CHAPTER 30 – “A Tortoise Among the Hares”
I could not accept that anyone but a Briton should be the first to do it, and I wanted to be that Briton. Nevertheless, there was an element of selfishness in it. I was sailing around the world simply because I bloody well wanted to and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.(l)
ON THE DAVID FROST TELEVISION TALK SHOW ONE NIGHT early in 1970, there appeared as one of the guests a young bearded man of remarkable poise, engaging of personality, with a well-modulated British accent of the kind that seems to fascinate Americans. Unlike many of the tortured, self-righteous, bearded young dissidents of the period who populated this production, this one seemed almost disgustingly "normal" in political views and reaction to social stimuli.
In fact, Mr. Frost had some difficulty keeping his guest's mind off one of the other guests a beautiful and voluptuous movie starlet. What had he missed most, Frost asked, on his 313-day nonstop solo voyage around the world in Suhaili?
The young man leered at the other guest and replied: "What do you think?"
The bearded young man was, of course, the winner of the Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world race of 1968-1969, in which he had sailed alone in his 32-foot ketch some 30,123 nautical miles at an average speed of 4.02 knots, without putting into a port, without anchoring, and without any outside assistance.(2)
Many people since Captain Joshua Slocum's time had sailed around the world in small vessels, many of them alone but none had done it nonstop. This young man, a professional merchant marine officer named Robin Knox-Johnston, had achieved a real first in bluewater annals, a fact which he himself tended to pass off casually, and which was largely unappreciated at the time because the general public had become pretty well surfeited with dudes sailing around the world, which after all had become ruddy commonplace.(3)
After all, three young Americans, also the previous year, had circumnavigated the moon for the first time in the history of man, and returned with a spaceship load of epochal scientific data a voyage of infinitely more importance than a frivolous yacht race. This may have been partly the reason why Knox-Johnston did not receive his country's official blessing in the from of knightship from Her Majesty, as had both Chichester and Rose for lesser feats of sea-manship.
Almost the direct opposite of Sir Francis Chichester, Robin caught the fancy, however, of a large cross-section of the public at the time. He almost perfectly fit the British image of a young, plucky merchant seaman which, indeed, he was. His boy-next-door charm, outgoing personality, and obvious competence had wide appeal. Moreover, as has been noted by perceptive British journalists, such as Ron Hall and Nicholas Tomalin, "his judgment was impeccable... and he had an uncanny gift of saying and doing the right thing at the right time" (not the least of which was winning the Golden Globe).(4)
As Knox-Johnston himself puckishly noted in his own book, he had been sent to a psychiatrist before and after the voyage so that the mental effect of such an ordeal could be assessed. On both occasions, the head-shrinker found him "distressingly normal."
His only eccentricity, for one so young wrote the young journalists, Hall and Tomalin was his unfashionable tendency to very right-wing and blimpish views.
Born on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1939, in Putney, this "distressingly normal" boy was christened William Robert Patrick Knox-Johnston, which almost at once became Robin Knox-Johnston. He was of mixed Ulster and English stock. Both the Knoxes and the Johnstons were Presbyterian farmers who fled the lowlands of Scotland to Ireland in the early seventeenth century. His ancestry also included at least one East India civil servant who spent many years as a prisoner in Ceylon, but lived to escape and retire as a pensioner from "John Company's" service. His mother was a descendant of a Scottish family of lawyers which had migrated to Kent and thereafter engaged in maritime activities.
When Robin was an infant, World War II was raging. Once, when his father was home on leave, their flat in New Brighton was destroyed by a buzz bomb, the family narrowly escaping disaster. They moved then to Heswall on the Dee estuary where boats and the sea soon were to capture the lad's fancy. When he was four, he built a raft of orange crates. Next came a ten-foot canoe. At seventeen, he decided to join the Royal Navy, but failed the mathematical phase of the examinations. He then shipped out as an apprentice in the Merchant Navy, with the British Indian Steam Navigation Company as an officer cadet.
