Not all elderly gents enjoy a retirement of slippers with a blanket over their knees. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his first solo circumnavigation, has no plans to retire at all. Story by Bruno Cianci.

Half a century ago one of the most exciting adventures in the history of sailing took place: the first Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. On April 22nd, 1969 the then penniless and 30-year-old William Robert Pat Knox-Johnston, better known as ‘Robin’, reached Falmouth in Cornwall, completing the solo journey that had kept him away from the terra firma for 312 days.

His only partners on the voyage were the Henri Lloyd brand, which had supplied him with sailing clothing, and plenty of Tennents beer – the hop-based drink that for a Briton is worth more than an oilskin. It was also a providential escort, as a crack in the fresh water tanks dangerously depleted his supplies, until he managed to collect rainwater from the salt-encrusted mainsail.

No one had solo circumnavigated the globe without a stop before. In the race were eight other competitors, including Chay Blyth, the unfortunate Donald Crowhurst and the Frenchman Bernard Moitessier who, while leading, abandoned the race and retired in Polynesia ‘to save his soul’.

Robin was the only sailor to complete the journey – aboard Suhaili, a 32-foot ketch he’d self-built in India. He subsequently embarked on three further races around the planet. One of these included the equally legendary Sir Peter Blake as crew. The other was again solo (2006-2007) at the venerable age of 67.


Robin stands out for his tall stature, palpable charisma, calm appearance and good manners. In our discussion, however, I perceive a certain misanthropy. I discover he likes very little of the contemporary world and society, and for bureaucracy and politicians he displays a genuine distaste. He considers the latter to be “the bane of our times, as they think exclusively of themselves.”

He has always opposed the Brexit process, and doesn’t bother to hide it: “I was against it. Our Government carried out a campaign and the Brexiteers made promises that can never be achieved.”

Fortunately, there is sailing in life. Today Robin is involved almost full time in the organisation of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, a biennial event of which he is both founder and Executive Chairman. And it’s a busy schedule.

“Recently”, he told me, “I had to get Suhaili ready to be in Falmouth exactly 50 years after I finished the Sunday Times Golden Globe, on 22nd April 1969. In terms of the Clipper Race,

we’re presently busy with boat re-fits and the training up of crews for the next race set to kick-off on September 1st “The race, he believes, is enormously significant in various ways. “It provides ordinary people with the chance to achieve something very special in sailing. Each of our 5,000 participants has at least crossed an ocean. Many go on to buy boats and become regular sailors.

“Many also move on to gain further qualifications based on the experience they gained in the Clipper Race. So, the event increases the number of good sailors. This race does test sailors: it includes the Southern Ocean and the more dangerous North Pacific. There are only three other races that take on the Southern Ocean so I think we can safely say that the Clipper Race tests its sailors: it’s a life-changing experience, no doubt about it, and I’m very proud of this.”

Another source of satisfaction lies in young people, in whom Knox-Johnston places much confidence. When he decided to create the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race (in 1995) he was thinking of youngsters. The same year Queen Elizabeth II awarded him the honorific title of Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and with it the ‘Sir’ appellation.


The Clipper Race, he points out, is the only regatta in the world open to non-professional sailors. And what does it teach the young people, in whom he places so much trust?

“First of all, the respect for the sea”, he says, “as per seafaring expertise, the best way to teach young people to sail is to put them in a position to learn as much as possible on their own, helping them overcome their fears. Going up to the masthead is scary, but once you set foot on the deck after being at the ship’s tallest point, you feel like walking with your back straight and head up. Frightening is not nice, but it’s helpful to those who go to sea.”

Safety at sea is closely related to fear – yet many great sailors don’t wear either a harness or a life jacket because they trust themselves – perhaps too much. Does Robin use them? “I must be frank: I don’t always wear them, but under certain circumstances and sea conditions only a fool would not take the right precautions. Probably those who never wear a harness and lifejacket – and I know that many do not – have never been really scared at sea.”

Robin calls himself a 360-degree sailor. He has spent a great deal of time both in the Royal Navy and in the British India Steam Company, based in Bombay (today’s Mumbai).

“In terms of seamanship,” he says, “the merchant marine taught me more than the Navy. It made me understand the concept of discipline, which is not something military, but a mixture of respect for nature, knowledge of oneself, spirit of collaboration and sharing with the rest of the crew.”

And yet, he’s become what he is thanks to solo sailing. Which of his exploits has given him the greatest satisfaction? “Both my solo circumnavigations of the globe were splendid, but I must confess that the first was a truly unexpected achievement. I will never forget the crowd welcoming me in Falmouth in 1969, although the reception was fairly warm in 2007 too.” Indeed, I point out that his latest circumnavigation at 67 could not have gone unnoticed, or his 80th birthday in March for that matter. “Age does not mean much to me,” he says, “because everyone ages in their own way, and I have had the good fortune to have kept myself in fairly good shape, thanks to the life I lead, always in contact with the sea.


“In general,” he elaborates, “with age we become less agile, but if I had to point at a specific part of the body that deteriorates, I would indicate the knees, especially if you are tall and heavy like me. A few years ago, I took part in the Cowes-Torquay-Cowes speedboat race: my knees caused me a lot of pain because of the continuous jumps on the waves, which are difficult to absorb. That was my first and last motor race!”

For the rest, old age has made him “less aggressive”, even if the opportunities for controversy are always around the corner. A few years ago, at the start of a Fastnet Race (which wasn’t broadcast by the BBC), the great sailor argued with British state television for having forgotten the maritime nature of his country.

“Whitehall, the seat of Government, suffers from sea blindness. They’ve forgotten we are an island. Our Navy is short of about 3,500 of the people it really needs for the demands made of it, and this puts additional pressure on the seamen.”

A maritime nation he does admire, however, is New Zealand. It has held a special place in his heart since the day – during the 1968-69 Golden Globe – he dropped anchor and killed some time there, obviously without either setting foot on land or getting any assistance (to avoid disqualification).

Moreover, his admiration for three notable Kiwis is boundless: the aforementioned Sir Peter Blake, General Bernard Freyberg (Gallipoli veteran and Governor-General of New Zealand from 1946 to 1952) and the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary.

More generally, the Pacific Ocean in its entirety seems to be part of KnoxJohnston’s DNA and future. Two notables whom he would dearly have wished to know are strictly tied to said ocean: Sir Francis Drake and Captain James Cook.

In his dreams, then, there is a destination called Polynesia: not because he needs to save his soul, but because he has never had the chance to visit Bernard Moitessier’s place of escape.

“Polynesia will be my next journey”, he assures. In which boat, we’ll find out, eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

THE CLIPPER ROUND THE WORLD YACHT RACE It’s one of the planet’s toughest endurance challenges. People from all walks of life train to become ocean racing sailors. This epic event sees teams battle extreme conditions as they race Eastbound more than 40,000 nautical miles in a true test of fortitude and determination.

The race, established in 1995, begins and ends in the United Kingdom after visiting Latin America, South Africa, Australia (West and East coast), China and the United States (West and East coast, via the Panama Canal).

The 2019-20 edition of the race will be the 12th in the series.

Starting on September 1st this year, some 700 crew members are expected to take part racing across five oceans to six continents. For more information visit