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Robin Knox-Johnston and the devastating power of the sea

Culture · 6 min read

Robin Knox-Johnston - 2018 Golden Globe Race

You’re 2,000 miles from the nearest human. There are no shops, no internet and definitely no solid land. And your only transport is a sail-powered yacht. For 10 long months, it’s just you, your boat, and the deep blue sea.

In June 1968, a young merchant seaman from the UK set out on just such a journey. Despite having no sponsorship and a low-tech 32-ft boat, Robin Knox-Johnston was one of nine competitors to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first ever solo round-the-world boat race. A staggering 312 days later, Knox-Johnston was the only competitor to cross the finish line. It put his name in the records books as the first person to single-handedly sail non-stop around the world. Enduring the awesome power and sheer terror of six-story high waves crashing against his boat (“It sounded like someone swinging an anvil against the hull”), Knox-Johnston is happy to admit that, for parts of his voyage, he wasn't having fun. “You’re worrying about the boat. That has to be the priority: The boat. The boat. The boat.” 


50th Anniversary challenge

Sailing around the world single-handedly is a high-risk adventure. It's no wonder the first Golden Globe Race, held in 1968, hasn’t been repeated since. But in 2018, 50 years later, the world’s toughest sailing boat race is back. So what does the original winner think about the return of this epic sailing adventure? “It’s going back to the era of adventurer sailing. Because the boats are limited to 32-36ft, they can’t go fast. These people are going to be at sea 9 or 10 months.”

Not only are the boats limited in size (and therefore speed), they can’t use modern GPS navigation equipment. The level of equipment will be the same as in 1968. “The challenge is just as stiff as it was in my time,” continues Knox-Johnston. “They’re going to have to go through exactly what I went through then.” Every competitor in the 2018 Golden Globe Race has considerable sailing experience. But with 18 boats heading out to sea on the start line, the man who, 50 years ago, was the only finisher (out of nine) is pragmatic: “They won’t all get round. The question is, how many will get round?”

Boat sailing across the ocean in daylight
The Golden Globe Race 2018

Susie Goodall

The youngest competitor is British sailor Susie Goodall. She's also the only female entrant – and she’d be the first ever woman to complete the race. “It’s great that she’s got the gumption to say ‘I’m going to get up and do that’,” says Knox-Johnston. “Anyone who enters [this race is] setting a really good example to young people.”

Robin’s tips for the class of ‘18

“Get time at sea before you go. Get out and get to know your boat before you set off. Go to sea for a month – it mentally prepares you for the voyage as well.” The competitors could be out at sea for as long as 300 days. So they need to have all their supplies on board at the start of the race. Rainwater for drinking can be easily collected, but the competitors will have a long shopping list in the weeks before the race starts. "Just make sure you’ve got everything you might need. There ain’t no shops out there!”

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