Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Robin Knox-Johnston, legendary sailor

The legendary sailor recalls his greatest moments
© Robin Knox-Johnston

Mastering the seas over five decades of incredible adventures, Robin Knox Johnston is one of the nation’s most treasured heroes. To this day, he remains unfazed by the sheer unpredictability of the open sea – in fact, he prefers to face it alone. His love of complete isolation at sea has been with him since the very start, when in 1969, he became the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. Despite the countless voyages that followed, this remains his most memorable. After retiring nine years ago, he now prepares many an avid yachtsman for races around the globe – and as we found out, he’s still not averse to an adventure or two himself…

We hear you’re just back from the far East – an eventful mission?

I went to Singapore for the arrival of the Clipper fleet. It was all right, but one of our boats hit a rock off Indonesia and is a total loss. Fortunately, all the crew got off safely and quickly.

In the sixties, you became the first person to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world. How has this achievement influenced the voyages that followed?

All subsequent voyagers knew that such a voyage was possible.  That is a great psychological advantage. It was a first. 312 days alone at sea may seem hard to a non-sailor, and to many sailors, but I am happy when on my own at sea.

With many young sailors keen to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give to someone hoping to embark on an overseas expedition?

It’s all down to preparation of the boat and the person. It’s best that the person takes time to make some shorter voyages on their own before they set off on their big one. That way, they will learn what they need to carry and whether they themselves are comfortable doing it.

You’re the Chairman of Clipper Ventures plc, which offers people the opportunity to race around the world in a yacht – can you tell us a little more about the opportunity?

We set up in 1996, and it’s currently running its seventh round-the-world yacht race. There is a minimum of three weeks intensive training on our boats to a carefully prepared plan. Bearing in mind that 40% of our crews have never stepped foot on a boat before they join us, you can understand that the training has to be thorough to turn them into safe sailors before they start the race. Our personal accident record has been excellent, and until this last race, we had never had a serious accident with a boat – just the satisfaction of introducing a lot of people to the sport I love. Nearly 2000 now.

What kind of experiences does the training involve?

An introduction to a yacht. The need to understand the dynamics, how to deal with the heavy strains generated by a big boat under sail, to become safe about the deck and aware of what is going on around you, and getting used to living with a lot of other people in confined quarters. The list goes on.

Do you get attached to the boats you sail?

You do get attached to your boats. I still have my first boat, for example. I lost one boat some 30 years ago when hit by a ship at night, but that is all.

How do you feel about younger and younger people attempting potentially dangerous solo sailing expeditions? I’m thinking Australian teenager Jessica Watson, 14-year-old Oliver Hancox who is planning to cross the Channel in May and Mike Perham who sailed single-handed across the Atlantic at 14 – to name a few…

My concern is their emotional maturity so they can handle the situation when things go wrong. Some people are mature at 16. Others are not. There is a danger of parents trying to live their dreams through their children, which worries me. I think 14 is a bit too young for a long voyage like a circumnavigation, but youngsters have shown that 16 does not have to be too young.

How does British sailing fare for 2010?

It looks good, but sailing is a very wide sport, taking in as many disciplines as athletics, so you have to generalize.

You’ve crossed the globe many times – what events stick in your mind as the closest to danger?

Getting caught in an abandoned fishing net in the Southern Ocean in 2006. The seas were big and my boat was firmly held by its keel. Eventually, having tried everything I could think of, I knew I had to dive in to get hold of the wire-reinforced rope and heave it aboard so I could cut it with a hacksaw. Not nice in seawater of four degrees Celsius!