A Chat with Sir Robin Before He Reached for Home

CW contributing editor Jeremy McGeary caught up with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston during the Velux 5 Oceans Race stopover in Norfolk, Virginia, April 2007

Not many years ago, Norfolk, Virginia, home of the U.S. Navy's largest base on the East Coast, would have been an unlikely place to hold a layover during a round-the-world sailing race. Navy towns always have been gritty and seamy. They don't age prettily and they often don't put their best face on the waterfront. Sailing past Norfolk to a more welcoming spot upriver or up Chesapeake Bay was long the safe and easy option for cruisers on the annual migration north or south via the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.

Recently, though, like many run-to-seed port cities, Norfolk woke up to its potential, and in a flurry of beautification, quite possibly barely noticed by most who chug along the Elizabeth River on their way to or from the AIWW, has built an attractive waterfront recreation area. It was here, at the Waterside Marina, that the Velux 5 Oceans Singlehanded Round-the-World Race put in last April. Norfolk was the second of only two stops, Fremantle, Australia being the first, in the Bilbao-to-Bilbao marathon.

Among the five entrants who eventually made it that far-two of the seven starters dropped out due to technical problems on the first leg and a third made it to Norfolk too late for the official re-start-was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. Actually, he was fourth in, behind Bernard Stamm (Cheminees Poujoulat), who went on to win the race, Kajiro Sharaishi (Spirit of Yukoh), and Unai Basurko (Pakea).

Frustrated but undaunted, Sir Robin laid the blame for his performance where he thought it belonged: with himself. He was late joining the party, which left him too little time to properly prepare himself or the boat, Saga Insurance, for the race.

But let's back up. Sir Robin, through his company Clipper Ventures, owns the rights to the Velux 5 Oceans, which started out in 1982 as the BOC Challenge, so between organizing the race and drumming up sponsorship, he was already spreading himself a little thin. Why on earth did he think, at the age of 67, that it made sense for him to sail in it as well? He wanted to race around the world again before he was too old.

Robin Knox-Johnston was the first to sail non-stop around the world. In April 1969, he sailed his 32-foot double-ended ketch, Suhaili, into Falmouth, England to claim the Golden Globe and a 5,000-pounds Sterling prize for doing so. Of the several who'd set out on the quest, he alone completed the circumnavigation. His 312-day voyage established Knox-Johnston as a modern-day super mariner, a role he's succeeded in maintaining ever since.

I met him in Norfolk last April, a few days before the start of the final leg of the Velux 5 Oceans, with the idea of asking him a few questions about himself, the current state of the art of competitive singlehanded sailing, and where he fits into it.

On the contrast between singlehanded sailing at the time of the Golden Globe and now:
R K-J: "The difference now is that it is very professional. It's become a lot more expensive, and I think that's bad, because it's become harder for aspiring sailors to get into it."

As the promoter of the Velux 5 Oceans, he has seen, firsthand, the effect that has on entries. He was able to field only seven, one of those being himself.
R K-J: "I've got some ideas about what we might do for the next race to make it easier to do it. A chap who hasn't got a reputation isn't going to find a big corporation to fund a multi-million dollar budget, but if we can come up with a way to get him in for less money, someone might say 'Well, yes, that's worth the investment.' "

I asked what he thought of a recently announced race for 40-footers, and if that was a place to start.
R K-J: "Yes, that's one way you could do it, but if you want to get into one of these boats," by which he meant the Open 60 Class, "you've got to find a way of making it more economical. I've got some thoughts about what we might do with that.

"I'd like to make it possible for older boats to be more competitive. You can buy an older boat for a lot less money, your sponsorship cost will be a lot less."

That, though, carries a penalty, of which Knox-Johnston has first-hand knowledge.
R K-J: "There are about 10 or 11 [Open 60s] in build and they are all coming in at about 8 tons. My boat weighs nearly 11 tons and the difference is enormous. You will not beat one of those new boats. You're just carrying too much extra weight. But when you look around, you see there are a lot of boats that weigh 10 or 11 tons. They cannot compete against the new boats, but can they compete against each other? Yes."

I asked what he thought about the "apprenticeship" program the French have in place with the Figaro, the Mini Transat, and other races.
R K-J: "I think it's brilliant, but again, it's not cheap. If you're an American and you try to get into them, you find they're putting restrictions on numbers, and it's very hard for an American to get in."

