Solo supremo

Frank di Giovanni | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 2

Club Marine caught up with veteran competitor and solo sailing great, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston may be a super-experienced sailor who knows his way around the most technologically complex and cutting-edge yachts available, but he still has time for the occasional traditional touch.

On February 18, 2007, when he cleared Cape Horn in his futuristic yacht Saga Insurance, he performed the same ritual as when he’d first rounded the Cape back in the late ’60s, on his way to becoming the first person ever to sail single-handed non-stop around the world. He opened a tin containing his Aunty Aileen’s fruitcake, and wrote “Yipee!” in his logbook. Then he added: “We’ve passed it! I spliced the mainbrace and broke out Aunt Aileen’s cake. It has withstood over seven months in its tin magnificently…”

Sir Robin is currently campaigning Saga Insurance in the epic Velux 5 Oceans around-the-world yacht race – a solo event that will test the remaining five boats and their skippers to their very limits of skill and endurance. Perhaps one of the best known sailors of his time, ever since making that first ’68/’69 solo circumnavigation, Sir Robin has amassed a wealth of sailing experience over the decades, but he’s watched the face of sailing change, too, as it heads into ever more technologically advanced waters.

His diary entries and recordings are now available to the world just seconds after he makes them, courtesy of satellite and Internet technology – a graphic indication of just how much solo sailing has changed in the space of just one generation.

At a robust 68 years old, Knox-Johnston is once again racing around the world on his own, although his vessel this time around is a little bit different. When he competed in that seminal ’68 Golden Globe Race, alone and unassisted, the young merchant sailor was aboard his impractical India-teak yacht Suhaili. Nine sailors left Falmouth, England, on that epic, but only Knox-Johnston completed the voyage, returning to a white-hot celebrity in the sailing world that has never waned.

This time may be the last and toughest solo ‘circum’ he will ever take, and although the game has changed, the sea is as savage and indifferent as it always has been.

This Velux 5 Oceans Race is his first solo globe-girdle since that initial Golden Globe, but re-visiting that sense of isolation doesn’t pose Knox-Johnston any problems.

Sir Robin’s mastery of the sea was honed in the days of sextants, gut-instinct and experienced and expert assessment of sea conditions. Younger and tech-savvy competitors use weather-routing satellite-assisted data, much as we’d use a Melway or UBD directory.

If it were possible to return to the days of unreliable Marconi HF radios and rusty sextants, no one would doubt the Sailing Knight would triumph.

“I never feel alone out there. Sometimes I hope the instruments fail. It would give me an advantage over the others,” he told me. “Although I’d rather not win if it’s because of someone pulling out.”

OLDEST AND BOLDEST

The Velux 5 Oceans event is the oldest and most established single-handedround-the-worldyacht race. Since 1982, this gladiatorial contest has been run every four years, although previously it was known as the ‘BOC Challenge’ and the ‘Around Alone’ race. It’s a tough sport – one where a glimpse of the sailors leaving port could well be your last…

Sir Robin’s leg two departure from Fremantle on January 14 was held amid a festival-like atmosphere, where fans turned out en-masse to send the living legend on his way. He addressed the crowd, slipped in a few jokes and stepped onto the deck of his IMOCA class, 60-foot monohull missile, possibly recalling the last time he nearly visited our shores.

Back in the ’60s, a momentary urge to give up the Golden Globe race off Western Australia’s coast could have changed the direction of Knox-Johnston’s future forever. Back then, deep below Cape Leeuwin with ebbing morale and a battered boat, he briefly considered throwing it all in.

“Really, it was just a fleeting thought,” he said, adding: “I was tired, and in any case I really was too far south – I had no choice but to fix the boat’s problems, and keep on.”

It was that same sheer grit that saw him refuse help when he ran aground some time later in New Zealand, choosing to haul himself off the bricks alone. And it’s that determination that sets him apart from most mere sailing mortals – it’s what has seen him overcome the most fearsome of obstacles during times of daunting mental stress.

What comes across strongly with Sir Robin – in his writing and in person – is that what you see is exactly what you get. He has that scruffy yet confident air that you notice with all competent and experienced boaties, and magazine articles paint him as a simple and contented man, who gets great pleasure spending an English winter’s evening in his kitchen, polishing a block for his beloved Suhaili. It’s hard to get a handle on these solo around-the-world blokes…

STUFF OF NIGHTMARES

The 14,500 nautical mile section that comprises leg two of the Velux 5 Oceans event – from Fremantle, WA, to Norfolk, Virginia on the US east coast, is the stuff of nightmares and legends. From Fremantle, the boats head around two of the Stormy Capes – Leeuwin and The Horn – down through the Roaring Forties and up the South American and then North American coast.

Robin’s technical skills have enabled him to handle the fastest sailboats ever built – vicious cats that are 100 feet long and can blast along at close to 40 knots – but the sea still tests each sailor and has no respect for reputation.