He spent three years on the cadet ship, learning seamanship, navigation, and other skills, sailing between England and the East African ports. He passed his second mate's examination in 1960, joined the Dwarka between India and the Persian Gulf ports, took his first mate's examination, and got married. The couple set up housekeeping in Bombay. The monotony of this life eventually motivated Robin and a fellow officer to build a yacht and sail her back to England. They sent for plans which appeared in a British yachting magazine, but got by mistake those of a modified Colin Archer. Since they wished to catch the monsoons of the following season, they decided to build this model instead.
The vessel, which was named Suhaili, the Arab word for the local southeast wind, was built by hand of native teak. The work went slowly, and she was not launched until September 1964, too late to keep their planned schedule. Meanwhile, Robin's marriage broke up and his wife flew home to England.
In December 1966, with the yacht about half-finished (and only half paid for), Robin and his brother, Chris, and a fellow officer, departed Cape Town on Christmas Eve. After a nonstop run of seventy-four days, they tied up at Gravesend. Suhaili, although small, proved to be a remarkably seaworthy and easy-to-handle vessel.
The vessel was berthed at the Benfleet Yacht Club, of which Robin was a member, and he reported back to work. While waiting for a ship, he began to write a book about his voyage. Meanwhile, he became interested in the current excitement over bluewater yacht racing. England was buzzing with sea fever over the upcoming Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race and Chichester's well-publicized escapades at sea. One day, his father remarked casually that Tabarly was building a trimaran, which was reputed to be faster than anything the British could come up with. The idea of a Frenchman beating a Briton on the sea appalled Robin.
Also, Robin suspected that Tabarly was going to attempt a nonstop circumnavigation, a project he had mulled over in his mind for a long time. As he said later, it was something that remained to be done, and he didn't care who achieved it as long as it was a Briton. Now the idea grew on him, until it became an ambition and eventually a crusade, as he confided to close friends and fellow yacht-club members. One of them, David Waterhouse, took him to see the now-famous designer, Colin Mudie. The imaginative and innovative Mudie had several suggestions of revolutionary concept all of which cost a lot of money. Robin and his friends began to look for sponsors (there always seem to be well-heeled English angels around who don't mind investing a few quid in a ruddy yacht race).
But Robin needed GBP5,000, and even if he sold Suhaili, he would need GBP2,000 more. Failing to find enough sponsors, he wrote to his company and asked for its help. He was granted an interview at the head office, but the final decision was no. He still owed GBP2,000 on Suhaili, and also he owed the Royal Navy some reserve time. He then joined the H.M.S. Duncan in Portsmouth to discharge his obligation, and meanwhile had the good fortune to interest George Greenfield, the literary agent who had handled Sir Francis Chichester, in the book he was writing. Greenfield immediately grasped the potential, and urged Robin to go ahead with his preparations for the circumnavigation and leave the financial worries to George.
Robin went on active duty January 2, 1968, and a few weeks later, Greenfield signed a contract for a book about a nonstop circumnavigation that had not even got to the departure stage yet. This contract was followed by another for the American edition, plus numerous magazine and television commitments in the United Kingdom and the U.S. But also by this time, several of the contestants in the Golden Globe were well along with their projects, including Bill King, Moitessier, Chay Blyth, and Captain John Ridgway.
Completing his reserve training, Robin and his backers, including newly formed fan clubs, flung themselves into final preparations. Robin chose Falmouth as the starting point and finish line. Suhaili was reconditioned and fitted out. Finally, on June 14, 1968, Robin cast off amid the usual farewell publicity and official escort vessels. Then, suddenly, he was alone on the Atlantic, the months of tension, preparations, and uncertainties behind him. Ahead were more than 30,000 lonely miles. The moment of truth had come. His reaction was one of extreme let-down and depression.
It was to be a long, plodding voyage, and generally uneventful. Unlike the spectacular and glamorous starters, Galway Blazer II and the Piver trimarans, Suhaili was a lumbering tortoise in a race against fleet hares.