That's something Knox-Johnstom wants to avoid, if possible, with the Velux 5 Oceans.
R K-J: "Our race, this race, has always been international, much more so than the others."

He was referring to, among other events, the Vendee Globe, which, although it has seen its share of other nationalities, has been dominated by French entries.
R K-J: "Someone said, [Referring to the 5-Oceans] 'Oh, well you probably won't come back to the States again,' and I said 'We'll definitely have a stop in the States, we always have in this event, it used to start and finish in the States. It doesn't now because the money isn't there. You need to get a big race sponsor to put the money into the race, which is what we've got this time. Last time, we ran it on a shoestring, but we kept the race going. This time we have the sponsor and we put a lot of money into promotion."

Where will the race call in the U.S.?
R K-J: "Because of the timing, we'd have to make it somewhere from the Chesapeake south. You wouldn't want to run a race like this into Newport right now."

He's right about that. This was early April and we'd just had a snowstorm in southern Virginia. The re-start, scheduled for April 15, was postponed for three days while a massive storm cruised the East Coast, bringing gale-force winds to the start area in Hampton Roads.
R K-J: "It could be around here, it could be Charleston, South Carolina. We'll see. We're already negotiating with a number of people so we can announce the race, the sponsor, and the start and finish port, and we'll fill in the other ports fairly quickly so that everyone's got time to get a sponsor in place so they can make some proper plans."

Following a proper plan is something Knox-Johnston wishes he'd been able to do for this race.
R K-J: "I got my boat far too late and I never had time to take her out and test her, so I've been suffering throughout this race."

But how did he get it into his head that he should enter this race in the first place?
R K-J: "I wanted to do it. I wanted to sail one of these boats, I wanted to see how competitive I could still be, I wanted to experience sailing one before I got too old to do it. If I waited another four years I might not be fit enough to do it, so I'd better do it now."

And how did he find the experience, compared to his earlier experiences as a singlehander?
R K-J: "The whole program is so much more professional. They [the sailors] have back-up teams that nobody ever used to have. Everything has become so technical."

For someone who sailed around the world without so much as a functioning radio transmitter for much of the time, the gadgetry essential to success in a modern race proved a little overwhelming.
R K-J: "I've suffered because of, as much as anything, these computer programs I've never had the chance to sort out. No one explained them to me properly, and I didn't have time to sort them out before I left."
This came at a price.

R K-J: "I go without weather for three days, why? Because the thing's telling me it's lost my registration details. No one told me that actually, what it wants is for you to take the dongle out and put it back in. So I'm without weather for three days. In that three days, a high develops, I lose 400 miles."

I asked if there was a piece of gear that's available today he'd have given an arm for when circumnavigating in Suhaili.
R K-J: "Weather information."

That would be it?
R K-J: "Reliable weather information, I should add. GPS is brilliant, but I can manage without that. Weather information makes such a huge difference."

Was there something he had back in 1968 that he'd dearly like to have aboard today, such as magnetic cheddar cheese?
R K-J: "You've read my book."

I proferred him my copy of A World of My Own and he verified that the signature in it was indeed his.
R K-J: "It's amazing how many people wrote to me taking me seriously. You have to amuse yourself.

"Really, I can't think of anything. We've moved on, we've invented things, loads of things we're very glad we've got, and we wouldn't want to be without them these days, providing they work."

Is there anything he'd rather not have on board?
R K-J: "Actually, you need it all, but you need it working. And you need time to get the hang of it and understand it. That means you need to go out to sea with the boat a couple of months before the race starts and spend a month out there just sorting everything out."

How will he keep himself busy after finishing this race?
R K-J: "Clipper Ventures is still going well. We're busy training for the start of the next event in September 2007. And we've got this race. We'll hopefully be able to announce the next one shortly after this one finishes."

And on sailing adventures in the future?
R K-J: "I think my next boat is likely to be a 60-foot cruising boat. Something big enough I can put on board what I want, bring some friends, and big enough to be able to sail it where I want to without worrying too much about the weather, but not so big it's difficult to handle. Something I'd be able to take to all those places in the world I've wanted to go."

Where is Suhaili?
R K-J: "She's in the shed in Totnes. I'm just working through redoing her fastenings."

For information on R K-J, Cliper Ventures, and the Velux 5 Oceans, go to www.clipperventures.com