Sir Robin reflects 40 years after winning the Golden Globe

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Sir Robin Knox-Johnston

Today is the 40th anniversary of the day Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed his Colin Archer-style boat (designed by Billy Atkin, I believe) Suhaili into Falmouth Harbour and became the first man to circumnavigate the world solo and without stopping.

It was a breathtaking achievement in an era with few of the technical sailing, navigation, communication and safety aids available to ocean sailors today. Although the world knew little about it, Sir Robin had eventful voyage – by the time he passed the Cape of Good Hope he was already in the lead, but a knockdown shifted Suhaili’s coach roof, her water tanks were polluted and her radio was out of action, and later he had problems with his automatic steering.

But despite these difficulties Sir Robin and Suhaili continued and completed the journey to win the Sunday Times newspaper’s Golden Globe Award. There’s a famous story that when she sailed into Falmouth Harbour on 22nd April 1969 to be greeted by Customs officials with the traditional demand of ‘Where from?’ the single-word answer from her skipper was ‘Falmouth’.

Although not at all a conventional racing yacht and not in fact the boat Sir Robin originally intended to use for the circumnavigation, in many ways she could have been made for the job. Built from teak, she is said to be a strong, resilient boat built to a design highly respected for its seaworthiness.

I asked Sir Robin for his reflections on the Golden Globe after 40 years. Here’s his most interesting reply:

‘It’s hard to put the Golden Globe into perspective. I was the outsider, the one the Sunday Times said was most unlikely to succeed, so they did not give me a radio or contract as with the others. It was this attitude which meant it became impossible for me to find sponsorship.

‘Thus I knew little of the others’ plans, and to be honest, was not bothered as I had enough on my plate getting myself and Suhaili ready. The fact that my radio broke down meant that there was no news of me after I departed New Zealand until I was passing the Azores, so attention was on the others.

‘My re-appearance caused surprise to the organisers who by this time were focused on the race to be first between Donald Crowhurst and  Nigel Tetley and I am not sure it was very welcome. Certainly their representative in Falmouth on my arrival was more interested in asking me to attend Tetley’s arrival celebrations, to the extent he never congratulated me.

‘But that did not bother me, I was pleased to be back with family and loyal friends and began to think about what I would do next. My intention was to return to sea but this became unattractive as British India Steam Navigation Company, for whom I was an employee, had disappeared. At 30 years of age, and in those days, you did not retire, you could not afford to.’

Even at this distance in time, the lack of mental flexibility and insensitivity shown by the Sunday Times people seems breathtaking, but Sir Robin’s seems to have risen gracefully above such trifling matters.

See Sir Robin’s website and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall’s online exhibition, and hear him this morning on BBC Radio 4.

Also see Ben Crawshaw’s The Invisible Workshop piece here and the Bursledon Blog’s story about seeing Suhaili, Lively Lady and Gypsy Moth IV racing together in the Solent – it must have seemed strange to see this trio with crews on board instead of a lone figure.

In fact, many of the boating and sailing weblogs are making a bit of day of it, at the suggestion of Messing About in Boats.

Also, while I don’t know what Sir Robin would say about it, there’s also this intriguing new book describing the Golden Globe race and its effects on the lives of the entrants A Race Too Far.

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