Suhaili was famously the yacht first sailed non-stop around the world single-handed in the 1968-69 Golden Globe. Following a recent refit by her owner Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, she’s back on the water. Adrian Morgan went aboard

In 1968, on 14 June at 1420, a 32ft ketch called Suhaili, with Robin Knox-Johnston at the tiller, crossed a start line off Falmouth. Few saw them off, and fewer still gave this 29-year-old merchant seaman and his heavily-laden boat any chance of winning the Golden Globe Trophy, put up by The Sunday Times.

They were wrong; of the nine who entered, only one finished. Thanks to the little craft’s strength and her skipper’s tenacity, they were back – almost in one piece – 313 days later to become the first to circumnavigate the world, non-stop and alone.

Having earned her place in yachting folklore, Suhaili spent a spell on show at the National Maritime Museum, where she began to dry out alarmingly. “I had to do something before too long,” explains Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

“I told them, ‘If we don’t get her soaked she’ll open up. Leave her much longer and she’ll never recover.’ They told me they couldn’t soak her as there was a risk of Legionnaire’s disease.”

So he took matters into his own hands, removing her in 2002 and personally restoring the yacht that had carried him into the history books. The bulk of the work was completed over the past three years, with Suhaili relaunched in time to be guest of honour at the Hamble Classics regatta in the autumn of 2016.

Built in Bombay

Suhaili, a William Atkins design derivation, was originally built in Bombay in 1963-64, of Burmese teak by Indian carpenters from drawings supplied by a firm in Poole, which advertised “full plans and a free advisory service”.

This proved to be somewhat economical with the truth, as no rigging diagram was included (it transpired that was extra).

Original registration and tonnage data carved into the deck beam. The boat was built by hand in Bombay

Original registration and tonnage data carved into the deck beam. The boat was built by hand in Bombay. Photo PPL

Suhaili’s keelson was hewn from a 25ft log using traditional tools: adze, bow drill and hand saw. “We would watch, fascinated, as the adze, handled almost casually by the Indian craftsmen, produced as fine a scarph as any modern plane,” Knox-Johnston recalls in his book about the historic voyage, A World of My Own.

Iron fastened teak was used for the entire construction: keel, planking, frames, deck and cabin top. The iron keel weighed two and a quarter tons, and was cast in two sections, held by 14 two-inch keel bolts.

The stringers were six inches by six inches and all the planking one and a quarter inches. So massive was she that when launched on 19 December 1964, Suhaili floated two inches below her waterline.

Knox-Johnston, his brother Chris and radio officer colleague Heinz Fingerhut, sailed Suhaili – the name given by Arab seafarers in the Persian Gulf to the south-east wind – for home, completing the final Cape Town to Gravesend leg non-stop in 74 days, averaging 112 miles a day.

Suhaili,” he wrote “had proved herself a seaworthy boat, able when close-hauled to sail herself for long spells without attention because of her remarkable balance.”

It was the intimate knowledge of the boat gained over 10,000 miles, allied with Suhaili’s strength, her ability to sail herself and her skipper’s experience as a merchant seaman that was to give her the edge in the Golden Globe.

Suhaili had not, however, been Knox-Johnston’s first choice. Determined to become the first man to sail alone around the world, he had approached English yacht designer Colin Mudie to design a 53ft steel schooner – light, strong and unsinkable.

But without the necessary funds, everything led to the obvious answer, go in Suhaili, the boat he already knew so well.

After a period of fitting out, Suhaili was ready. Her standing rigging was replaced – in tallowed plough steel not stainless – and her pine mizzen swapped for an alloy one.

She had new sails and an elaborate wind-vane self-steering system, which projected from her quarters to clear the mizzen. Described by Knox-Johnston as “like one of Heath Robinson’s nightmares,” the entire contraption was swept away during the voyage.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Restoring history
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