A life under sail

A life under sail

Dave Broom talks about the ocean wave, true grit,determination and a good drop of malt with one of Britain's most iconic maritime explorers.

People | 05 Jun 2009 | Issue 80 | By Dave Broom

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Small.” “...small...” “so small...” The word is whispering around St. Katherine’s Dock under a clear blue April sky. In the next berth, Oyster Marine is holding an event to try and persuade the diminishing number of City players or any stray oligarchs that what they really need in their lives is one of their yachts, sleek slivers of whiteness, chrome gleam, leather upholstery and GPS systems. But no-one is looking at them today. All eyes are on this solid little hand-built ketch. We catch each other’s eyes.Shake our heads. “So small. Impossible.” Above us is written: SUHAILI LONDON.She’s 32 feet, 5 inches long. That’s 10 paces.Built in Bombay in 1963, she was the first boat to sail round the world non-stop. Even 40 years later you still wonder, how? The design helped. Suhaili was built along the lines of a Norwegian lifeboat. Now, if you want a strong boat, a lifeboat is a pretty sensible model methinks, though I suspect not many Norwegian lifeboatmen thought of carrying on around the world non-stop. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston did, becoming the first man to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe.It took him 10 and a half months.Now, 40 years to the day he sailed Suhaili back into Falmouth harbour he’s standing under her stern, reminiscing. What does it look like from a 40-year perspective? “Look at sailing.” His voice is deep, soft. “The changes are phenomenal. 40 years ago, we didn’t know what the right boat was. The longest anyone had sailed non-stop was half-way around. We didn’t know if it was possible.“There were no satellites, no GPS, no weather information, no safety back-up. You had a radio with which you might get through on once a week, if you were lucky, and mine packed up after two months.“Now you know the right boat. They’re much bigger, much more powerful. You have all this safety info, all this weather info, so you can choose the route in order to go faster. You don’t need to navigate any longer, it’s all done for you. To balance that, these days the people racing round the world lack that little .. spice..that I had.” ‘Spice’ is, perhaps, a typically British understatement, but Knox-Johnston is nothing if not typically British. Of the nine sailors who competed in the Sunday Times Golden Globe race, he was the only one to finish. While others withdrew for various reasons and the pressure cost Donald Crowhurst his life, Knox- Johnston sailed on, mending, lashing, caulking. His radio packed up and he didn’t speak to anyone for months, leading many to believe he had perished; he suffered a knockdown south of Cape of Good Hope; his freshwater tanks were contaminated so he drank rainwater for most of the voyage; he nursed Suhaili through the Southern Ocean holding her together with rope, string and seamanship.As others dropped out, he sailed on, bellowing Gilbert & Sullivan, just him and the ocean.He didn’t do it for riches (he gave his winnings to Crowhurst’s widow) or fame (though he received it). He did it because it was there to be done. “When I got back into Falmouth I couldn’t believe it. There were so many people! All that fuss. I said, ‘that’s not me, I’m going back to sea!” So, that’s where you belong? His eyes, narrowed from years of peering into sundazzled waters, flick towards the Oyster berth. “Absolutely. I’m happiest on the sea.To be honest, I’m one of very few who is totally content on my own.” There was one other in the race though, the only other who may have challenged him. Bernard Moitessier was closing on Knox-Johnston as they re-entered the Atlantic but then, astonishingly, ‘turned right’ and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope once more, abandoning the race, “to save his soul.” He continued, non-stop to Tahiti.Did you feel cheated when you heard that ‘the Frenchman’ that you were expecting to harry you home had given up?“No,” he says, immediately. “I was too busy really getting ready to get home. I still had the voyage to do. I still had lot of shipping to watch out for. I did celebrate though! I poured whisky over the bow and had a good tot myself, but beyond that, I had no idea what it meant.” He went on to win the Round Britain twohanded race twice and in 1994 set the then fastest time for a circumnavigation of the globe with Peter Blake, though speed, you feel, had nothing to do with it. In 2007, he completed his second solo circumnavigation when he competed in the Velux race, sailing in a modern, powerful yacht, stuffed full of GPS and weather systems, computers and satellite phones. His account Force Of Nature is filled with barely suppressed anger at the technology. You feel that the noise, the media commitments, the constant tinkering with malfunctioning electronic equipment got in the way of the ocean, the race, the joy of sailing. At one point, he recalls, he threw an (empty) whisky bottle at the moon in frustration.Has something been lost? The response as ever is quick and clear. “The great thing I had was pathfinding. ‘Is this possible?’ ‘Yes.Proved that it is. Now let’s go and do something else.’ They [the modern sailors] don’t have that. All that they can do is go round faster. In a way they’re missing out.” Men circled the moon before one sailed non-stop around the earth. Indeed, in 1969 there were doubts whether a boat could sail round the world, or that the man sailing it could do so without cracking up. Prior to Golden Globe, Knox-Johnston subjected himself to a psychology analysis. The doctor who examined him found him “distressingly normal”. That must be one of most inaccurate diagnoses ever. He laughs. “It worried me when he said that as I wasn’t sure that he was normal, but I needed a job so it was good to have it said officially!” He laugh heartily.Yet when you read his account of the voyage it is his normality in extraordinary circumstances which helped him win. If something broke, he fixed it, even if it meant diving over the side of the boat and nailing caulking to its hull while keeping an eye out for sharks.So if the going got tough you just said bugger it and got on with the job? “If things got tough you just said if this was easy someone would have done it so stop whingeing and get on with it. It is there because it is difficult!” While others might have (and did say) forget it and head for port, he fortified himself with a quick dram and did what was necessary. What would be extraordinary to us land-dwelling creatures was normal for him.Was it that normality which got you through? “Two things got me through. I was a professional Merchant Navy officer. I’d done my apprenticeship, which meant I had had the best training that anyone could have.There was nothing on a boat which you couldn’t do. Then there was something in the genes, somewhere.” Maybe it was his Scots-Irish blood which also gave him a love of whisky. As other competitors dined on pheasant and tinned grouse, Knox-Johnston had filled Suhaili with 216 tins of of corned beef and every night he had his tot of Grant’s. Whisky is a liquid thread which runs through all of his accounts. Even on the stressful Velux race he stuck to his routine of an evening dram. It seems to allow him time to think, to work out problems, the tot acting as a calm centre, yet quickening the brain.His whisky connection is deeper now thanks to his ambassadorial role for Benromach, which arose out of the brand’s race partnership deal with the Glasgow yacht in the 2008 Clipper race, now extended to it being the official whisky partner of the 09/10 race.The Clipper race typifies his vision. Ten identical 68-footers crewed by 17 people racing round the world, crewed by volunteers, 40 per cent of whom have never stepped foot on board a yacht before. It challenges character, it teaches seamanship.What though drives him still? “Curiosity.Something which I haven’t done before.” So, what’s next? “You know, I don’t spend time wondering what I’ll do next. Someone will say something or I’ll read something or watch something and think ‘that’s interesting’ and next find myself doing it and regretting I thought of it!” Are there many places left for you to explore? “I don’t have to go anywhere far. If you want to do some really nice cruising, one of the best places is the West Coast of Scotland; it is quiet, there are masses of places to drop into whatever the weather, the people are friendly, the scenery is stunning.If you want to go further afield then go to Greenland. Spitzbergen is interesting. Then there’s Polynesia. Never been there. Must go and have to have a look sometime...” and then he’s off on another whirl of media engagements. He ducks back. “You’re coming to lunch are you? Great curry!” At the lunch (he’s right. it is a great curry) to celebrate his 40th anniversary he has typically deflected all the praise by inviting as many British ‘single-handers’ as he can.It’s to them that he raises a glass of Benromach 40 Years Old, bottled for the occasion. Suhaili sits outside. We occasional sailors shake our heads once more as the tales of the single-handers begin to flow. We listen, our intrepid sailing little more than bobbing about off the coast, but then it strikes me that you don’t have to sail solo round the world to love sailing, just as you don’t have to love every dram to love whisky. “We are humans. we need stimulation.” he writes in Force of Nature...the harder the challenge the greater the feeling of satisfaction.” I’ll drink to that.Chris Eakin
AVoyage Too Far
Robin Knox-Johnston
AWorld of My Own; Force of Nature
Bernard Moitessier
The Long Way
Peter Nichols
AVoyage for Madmen
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