A conversation with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, lightly edited for the read
Posted by Kimball Livingston on May 27, 2014 . Above, the Clipper fleet leaving for N.Y. from Jamaica
His next solo race, the Route du Rhum, being months away and his ambitious business undertaking, the Clipper Round the World Race being very much of the momentthe fleet is now closing on New York and the end of race 13, from JamaicaI took my sit-down with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston as an opportunity to ask a question that has bugged me for years. The Clipper Race being, in its ninth running, a contest of 12 boats with professional skippers and a total of 680 paying crew sailing 16 individual races over a passage of 40,000 miles, making it the world’s longest race
KL: What in God’s name possessed you to think that you could pull this off?Well . . .
I was climbing in Greenland with a friend, and he was telling me how much it costs to climb Mount Everest.
I thought, Whoa, that’s a lot of dough. What would be the equivalent, in the sailing world, of summiting Everest?
A circumnavigation, of course.
But there must be a lot of people who don’t have the confidence to set out to do it, or the skills, or they don’t have the boat or the money for the boat. I did some rough calculations on the back of an envelopecosts for boats, professional skippers, crew training, food, port fees, promotion and whatever else I could think ofand came to the conclusion that I could send someone sailing around the world for about half what it would cost them to climb Everest. So then I thought, well, I’ll advertise and see what happens.
I got 8,000 responses.
Now, that includes the no-hopers, a lot of them, but still, it’s 8,000 people responding. Then I figured I had advertised the idea, and “someone” was going to do it, so I’d better get on with it.
[Add fund raising and other small details]
So we ordered eight boats, set up a training system, and I rushed around the world setting up a route. Ten months later, we had our first race.
[I’ll interject the obvious here, that this is an astounding achievement, and it worked, and it worked out. It’s difficult enough to get one boat across an ocean. Much less, to get 12 boats (in 2014) from stop to stop around the world, with a training regimen for newbies that makes them fit for sea, with pricing and an agenda that fits single-leg clients as well as “rounders,” with backup parts on hand for things that break, with a race committee on hand to bring them into port, provide support and activities, and get the show on the road again. Apparently, whatever was in Sir Robin Knox-Johnston that got him around the world in 312 days to win the inaugural, 1969 singlehanded race around the world—a slower world—left plenty in the tank for the next thing, and the next. In person, Knox-Johnston is engaging and unhurried, no matter what’s tugging at his elbows, and on the day of our meeting, there was plenty. But he spoke to me as if he hadn’t another concern in the world, and we were best friends from college days, picking up where we left off. I’ve learned from other people, that’s typical of the man. The voice is mild, with a musical inflection and no hint of the dramas that went into, for example, setting the round-the-world record in 1994 in the Jules Verne Race with Peter Blake. I wanted to ask about his inspiration to race the Route du Rhum, solo, at age 75, but there was more on the Clipper Race, first. He continued.]
The initial demand to participate in the Clipper Race was mainly British, but it’s become international to the point that we have 42 nationalities participating in 2014. We like that. We encourage it. And every crewman goes through the same training. [26 days worth] Sailing skills, seamanship, safety, boat maintenance, race tactics and ocean routing, they go through it whether they’re skilled or starting from scratch, because there is more than one way of doing things, but we can’t afford to have more than one method in play. There has to be a complete understanding, front to back, and a uniform terminology.
KL: Considering that this is the only true trans-Pacific race, and the fleet got kicked around a lot in the crossing from Qingdao to San Francisco Bay, I imagine you would time that leg differently if you could5800 miles, and the crews are warned ahead of time that they could have snow on deck for the first week. That is, you’d leave later in the season than that March 16 start.
We’d also prefer to sail into China later in the season. And then, yes, the Pacific crossing is a toughie. People think of the North Pacific as champagne sailing, but no way is it that. And our people got to San Francisco saying it was hard and they didn’t really enjoy it. But you know, given a month, the point is that they did it. They achieved something rare. You’re right, I would time it differently if I could, but our time constraint is to leg down the coast from California, get through the Canal, and then clear the Caribbean ahead of the hurricane season. We have to push to be out by the first of June.
KL: You accomplished that by departing Jamaica on May 24 for New York, with a fleet ETA of June 1. But I’m curious about your reactions to Qingdao, which you have used more than once as a port of call. And who funded the entry, Qingdao?
The city funded Qingdao. They could see the benefit of continuing to promote the city as the sailing center of China, and they’re working on that. Every time we go there, they have more boats, more sailing programs, more people stopping us in the street to talk when they see the team jackets. We have nine sailors from Qingdao in the fleet this time, including Vicky Song on the Qingdao entry. She’s going to become the first Chinese woman to sail around the world.
KL: And you were the first person to sail solo around the world, nonstop, in a race that made history. Now, with your Open 60, Grey Power, you’re returning to transatlantic racing as the oldest-ever entry in the Route du Rhum. What’s the inspiration?
I just bloody well want to. I raced Sydney-Hobart on one of our own boats [it’s a leg of the Clipper Race] and chose to race on one of the older 68-footers rather than the new 70-footers. And I didn’t want to replace my skipper. I told him, I’ll just do navigation and tactics. And I realized how much I’d missed it. We had a ball, and we beat all the new boats except one. I’m not sure that was good marketing . . .
EDITOR’S NOTE: Leaving aside a few do-it-yourselfers who may or may not be doing it right, the costs for an attempt on Everest begin at a bare-bones and good-luck-with-that $30,000 and escalate rapidly, depending upon which face you choose to climb and how much support or “luxury” you’re willing to pay for. $65,000 is typical for your Chevrolet version of summiting, and it’s easy to nick six figures at the Cadillac end. By comparison, the 26-day mandatory training for the Clipper Race costs about $5000 US. Individual legs could be as little as $4000, with a circumnavigation going for £ 43,000, or about US $72,000a bit more than Knox-Johnston’s “one-half” comparison, but you see a lot more of the world, success is more likely, and by the end you’ll be one hell of a sailor.
Learn more at the race web site. Their motto: The race of your life starts here. No experience required.