Sir Robin Knox-Johnston has won the Yachtsman of the Year award for the fourth time for a solo transatlantic race at 75. “Why would I stop? It’s what I do,” he replies to Andi Robertson
In a storied history of sailing still very much in the making, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was today given the Yachting Journalists’ Association Yachtsman of the Year award for the fourth time.
The award, which is sponsored by online brokerage boats.com, was received by Sir Robin, 75, for his triumphant solo race in the Route du Rhum in November, in which he finished 3rd in class in his Open 60, Grey Power.
Sir Robin first won Yachtsman of the Year in 1969 for the feat that made him enduringly famous and a national hero: winning the Golden Globe Race and becoming the first person to sail non-stop single-handed round the world.
He won it again in 1994 jointly with Peter Blake for their record-breaking 74-day round the world record in the catamaran ENZA New Zealand, and for the third time in 2007 when he completed the solo Velux 5 Oceans round the world race in this same Open 60.
Only Sir Ben Ainslie has equalled the number of Yachtsman of Year awards.
A special award was made to Iain Percy for his achievements in setting up Bart’s Bash last September, the biggest yacht race in history, participated in by 30,000 people in 60 different countries, all raising money for the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation.
Here is the story of Sir Robin’s Route du Rhum race, and a profile of the innate seamanship and steely determination that drives him, from a special report in our January issue.
“I have one question for him,” volunteers French race director Gilles Chiorri, himself a past winner of the Mini Transat. “Ask him why he is still doing the Route du Rhum at 75.”
We are on the tapis rouge, the red carpet pontoon on a humid November late afternoon in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe awaiting the arrival of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. And Chiorri’s is the universal question, mostly posed with politeness and a smile.
And when he has tied up Grey Power, his slightly aged Open 60, Knox-Johnston has a swig of champagne (note: there is no unseemly spraying over all and sundry, it’s for drinking and sharing), and bats back the answer yet again: “While I can, why would I stop? It is what I do.”
In fact, the question is entirely rhetorical. You are still fit and strong. You have an IMOCA 60. There is a course that punishes you for a couple of days, but the payback is days of tradewind sailing to the Caribbean, no doldrums. Why wouldn’t you?
The French adore him. Over two million people visited St Malo and most know that he is the first person to sail round the world solo non-stop in 1969. In 1982 he led the Route du Rhum until the batteries on his 70ft trimaran Sea Falcon caught fire and he had to stop in Madeira.
But, I think even Sir Robin was perhaps taken aback by how his competitive instincts took over more and more as he accelerated down the 3,542-mile passage, which had started on a blustery, rainy day in St Malo.
In the final 24 hours as he sought to close down the last tantalising 12 miles on Andrea Mura, the Sardinian skipper 25 years his junior who has a new IMOCA 60 in build for the next Vendée Globe, radio silence was imposed. No more media calls. No distractions. Sir Robin had just torn his reacher, he’d Chinese-gybed the day before when he was on Skype to the BBC and blown apart a couple of blocks. The only thing that mattered now was trying to wrest 2nd place in the Rhum class from Mura.
After a round the world race seven years earlier on Grey Power, which was built in 1997 originally as Giovanni Soldini’s Fila, of course Sir Robin knows his boat well, and especially how to eke out good, high-average-miles days in relative safety.
That was very much his modus operandi, staying within his and the boat’s comfort zone, but he was often the fastest in his class towards the end of the race.
The Rhum Class of the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe very much reflects the history and spirit of the race, which was first sailed in 1978. This time, in among the 13 monohulls and seven multihulls there was a pair of tiny 39ft trimarans, sisterships to Mike Birch’s original winner of the inaugural race when he went up against Michael Malinowski’s Kriter V and beat him by 98s in a historic finish. Alas, this time there was no rematch at the finish.
Don of the race
Sir Robin was very much the Don of the race, with ten years on Bob Escoffier, the 65-year-old father of the famous St Malo clan. In fact, Escoffier had to be airlifted off his sinking Sydney 60, and Patrick Morvan, 70, had to stop when his 40ft yellow tri developed an alarming crack in the main crossbeam.
The Rhum class is the division for amateurs and adventurers. Runner up Mura grumbled that class winner Anne Caseneuve, with a just-out-of-class-measurement Multi 50, had turned up to a knife fight with a gun. And indeed she was some 680 miles or three days ahead of Sir Robin by the finish. He had caught up more 200 miles on Mura who burned himself by straying into the expanding fringe of the Azores high and struggled in light winds for three days.
Knox-Johnston’s race was just what you might expect. His insightful blogs arrived at the same time every day, come hell or high water. Even through the storms he had breakfast, lunch and dinner at regular times.
Unaccounted-for evaporation in the heat of the tropics meant his whisky ran out ahead of schedule and the cigarettes – one suspects by design – were finished after three days. There were the pained refrains railing against technology.
Like others his race was compromised early on because his wind instrumentation failed and he could not set a course to the apparent wind, so that meant nights spent napping in the cockpit when in tropical squall territory. He admits he got really tired. His Fleet broadband needed a three-hour fix.
But physically he only really struggled when the lashing on his Solent failed and he had to get it back on the deck. And Skype seemed to be a foe as much as a friend.
Bureaucracy? Don’t mention it. His Portuguese neighbour on the dock in St Malo, Ricardo Diniz, had been sent to replace his man overboard gear at the cost of hundreds of euros. “I mean who the bloody hell will be on board to chuck it to him if he does go in . .?”Sir Robin fumed by proxy.
And if you really wonder why he is still doing it, to speak to him mid-race is enough of an insight. Solo racing defines him. One man. One boat. In harmony. Heading for a distant horizon.
He concludes: “I knew it would be tough and it was. There was some good competition and it is a very well-organised race. I did it both because I wanted to be racing and it’s a great chance to go and sail solo for an extended period.
“It’s fair to say that I got more competitive as the race went on. When there are three boats within a few miles of you that’s what happens, but I am ecstatic with 3rd. There is no shame in being beaten by good sailors and both Anne and Andrea sailed very well.”
Will he be back again? On the dock he was talking of a small trimaran. Loick Peyron, who won this race on the giant tri Banque Populaire, promises he will back in 2018 on the little tri Happy, doing it for the love of it, for the simple pleasures. He and Sir Robin are kindred spirits. Meantime, as the French would say, Chapeau Sir Robin!
Timeline of a long career
14 June 1968 to 22 April 1969
First person to sail solo non stop single-handed round the world on 32ft Suhaili in 312 days. Only finisher in Sunday Times Golden Globe race
1970 and 1974
Round Britain Race. Ocean Spirit and British Oxygen
Line honours in Cape Town to Rio race in Ocean Spirit
Joint skippper Heath’s Condor in Whibread Round the World Race
4th in Two- handed Transat in Sea Falcon 70ft catamaran
14th in Route du Rhum, also in Sea Falcon
Jules Verne round the world record in ENZA New Zealand with Peter Blake – 74d 22h 18m 22s
4th in Velux 5 Oceans Race round the world in the Open 60 Saga