Something very odd happened on the Today programme the other morning. Amid the mountains of bombast that usually fill the Radio 4 airwaves at that time came the calm, modulated tones of a man speaking with great humour, wit and modesty of an extraordinary achievement. It was Sir Robin Knox–Johnston, on the eve of his 80th birthday, marking the anniversary of his greatest triumph.
Almost exactly 50 years ago today he sailed his battered 32ft ketch Suhaili into Falmouth harbour — and history. He had become the first person to sail single-handed around the world without stopping. When Suhaili had slipped out of Falmouth in June the previous year it was almost unnoticed: when it returned it was to worldwide acclaim and crowds of tens of thousands. Sir Robin had completed the 32,000 miles in 312 days and his little boat had taken a fearful pounding from the storms of the Southern Ocean. He’s a man for whom the word ‘intrepid’ doesn’t begin to do justice.
This was 1969, of course, and Sir Robin had zero technology. He navigated the world using his sextant — as his radio had gone down — in much the same way as Captain Cook. Now, boats have become extraordinary pieces of kit. Then it was different; as one expert round-the-worlder put it: ‘To compare Suhaili with the boats of today is like comparing the Wright Brothers with Concorde.’ Now a solitary sailor can video conference their children; for more than eight months Sir Robin was totally without any communication, the only contact being an occasional sighting from the shore or a passing vessel.
But if anyone was going to do it, it was Sir Robin. As one of his veteran sailing companions, Billy King-Harman, told me: ‘He is a remarkably principled individual and a brilliant seaman. He is tenacious, innovative and tough and even at the grand old age of 80 is still as competitive as those half his age.’ They had a lot of fun then too: King–Harman recalls a Cape-Rio race in 1971, skippered by RKJ, when the cook — a certain Clement Freud — had ordered a bottle of wine, per person, per meal, per day. And they crossed the line first then, too.
I was pleased to see that one of Sir Robin’s favourite texts was The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s fateful expedition to the South Pole. ‘Their sleeping bags froze and then gales blew away their tent,’ said Sir Robin. ‘And every time on one of my voyages I thought things were miserable, when I was wet and cold and tired, I used to read a couple of pages of that and think, “Gosh, I’m really quite well off”.’
What Sir Robin experienced is unimaginable to timid land-lubbers like me. This is what the French sailing ace Alain Colas told my late colleague and friend, the great Frank Keating: ‘Fear is only the unknown. An awareness of danger is not fear. I have many times felt my heart jump in my mouth at a mighty mountain of the sea hovering over my little boat and me. But I know we will together climb up that steep wall — and clutch for the top and then slide down unharmed. We know these things so we need not fear. We know that a storm is not Neptune shaking his trident and aiming his wrath at a poor sailor. We are men of the sea and we know that the most severe of storms are caused only by cold air moving over hot air.’ It’s as simple as that is it?
Colas sadly perished in the Azores more than 40 years ago. But Sir Robin is still very much with us: brave, courteous, restrained, and wholly honourable. After winning that Golden Globe race in 1969, he gave the £5,000 prize money to the family of fellow-sailor Donald Crowhurst, who had killed himself after trying to cheat. So happy anniversary Sir Robin, you are a model Englishman. We need more like you.