On June 21, Robin was off Cape Finisterre. On the twenty-eighth, he passed the Azores. On July 12, he left the Azores to port. Wallowing through the doldrums, he reached the latitude of Cape Town on August 23. He encountered a gale that knocked Suhaili flat. On September 10, he doubled the Cape. Sailing along on the northern edge of the Roaring Forties, he came up on the rocks called St. Paul and Amsterdam on October 4, after 112 days out. On the 133rd day he was approaching Cape Leeuwin. Passing close in on the Australian bight, he sighted Kooringa on October 25. A few days later, the self-steering mechanism failed. He made contact on shore near Melbourne on November 8, receiving news of home and passing on reports.
Passing to the north of Tasmania, he came up off South Island in the middle of November and on November 20 he ran aground. Getting off, he headed eastward along the old grain and wool clipper route toward Cape Horn, crossing the International Dateline on November 25.
On January 17, 1969, Suhaili passed Cape Horn at 1915 hours, with light westerly winds. Robin wrote in his log: "Yippee!"
He passed the Falklands on January 23, and by February 2 was out of the variables. He passed to the east of Trinidade Island after 252 days out of Falmouth. On March 6, he crossed the equator, and on April 5 spoke to the tanker Mobil Acme, reporting his position by radio to the Sunday Mirror.
From then on, it was smooth sailing, and waiting for him at home were fame and fortune and the assurance that he would not have to worry about drudging through life in a boring career job again. The other nine entrants in the Golden Globe had failed or dropped out. All he had to do was cross that finish line. The press and television build-up had already begun, and by the time he approached England, public interest had reached fever pitch.
On April 22, after 313 days out of Falmouth, he crossed the finish line and was escorted into port to a noisy welcome at 3:25 P.M. First on board Suhaili, now rust-streaked and peeling, her bottom foul, and her sails tattered, came the customs men.
"Where from?" asked the senior port officer.
"From Falmouth," replied the now-bearded Robin Knox-Johnston with a puckishly straight face.(5)
After the excitement had settled down, and Robin learned that Donald Crowhurst was supposed to be missing at sea, he generously offered his GBP5,000 cash prize to the Crowhurst Appeal Fund for the family of the "lost" contestant. Later, at the Golden Globe dinner aboard the Cutty Sark, when the real story of Donald Crowhurst had been revealed, Robin stuck to his original intention of donating the cash prize to the Crowhurst family.
"None of us," he said, "should judge Donald Crowhurst too harshly, and the family will need the money now...."
Still later, he announced he would stand for election to Parliament as a Conservative candidate, and immediately embarked on a publicity tour of the U.S.A. and British Isles to promote his books. From this, he drifted into more yachting activities, made several short voyages in Suhaili, and found himself pondering what to do now with his young life.
Still in his mind was the thought that had followed him all the way home on the last leg from Cape Horn, after he had listened to radio stations from the southern United States broadcasting recordings from the Apollo 8 crew as they circled the moon.
There they were, three men risking their lives to advance scientific knowledge, to expand our frontiers that have so far held us to this planet. I was doing absolutely nothing.(6)
AUTHOR's NOTES (Chapter Thirty)
1. A World of My Own by Robin Knox-Johnston (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1970).
2. Suhaili's vital statistics were: 32 feet 5 inches loa, 28 feet lwl,11 feet 1 inch beam, 5 feet 6 inches draft. The plain sail area was 666 square feet, Thames measurement, 14 tons; gross tonnage, 9.72, net 6.29. The keel was cast iron of 2 1/4 tons.
3. The spectacular voyages of Francis Chichester and Alee Rose, both of whom were of retirement age, had so captured the public's imagination, that it obscured Robin's greater achievement.
4. See The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, cited elsewhere. See Bibliography.
5. Ironically, Robin almost missed crossing the finish line, which had been changed by the Sunday Times committee after he had departed.
6. A World of My Own.
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