Interview: the amazing story of Sir Robert Knox Johnston, the first man to sail solo around the world

The first man to sail solo around the world without stopping might be 77 – but he’s lost none of his competitive edge

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail solo non-stop around the world, is taking a drag of a cigarette while deep in conversation with Gentleman’s Journal’s designer. We’re huddled around, post-photoshoot, on a pontoon in St. Katherine dock, south-east London, and he’s lamenting coming third in a solo transatlantic race he took part in some 18 months ago. His performance made international headlines because, at the age of 75, he deftly beat 18 far younger sailors in his class. Of course, he didn’t expect to win, he rants, but he’s still bloody annoyed he never snagged second.

‘I couldn’t win because the boat that came first shouldn’t actually have been in our class,’ he sighs, taking another toke of his Marlboro Light. ‘It was a trimaran and none of us could touch it. But second? Oh I could have had the guy who finished second though.’

Some context is needed: he’s referring to the Route du Rhum, a race widely regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. Departing from St Malo, in the north of France, competitors travel 3,542 miles to the finish line in Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. During the distinctly unglamorous 20-day voyage, the grandfather of five ate freeze-dried food defrosted on a camping stove and used a bucket dangling on a rope as his toilet (‘It saves a bit of weight’ he told the BBC before he set sail). He also had to contend with a host of problems and repairs that are commonplace when crossing the Atlantic, including tearing his sail in the dead of night on board ‘Grey Power’, the 14-year-old Open 60 yacht he patched up to race in.

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