Sailing: Around the world in two very different ways

Ellen MacArthur is on course to break the solo round-the-world yachting record. Robin Knox-Johnston, who first performed the feat, recalls his contrasting achievement

When I set out from Falmouth on 14 June 1968, no one knew if it was possible to sail a boat non-stop around the world. The closest anyone had got previously was sailing non-stop from Britain to Australia.

When I set out from Falmouth on 14 June 1968, no one knew if it was possible to sail a boat non-stop around the world. The closest anyone had got previously was sailing non-stop from Britain to Australia.

Just before I left, a stranger came up to me and said, "Are you this chap who thinks he can sail non-stop around the world?" I said, "Well, I'm going to have a go." He said, "It can't be done and, in any case, you couldn't do it."

In fact, I did sail non-stop around the world, arriving back in Falmouth 312 days later. Ellen MacArthur is on course to complete the same journey in 72 days, a new record. The difference between her voyage and mine is vast. My boat, the Suhaili, was small and wooden. MacArthur's boat, B & Q, is three times as long as mine, half as heavy and has sails three or four times larger.

To navigate, I had a sextant and a chronometer (a posh navy word for a clock). The equipment had changed very little since Captain Cook's time. MacArthur has GPS (global positioning system), which updates every three seconds, telling you where you are, what speed you are doing and what direction you're going in. So, in fact, you don't need to navigate. I spent about two hours a day trying to figure out where I was, working it out longhand.

MacArthur will also be in constant communication with her team. She can just dial a number and talk. I was communicating with the UK once a week via my radio - not that I always got through. Just after I'd made that call was the only time I ever felt really low. However, my radio packed up after two and a half months so, for eight months of the voyage, I didn't have any contact with anyone.

Before I went, I'd never been on my own for longer than a few hours so I had no idea how it would affect me. But, as it turned out, it didn't bother me at all, although I did wonder sometimes whether I was going mad without knowing it. I felt fine but I might have come back to land and found out that I was bonkers. So, I learnt poetry, such as Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, as a mental exercise.

When I set out, I wasn't worried about my ability to sail. But I had no idea whether my boat had the ability to survive the Southern Ocean where waves can be up to 30 metres high. One day, as I was sailing through the Southern Ocean, I went on deck and saw a huge wave - about 25 metres - coming towards me. I realised I wasn't going to get below deck before it hit and that, if I stayed on deck, I'd get washed off, so I climbed the rigging. For what seemed like an hour - but it can only have been five to ten seconds - all I could see was me and two masts. The boat was completely submerged. However, it popped up again, as they tend to do.

These days, you can get accurate predictions of what the weather is going to do 10 days ahead, so you can avoid storms. I couldn't do that. All I had, after the radio packed up, was a barometer, which came from a pub. It had 'Lovely Day for a Guinness' written on it. When that dropped, I knew there was another depression coming, but I didn't know how serious it was and, in any case, I couldn't do anything. I just had to take whatever weather came my way.

So, modern sailors would probably be able to avoid storms like the ones I encountered in the Southern Ocean. And, even if they were faced by a 25-metre wave, they would just surf it. Modern boats are much faster so you can run with the waves.

I was in the Southern Ocean for 150 days and I was permanently damp or wet for that time. I had waterproofs but they are nothing like you have today. I cut holes in my boots because I couldn't bear the squelching.

I lost my water tanks at the same time as the radio so I lived off what I could catch in the sails. And, just before I went round Australia, my self-steering system broke. So, from then on I was on the Knox-Johnston Mark II self-steering system: my left and right arms. I'd steer for about 16 hours a day. I'd dash downstairs, grab a tin of bully beef and munch it cold in the cockpit. I was getting about six hours sleep a day, but in two or three doses. I don't know how much sleep MacArthur will be getting. I imagine, not much. These days, sailors seem to think it's clever to go without sleep. They almost seem to be trying to see who can go around the world with the least sleep.

Born: 17 March 1939
Departure: 14 June 1968
Finish: 22 April 1969
Total journey time: 312 days
Boat: Suhaili
Type: Teak-hulled ketch
Length: 9.8metres
Beam: 3.4metres
Weight: 14 tonnes
Speed: 90 to 100 miles per day
Communications: Radio - which broke 10 weeks into the voyage
Navigation tools: Sextant, a chronometer and tables. The loss of the radio meant it was no longer possible to obtain time checks.. Weather forecasts too were unobtainable, reliance being placed on a barometer (which Knox-Johnston took from a pub).
Human contact: Once a week until radio broke
Supplies: 1,550 tins of corned beef, pork sausages, condensed milk and spaghetti
Clothing: Oilskins and pullovers
Budget: Modest. Knox-Johnston built the 'Suhaili' himself

Born: 8 July 1976
Departure: 28 November 2004
Finish: Must finish by 7.04am on 9 February 2005 to beat current record
T otal journey time: Hopefully less than 72 days, 22 hours, 54 minutes and 22 seconds
Boa otal journey timet: B&Q
Type: Carbon fibre trimaran
Length: 22.9metres
Beam: 16.2metres
Weight: 8.3 tonnes
Speed: About 430 miles a day
Communications: Data and voice contact over internet connection allows for constant communication and up-to-date detailed weather forecast information, satellite phone (plus a spare), three mini distress-message sending terminals which can also send location details to land team. There are also 12 cameras and eight microphones on board so MacArthur can share her progress with the world
Navigation tools: Global positioning system which pinpoints her exact location within three seconds
Human contact: In regular contact over internet
Supplies: To make the boat as light as possible, MacArthur has stocks of freeze-dried food (adapted from food developed for military use), plus energy boosting snacks and 11 packets of chewing gum. Water is not stored on board but made from sea water using a desalinator which produces 1.5 gallons per hour
Clothing: Special lightweight oilskins complete with neoprene rubber seals at the neck and wrists to make them waterproof. Gore-Tex boots with gaiters will ensure MacArthur's feet stay dry throughout the voyage
Budget: About £2m

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston talked to Clare Rudebeck

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