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50 Years Since First Solo Sail Around the World

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50 Years Since First Solo Sail Around the World

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston Circumnavigation on Suhaili

50 years ago Sir Robin Knox-Johnston made history by becoming the first man to sail solo and non-stop around the globe in 1968-69.

Sir Robin (RKJ) set off from Falmouth, Cornwall on his 32 foot  (9.8 metre) yacht 'Suhaili' on 14 June 1968. With no sponsorship, he was one of nine sailors to compete in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. He arrived back in Falmouth on 22 April 1969 after 312 days at sea.

In 1968 The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, had announced the Golden Globe trophy for the first person to sail single handed and non-stop around the world. The trophy would be awarded to the first to complete the voyage starting in the British Isles and finishing in the same port. In addition, a £5,000 prize would be awarded to the person who made the fastest round the world voyage.

In all, there were nine entrants for the Golden Globe Race. Because small boats sail slower than big ones, each planned to depart to suit their own schedule. The Sunday Times announced that the start time could be between 1 June and 31 October 1968.

Until that time the longest non-stop voyage was achieved by Sir Francis Chichester in 1966-67, when he circumnavigated the world with one stop in Australia. His boat had needed a major re-fit halfway, and no one was certain a yacht could be kept serviceable for 30,000 miles, let alone survive the conditions to be expected. Nor whether a human could keep going that long alone. Nevertheless Chichester’s voyage planted the seed as a solo non-stop circumnavigation was the one great voyage left to be made.

Suhaili sailed from Falmouth on 14th June 1968, the third to depart. Progress was slow initially as Knox-Johnston was recovering from an attack of jaundice. He survived on tinned food and collected rain water. By the time Suhaili passed the Cape of Good Hope she was in the lead, but had already been knocked down, her coach roof shifted, her water tanks polluted and her radio was out of action.

For the next 8 months the only contact was when sighted from the shore or by a solitary ship. There was no means of communication and no way to tell anyone if the boat got into trouble, as these were pre-satellite days. The loss of the radio also gave a navigational problem as it was no longer possible to obtain time checks. Accurate time is essential when using a sextant to calculate position, which was all that was available.

Weather forecasts were now unobtainable, reliance being placed on a barometer removed from a public house, the clouds and the wind direction, but this did not help to warn of deeper storms as they approached.

More storms followed as Suhaili made her way through the Southern Ocean, sails were torn, the main gooseneck broke and off Australia her self steering finally gave up the ghost. From then on the boat had to be balanced or hand steered. After 147 days at sea she approached the pilot vessel off Melbourne to announce that she was still racing and drop off mail. She continued towards Cape Horn then sailed north in the Atlantic Ocean completing the 30,123 mile voyage in 313 days, averaging 4.04 knots.



RKJ – A Sailing Legend

In 1970 Knox-Johnston won the two-handed Round Britain Race with Leslie Williams, and in 1974 with Gerry Boxall.

In 1971 Knox-Johnston, Williams and their crew, which included Peter Blake, took line honours in the Cape Town to Rio Race.

In the 1977 Whitbread Round the World Race, Williams and Knox-Johnston jointly skippered, with Blake a crew member, the maxi yacht ‘Heath's Condor’.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston wanted everyone to have the opportunity to experience the challenge and sheer exhilaration of ocean racing. In 1996 he established the first Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and has since worked with Clipper Ventures as chairman. With no previous sailing experience necessary, Clipper is a 40,000 nautical mile race around the world in the fleet of eleven identical 70 foot ocean racing yachts. The twelfth edition of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race is in 2019-20.

In 2007, at age 68, Knox-Johnston completed his second solo circumnavigation of the world in the Open 60 yacht ‘Saga Insurance’. Finishing in fourth place. he was the oldest competitor in the Velux 5 Oceans Race.

In 2014, at age 75, Knox-Johnston sailed the Open 60 ‘Grey Power’ in the Route du Rhum. The solo transatlantic race is from St Malo, France to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. After 20 days at sea he finished third in the Rhum class.

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