In 1969, the same year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Robin Knox-Johnston completed the first nonstop solo circumnavigation of planet Earth. Now, at age 68, he is making another solo lap around the globe as part of the Velux 5 Oceans race. Of the seven men who started, two have dropped out, and he is currently in fourth place.
Unlike the circumnavigation that turned a young seaman into a maritime legend and earned him a knighthood, this race, which set out from Bilbao, Spain, on Oct. 22, includes two scheduled stops, first in Fremantle, Western Australia, and then in Norfolk, Va. Sir Robin did reasonably well on the first leg, finishing in third place, but the second was, as he puts it, “a bit of a nightmare.” First, the automatic pilot malfunctioned shortly after he left Fremantle, forcing him to return to port for repairs. Then, just as he was entering the Southern Ocean, both of the satellite phone systems through which he received weather information failed. Finally, the device that is supposed to hold the mainsail to the top of the 84-foot mast came apart, making it impossible for him to fully raise his most important sail.
Despite all of this, he was still holding onto third place as he neared Cape Horn, but the accumulation of problems forced him to make another unscheduled pit stop in Southern Argentina. And once he resumed racing, he became mired in the Doldrums. On March 8, when there were still 4,719 nautical miles between him and Norfolk, there was so little wind that Sir Robin went swimming and used dish-washing liquid to wash himself. “I find it best not to think about the race — it’s too depressing,” he wrote in his daily blog. By the time he reached Norfolk on March 30, he had fallen to fourth place, almost two full days behind the third-place finisher, Unai Basurko, a 32-year-old Spaniard. Sir Robin was bitterly disappointed.
“I’m not here just to finish,” he told me a few days ago. “I want to be up there — I want to do well.”
Sir Robin did not come from a family of mariners, but he knew that he wanted to go to sea from early childhood; he became a merchant mariner after he failed the Royal Navy’s entrance examination. He has always been a determined competitor. Until he completed his nonstop circumnavigation as part of a challenge sponsored by London’s Sunday Times, it was widely believed to be an impossible feat. He was the only one of nine men who entered the contest to finish, and he went on to chalk up a host of other victories and firsts. In 1994, he teamed up with Sir Peter Blake, the late sailing great from New Zealand, to win the Jules Verne trophy by sailing around the world on a catamaran in just 74 days.
“I’m a great believer in competitive sports,” he says, making it clear that he abhors the notion that children should be praised for their athletic performances irrespective of how well they do. “You can’t always win — life is competitive — but losing teaches you something too.”
He says he entered the Velux 5 Oceans Race to prove that he, despite the passing of decades, can continue to play his game and not just the seniors’ version. He called his boat Grey Power until he renamed it Saga Insurance in recognition of his principal sponsor, a company that specializes in selling financial products to Britons who are 50 or more years old. “Just because you turn 65, doesn’t mean your brain turns to porridge and you can’t do anything anymore,” he declares.
Some have suggested that Sir Robin’s participation was financially driven because a company he runs owns the rights to the race, but he says his motivation is rooted in more meaningful things and has a lot to do with the death of his wife, Suzanne, four years ago. His habit of “wandering off” for lengthy nautical adventures led her to divorce him many years ago, resulting in a seven-year separation. But the couple, friends since childhood, remarried to have what he describes as a storybook marriage. “The mourning process is a peculiar thing,” he says. “I needed to draw a line.”
The race’s final leg will begin today. Sir Robin already knows he has no chance of winning the race, but he desperately wants to earn back his third place position by the time he reaches Spain. It will not be easy. He is 41 hours behind the Spaniard, a sizable deficit to overcome during a trans-Atlantic crossing, a short sprint by the standards of this contest.
The day-to-day reality of the race is a lot different from Sir Robin’s first trip around the world, an odyssey that was more about survival than speed and that took 313 days. He was aboard Suhaili, a 32-foot wooden ketch he’d had built in Bombay when he was based there as a merchant mariner. Suhaili and Saga Insurance both weigh about nine tons, but the newer vessel, thanks to the wonders of carbon fiber, is twice as long, and it carries sails four times as large. It can maintain speeds of 15 knots or more and hit 30 when riding a wave. Suhaili averaged four knots and rarely did better than seven.
Satellite communications is the other big change. On Suhaili, Sir Robin had to spend two hours every day working with his sextant just to determine where he was. Because his radio broke down early in the race, no one knew where he was for months at a time. If something had gone wrong, no one would have known. This time a global positioning system effortlessly calculates his position, distress beacons are ready to emit signals that would be heard around the world, and he has access to satellite telephones and the internet.
The technological enhancements have done nothing to provide for a more comfortable ride. The endless challenges of maximizing speed are both physical and strategic — “chess with chin-ups,” Sir Robin frequently says. There is never enough time for sleep. When he does, it is rarely longer than 90 minutes at a stretch, and it is usually on a narrow bench next to the navigational equipment. There is no toilet, only a bucket. Almost all of the food is freeze dried, the main exception being several bottles of Gentleman’s Relish, a fish paste made mostly from anchovies, which he spreads on crackers when he decides he has done something worthy of celebrating.
Actually, Sir Robin allows himself one other treat — a cocktail hour. Unique among the competitors, his yacht carries a supply of scotch and several two-liter cartons of wine, a mix of red and white. When conditions allow, he sits down between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., glass in hand, and reflects upon the day’s accomplishments.
Mr. Knecht, a Journal reporter and the author of “The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the Sydney to Hobart Race,” raced across the Atlantic in 2005 on the yacht that broke the 100-year-old trans-Atlantic race record.