Why France still rues the day we ruled the waves

The memory of Robin Knox-Johnston's record-breaking circumnavigation still rankles over the Channel. Amol Rajan reports on an acrimonious anniversary

When, 40 years ago this afternoon, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston arrived in Falmouth dock to become the first man to sail single-handedly and non-stop around the world, his entry into the pantheon of England's greatest naval adventurers was secure.

The only one of the nine competitors to complete the journey – seven others abandoned the race and one, Donald Crowhurst, committed suicide – Sir Robin's 312-day journey on a 32ft boat called Suhaili not only became the stuff of legend but inspired the creation of competitions dedicated to seafaring circumnavigation, including the Whitbread Round the World Race and Clipper Round the World Race.

And yet a faint whiff of controversy that attached itself to Sir Robin's feat lingers to this day. It surrounds the question of what happened to Bernard Moitessier, the Frenchman trailing Sir Robin who mysteriously pulled out of the race before completing it, saying he'd rather "save his soul".

To this day the French believe that Moitessier was the better sailor and would have been the true record holder if he had carried on to Falmouth.

But in a new book by BBC newscaster Chris Eakin, published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Sir Robin's arrival in Falmouth, the record-breaker gives full vent to his fury.

"The French, who hate admitting that they are not winning, always maintained he was beating me when he pulled out, which is not true," he tells Eakin.

"What the French wouldn't admit is that I was three weeks ahead of him at Cape Horn, and they can't accept that. So I keep getting this thing that Moitessier was winning when he left the race. Well, winning what? I would have been two days ahead. He was not speeding up. I was speeding up. He wasn't. I was getting faster. But even ignoring that, if you take our averages up to that point, mathematically, I would have come in ahead.

"No one ever listens," Sir Robin continues. "Only the other day I saw something that said Moitessier was winning when he pulled out. There is nothing you can do about it. It rankles less now than it used to. It used to a lot."

The nine boats that set sail out of Falmouth four decades ago were split into two categories, big and small. The bigger boats, which generally travel faster, left later. At 38ft long, Moitessier's boat qualified as one of the bigger ones.

"Boat speed depends on waterline length," Sir Robin explained yesterday, "so that the longer you are the faster you are. I can believe that he [Moitessier] was going faster than me, but these claims continue to cause a lot of needless confusion."

Eakin's book reproduces the notebook of the race's chief navigational adviser, which proves that Sir Robin would have won by two days even if Moitessier had continued at his blistering pace until the finish line. A Race Too Far also details the sad fate of Crowhurst, who falsified his radio reports and logs while loitering in the South Atlantic. Terrified of being found out, he jumped overboard to escape humiliation, with papers discovered on board his boat suggesting that he had become mentally ill.

Shortly after arriving home in Falmouth, Sir Robin donated his £5,000 prize – then a huge sum – to Crowhurst's widow.

Today, he will celebrate the passing of 40 years since his feat with a photocall on Suhaili in St Katharine's Dock in London. The boat, he said, "is in reasonably good condition, pretty clean but with a few rusting bolts that need to be replaced before it can go in a boatshow".

After the photocall he will take nine of the 18 Englishmen who have emulated his achievement for a curry at Mala restaurant on the river.

He was reflective yesterday about his unlikely ascent to the hallowed status of legendary modern Englishman.

"I never really wanted to be famous," Sir Robin said. "After I got back to Falmouth, I just thought to myself I probably ought to go back to sea, maybe rejoin the Merchant Navy or something. Things were different back then – there weren't armies of PR people swarming around, or all these expectations on people with a public profile.

"I've always been someone who does what I want when I want... I'm a private person really, not cut out for fame."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?