“Racing solo is still a real adventure for me. Being at sea is where I feel most alive,” reveals legendary British navigator and the first man to sail solo, nonstop round the world in 1968/9, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, 75.
Adventurer Knox-Johnston has been relishing his latest challenge after becoming increasingly envious of watching his Clipper Race crews set off on legs of the round the world yacht race he created. After competing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart in December 2013 which formed part of the Clipper Race fleet’s circumnavigation, Knox-Johnston looked up what events he could do, and found the Route du Rhum, an event he last competed in 32 years ago in 1982.
He is racing in the Rhum class on his Open 60, Grey Power, the boat he last sailed round the world in in 2006/7 in the Velux Five Oceans Race, aged 68.
“It’s time for my holidays now after working hard the last year on the Clipper Race. Solo sailing is where I feel most at home – no one else can benefit you or let you down – it is all in my hands,” he said.
During the pre-race week which saw more than 2 million people visit the Race Village, Knox-Johnston did 30 different interviews with international media.
The big focus for the grandfather of five was the question of his age, and why he was competing again at a time when most people put on their slippers and enjoy nothing much more taxing than games of golf.
“People are obsessed with age, but I’m just doing what I like doing best – being out on the ocean,” said Knox-Johnston.
“Age has nothing to do with it. I feel fitter than most. I am ready to confront the elements. If you think young, you feel young. In my head, I am 48. As you get older, of course you are a little more cautious. However you have to counter your caution with the experience you know you have.”
Knox-Johnston said he would be sailing conservatively until he had passed the notorious Cape Finisterre, then he would become more aggressive.
The fierce demands of ocean racing including sleep in short spells, being battered by waves and the general discomforts of a yacht built for speed, not comfort, do not faze him in the slightest.
His boat does not have a heads or a galley after all.
And not many people are natural solo sailors. Of the 91 entrants, only 13 are international, with the French reputation for having the best solo racers certainly being displayed in this course.
“I’m pretty happy out there on my own. A lot of other people out there can’t stand the silence or lack of human contact, so they’re on the sat phone the whole time. When I get out there, I don’t like distractions,” reflected Knox-Johnston.
“When I went round the world for the first time in 1968/9 in a voyage which took 312 days, I was not lonely. I didn’t have time to reflect too much or get bored. There was too much work to do on the boat.”
Knox-Johnston comes from an era of true romance in adventure, when modern computers and satellites didn’t exist, and relatively little was known about the solo round the world voyage he would undertake aged 30. Many people believed it couldn’t be done – after all it never had been completed before.
“When I set off on that first round the world voyage I didn’t know if I would survive. I didn’t know it was possible. But I still went for it. I wanted to prove people wrong, and still do when they question my age in this latest race.”
“You must have a gritty determination to overcome problems when you are on your own. You set out knowing it’s not plain sailing, that doesn’t exist.
“When you get a good day, you are prepared to sail for another 100 days for the next nearly perfect day!
“Sir Robin is quite old-fashioned in that he genuinely enjoys being on the boat alone at sea, regardless of the competition element. That is pretty rare nowadays. He still encompasses that spirit of seeking true adventure, it is extraordinary.
“As solo sailing is now a real business, to exist within it you have to enjoy that element of being alone. The mind-set when you are out on the water is one of competition, thinking not about your own existence, but everything you can do to win.
“You don’t get lonely as there is too much to do, and in a race like the Route du Rhum you are surrounded by people all doing same thing. Many of these people are his friends who share a common passion. There is a great deal of camaraderie that exists between solo sailors that doesn’t exist in other spheres,” Golding added.