In the first two weeks of this latest race, he got pounded by a Force 10 maelstrom in the Bay of Biscay. This early wipe-out capsized his vessel and caused sufficient damage to force him to return to the start line in Bilbao, Spain. Under the rules, there was no penalty for doing this so close to the start.

Two months later, he slipped off the deck of Saga Insurance in the Southern Ocean, while trying to untangle a drifting fishing net from his keel, fortunately managing to scrabble back aboard.

Others in this race also had their problems. Briton Mike Golding had to retire with mast damage in Cape Town after rescuing fellow countryman, Alex Thomson, 1000 nautical miles south of the Cape of Good Hope. Thomson was stranded after the keel failed on the wickedly black and speedy Hugo Boss, flooding the boat. He had to get off and was lucky Golding was in the neighbourhood. Golding was already out of the race for his unscheduled South African stop, and Thompson’s multi-million dollar carbon/Kevlar superboat is probably still floating on a stormy pirouette somewhere around Antarctica.

Sir Robin has always been the real thing – so completely at home where the rest of us would have our worst nightmares. He still smokes and famously loves his whiskey. In that first 1968 race, he took to cleansing swims from his boat, snatching a trailing line at the last minute to haul himself back aboard. One slip and he would have watched as the lash-tillered boat continued on its oblivious way.

He also famously repaired the leaking caulking of Suhaili with pre-nailed strips of copper in shark-infested waters, his only concession to safety being dark clothing that he donned in the belief that the sharks would not spot his pale English hands and feet.

When he returned from the Golden Globe to Plymouth, the only sailor to make it out of the nine who started, he declared to an openly overcome Customs official that his port of departure was Falmouth. After four months of radio silence, the media had been preparing obituaries for him…

His old 32ft boat Suhaili is still a proud possession. “I still sail Suhaili,” he told me when I asked him if he sailed for fun anymore. “I occasionally go out with friends and family, but never in complete anonymity.”

SOLO BY CHOICE

Most non-sailing folk blanch at the perceived loneliness of the long-distance sailor, and Sir Robin doesn’t have to sail on his own anymore – it’s just that he still really wants to.

He also openly admits he sometimes struggles with the sponsor- and media-driven demands of his chosen profession. “When I need to do a job like changing a sail or fixing something and I know it will take more than an hour, I get annoyed when I have to send an e-mail or update the website.”

The second leg departure was a festive one, but as Knox-Johnston headed out of Fremantle, an underlying thought must have crossed the minds of many a person there to witness it – how will this doughty 68-year-old master mariner go testing his luck yet again on this most extreme of racetracks?

It is not altogether uncharitable to think that we may actually have seen the last of Knox-Johnston and the four others who re-started the Velux 5 Oceans race. The inescapable truth of these races is that they can kill even the toughest of competitors.

Knox-Johnston, Switzerland’s Bernard Stamm, Japan’s Kojiro Shiraishi, Spain’s Unai Basurko and our own self-described ANZAC, Graham Dalton, left Freo port amid great fanfare, but each and every one of them knows how the sea can find ways to invade and overwhelm structural weak points.

No one dwelled on these possibilities at the Fremantle press conference, but no one would be surprised if a tragic outcome left a good boat sailing on, but with all the human lights out. After all, the extreme yachts that are now flogged at scary speeds around the world are routinely driven to destruction.

Kiwi Dalton said he knew his boat would fail at some stage in this leg – he just didn’t know when, where, or how badly. Meanwhile Koji, in trying to explain his attraction to this most dangerous of sports, said, somewhat mystically, that the sea “…was his father and mother…”.

Koji found himself catapulted to second place behind Stamm and in front of Knox-Johnston after the three previous withdrawals. Yet, despite his obvious courage, this extreme sailor is also somewhat conservative, demonstrated by his reefed mainsail in benign conditions as he left Fremantle.

Young hot-rodder Bernard Stamm was over the horizon before Dalton cleared the rounding off Perth’s Scarborough Beach. Stamm built and owns his boat – he has much to lose, but also plenty to gain if he wins through.

Dalton’s boat, A Southern Man – AGD is a theoretically slower 50-footer, but it has less living space than the average 8m harbour day sailer. Moveable water ballast tanks, sail storage lockers, communications stations and the compulsory engine/generator compartments wall owed up the lion’s share of the available volume.

So finely-tuned are these vessels that Dalton’s wife, Robbie, explained that Graham was annoyed that the interior of the charcoal-black boat had been painted white. “It adds a few pounds to the weight,” she explained.

Sir Robin truly relishes these modern, out-rigged, canted, ballasted and bombastic bullets of boats, and in his usual no-nonsense manner, he summed up their appeal thus: “If you asked the Wright Brothers whether they would want to fly a Concorde, I’m sure the answer would be yes!”

Some 25 years after he first sailed into the history books, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is still facing the demons of the deep – both beneath his boat and within his own mind – with as much enthusiasm and determination as ever. With the end of the Velux 5 Oceans race slated for the end of April, will Sir Robin take the final honours once more? I’d venture he’s got more than a fighting chance…


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