British merchant seaman Robin Knox-Johnston, the only man to finish the grueling, mad-cap Golden Globe race in April 1969, wrote his name into sailing’s history book as the first person to sail non-stop solo around the world.
He completed the 30,000-mile journey around the world’s Great Capes in 312 days, enduring savage seas, towering waves and — perhaps worst of all — complete loneliness.
His prize when he arrived back on England’s south coast? £5,000 ($6,700).
“Here was an opportunity to do something that had never been done before, that’s pretty irresistible,” Knox-Johnston told CNN Mainsail 50 years after he first set off on his 32-foot, teak-built boat Suhaili.
“It came at the right time in my life — I was 29, I was fit, strong, a professional seaman, a navigator and I’ve got the boat.
“Why wouldn’t you go for it?”
The 19 sailors lining up for a 50th anniversary version of the race starting in July would no doubt agree.
As one of the last great challenges on earth back in 1968, it was a feat many doubted would be possible, including Knox-Johnston himself. The world of sailing was different in those days — there were no satellites, vessels were less advanced, and food was harder to preserve.
“You need to be stubborn and very, very set on it. I was totally set on it,” he says.
“Did I know if it was possible? No. I just felt I was as qualified as anyone.”
The race, sponsored by the The Sunday Times, was tinged with sadness and tragedy.
Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, fearing fame and attention back home, abandoned the race and sailed one-and-a-half times around the world, eventually settling in Tahiti.
English amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, knowing his boat was unsuitable for the circumnavigation, made up false position reports while drifting around the Atlantic.
His boat, the 40-foot trimaran Teignmouth Electron, was eventually found abandoned with no sign of Crowhurst. Evidence in his logs appeared to show his mental disintegration.
‘Little bit scared’
Knowing he had to keep his mind active, Knox-Johnston took to learning poetry. He knew one day, back home in England, he’d have to return to a day job and couldn’t risk losing sharpness or sanity.
“I missed the human contact, not being able to discuss things with someone. I just had to sit there and have the conversation with myself — it’s actually quite hard to argue with yourself,” he adds.
Fear is another understandable emotion when your days are spent alone at sea with only its sky-high waves for company.
“Anyone who says they’re not scared at sea is a liar, you’re bound to be scared at times,” says Knox-Johnston.
“When you’re looking at stern and you see a 70, 80-foot wave breaking at the top, stretching from horizon to horizon, don’t tell me you’re not a little bit scared.
“You see it coming towards the boat and you realize you’re going to be swept off — I have to do something or I won’t be here.”
An even tougher test?
To commemorate 50 years since Knox-Johnston embarked on his record-breaking voyage, the Golden Globe Race is having a renaissance.
On July 1 this year, 19 sailors will depart from Les Sables d’Olonne in France in boats at least 30 years old and with no modern navigation or communications equipment, similar to the original race.
That means navigating by paper charts and the stars, with no GPS and no water maker onboard.
“I think this race is going to be harder in some respects, but easier in others,” says Knox-Johnston.
“It’s going to be easier because they know it’s possible, they can use freeze-dried food and things we’ve developed in the last 50 years.
“I think it’s going to be harder for them because they’re not so used to doing without as I was. They’re going to feel more deprived because we have a higher standard of living now. I think that’s going to tough for some of them.”
On the start line for this year’s race will be Kevin Farebrother — an Australian firefighter who’s conquered Everest three times.
“Everyday life is not enough sometimes and I like to see what I’m capable of doing,” says Farebrother.
“This is a huge challenge and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the whole endurance thing, it’s the whole package about whether I can deal with the loneliness, whether I can deal with what’s ahead in the Southern Ocean.
“The most nerve-wracking part will be leaving with all the boats, all the people … then I’ll be good once we get going.”
Today’s solo non-stop around the world record — 42 days set by Frenchman Francois Gabart in a 100-foot trimaran in 2017 — is 270 days faster than when Knox-Johnston, now aged 79, first took to the waves.
It’s evidence of how far sailing and its technology has come over the past half a century, and of just how difficult Knox-Johnston’s feat was all those years ago.
“There were just two things left for man to do then,” sailing journalist Barry Pickthall tells CNN Mainsail. “One was to sail single-handedly around the world non stop, the other was to land on the moon.”
In 1969, Knox-Johnson was the first to tick off one of those.