Knox-Johnston compares solo circumnavigating then and now to the Wright brothers' flights in 1903 and, later, those of the supersonic Concorde. In 1969, no one was sure whether a small boat could withstand the punishment of sailing around the world non-stop. Francis Chichester had circumnavigated solo in 1967 in his 54-foot Gipsy Moth IV, but he stopped once in Australia to rest and refit. "We didn't know how a boat would cope with the enormous seas of the Southern Ocean and the violent gales that kept hitting you every five or six days," says Knox-Johnston.
Or how a skipper would weather 10 months of solitary confinement.
Today, the solo circumnavigation record, held by Frenchman Francis Joyon, stands at a little more than
57-1/2 days, a time posted on a 98-foot trimaran that weighs 11 tons - only one ton more than Knox-
Johnston's stoutly built 32-footer.
After winning the Golden Globe Trophy, Knox-Johnston competed in seven quadrennial double-handed Round Britain races, skippered Condor to line honors in two legs of the 1977-78 Whitbread Round-the-World Race, and co-skippered Enza New Zealand with Sir Peter Blake in 1994 to take the Jules Verne Trophy for the world's fastest circumnavigation. He also finished fourth in the Velux 5 Oceans solo race around the world in 2006-07 at the age
Queen Elizabeth knighted Knox-Johnston in 1995 after he won the Jules Verne, and he has since won a raft of other honors, including induction into the International Sailing Federation's Hall of Fame. He says his greatest satisfaction probably was finishing that first solo non-stop circumnavigation 41 years ago, but his most enduring achievement may be his contributions to helping people realize their dreams of going sailing.
"Yachting can cost an awful lot," he says. "If I had my way, everyone who wanted to do it could have a boat and do the things that I was able to do."
In 1992 Knox-Johnston was named president of the U.K.'s Sail Training Association - now the Tall Ships Youth Trust - a youth development organization that today operates a 195-foot square-rigger, four 72-foot ocean racers, and a 62-foot sailing catamaran. At STA, he organized annual tall ship races, and before retiring from the post in 2001 he had raised more than $17 million to buy new training vessels and fund training programs.
Knox-Johnston is chairman of Clipper Ventures, a company he founded in 1995 that offers sail training and organizes around-the-world races on 10 company-owned 68-foot sailboats. (One hit a reef in mid-January while racing from Australia to Singapore, and he says he'll replace the boat before the next race.)
Knox-Johnston has put more than 2,000 crewmembers on his raceboats, many of them non-sailors before they embarked on a clipper adventure. "Forty percent of our crews have never been on a boat before," he says. Before they go to sea, they'll receive a month of training, whether they sail one leg or the whole race.
Clipper Ventures also organizes the Velux 5 Oceans solo race. "I'm a great believer in showing people what you can get out of sailing. What I love is the freedom," says the intrepid single-hander. "Once you get to sea, you are your own boss. I like that."
He says he appreciates the recognition from his peers at the Cruising Club of America. He was to receive the award March 5 at the New York Yacht Club. On March 3, he was to give a talk at the club on "The Life of Sailing," though he says his story is hardly done.
"I did a voyage around the world two years ago," he says.
Don't be surprised if he does something just as ambitious again.
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This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.