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The last challenge on Earth

Yachtsman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston aboard his yacht Suhaili

By Michael Hutchinson

I adopted Robin Knox-Johnston as my hero at an early age - it was probably not very long after I came to understand that the Earth was round.

In a 1980s schoolboy world ruled by Liverpool FC and Ian Rush, he was an unorthodox choice, one for which I endured no small amount of abuse. But, while I was normally conformist to a fault, this time I knew I was right.

It is exactly 40 years since he became the first man to sail round the world single-handed and non-stop.

Robin Knox-Johnston
Suhaili was built of teak with a design based on a Norwegian sailing lifeboat
The Sunday Times provided the £5,000 prize money for the 30,000 mile race around the world
Knox-Johnston was the only participant of the nine who set out to complete the race
He donated the prize money to the family of Donald Crowhurst - a fellow competitor who committed suicide during the race

He had conquered what was probably the last great Earth-bound challenge - something that seemed to be underlined when the moon-landings took place only a few months after he returned. One chapter of exploration had closed, and another had opened.

Small and slow

The depth of Knox-Johnston's achievement was extraordinary. While he'd been a professional seaman for years, he was inexperienced as a yachtsman. His boat, Suhaili, was all wrong. She was old-fashioned - her design dated from the 1920s - and small, and slow.

Magnificently undaunted by any of this, he set out from Falmouth on 14 June 1968.

Some 313 days later, on 22 April 1969, he sailed back into Falmouth, an instant celebrity.

Yet few truly appreciated the hardship of his 10 lonely months. It was no cruise - the work was hard, and it never stopped.

In an age before satellite positioning, he was using navigation methods unchanged since the time of Nelson. Frequent sextant sights, with all the long-winded calculations that they entailed, meant that several hours a day could be taken up with simply finding his way.

He had to cope with the physical demands of sailing a small boat in an unforgiving environment, and with serious sleep deprivation. Suhaili, battered by gales, and baked by the tropical sun, required never-ending maintenance to keep her seaworthy, and his tired sails needed constant repair and re-repair.

All that is before we even get to the psychological demands of month after month alone, most of them without even radio communication. Prior to a sighting by a ship near the Azores on his way home, no one had seen or heard any trace of him since he passed New Zealand four and a half months earlier.

In a modern, communication driven world, it was an almost unimaginable isolation, accompanied by the knowledge that, since no one knew where he was, if anything went wrong his chances of rescue were so small as to be non-existent.

Suhaili, the jacht that sailed around the world
Sir Robin is now refitting the Suhaili in a boatyard near Southampton

It was the kind of thing that would crush the spirit in most of us. It hardly seemed to affect Knox-Johnston at all.

Never missing

I think what made him a lasting hero, to me and to so many others, was just how lightly he wore all this - his skill, bravery and self-sufficiency were combined with modesty.

When a reporter later asked him about the drama of having been "missing" for several months, he gently replied that he'd never been missing. He'd always known exactly where he was. And, you can't help suspecting, exactly who he was.

I could go on about Knox-Johnston all day. But I won't. I think it's best to leave the last word with his late wife, Sue.

He says she once told him: "all your family are dreamers. The problem with you is that you go and do it".

We could do with more heroes like him.

Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and author of Hello Sailor

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