Sailing: How to enjoy your retirement

Bad weather has wreaked havoc on the Velux 5 Oceans race - and veteran sailor Robin Knox-Johnston. By Jonathan Brown and Stuart Alexander

When Sir Robin Knox-Johnston emerged from retirement to compete in one of the world's toughest yacht races, he said he was prepared for anything that Neptune could throw at him.

Yesterday, just two days into his last big adventure, the 67-year-old was running for the safety of a Galician port after the full wrath of the deity was unleashed in the Bay of Biscay.

Sir Robin's 60ft boat was knocked down in mountainous seas as he and fellow competitors in the Velux Five Oceans race - billed as the ultimate human endeavour - were battered by 80mph gusts. The veteran described the conditions as among the worst he had seen and described the waves as "watery Himalayas".

The storm was unexpectedly severe and sent 45ft crests crashing over the bows of the embattled fleet. Four of the six solo starters, including fellow Britons Mike Golding and Alex Thomson, were last night limping for shore after their yachts were shredded by the force 10 storm.

A terse message that was e-mailed from Sir Robin's yacht, Saga Insurance, revealed that the sailing legend had been clinging on in horrific conditions. Battered by huge waves, his boat was knocked flat in the darkness soon after 1am local time. Forced to contend with blinding spray and splintered equipment as emergency alarms shrieked around him, he revealed - in typically stoic style - that he was holding it together, thanks in large measure to his secret weapon - Irish coffee.

"Wind 48 to 54 knots. Not racing but surviving. White sea with spindrift. OK thanks to Irish coffee," he told race organisers.

Officials feared for the safety of the boats as telephone systems failed and the storm whipped the notorious shallow waters off the European continental shelf into a deadly seascape. Sir Robin made history in 1969 when he became the first man to sail around the world single-handed. That time, he used a barometer purloined from a pub in order to predict the weather. Today, endurance sailing is a more technological affair with satellite communications and computer-generated weather forecasts. But the dangers are equally great.

The boats are considerably more powerful too. Sir Robin was hoping to shave 200 days off his historic voyage time and had planned on arriving back in Bilbao in the spring. He is expecting to resume sailing after a short pit stop in La Coruna to fix his damaged mast.

First to head for the repair bay looking for a replacement sail was Britain's Alex Thomson. He was followed by Mike Golding when his mainsail crashed to the deck "like a sack of spuds". Golding conceded he was "knackered and pissed off". He added: "This was a violent, dangerous and broadly unforeseen storm, I am delighted to see everyone is OK."

Going back to his home port, also with sail damage, was Spain's Unai Basurko de Miguel.

Yesterday's weather dramas left Switzerland's Bernard Stamm in the lead from Japan's Kojiro Shiraishi. But with another storm expected overnight, the race looked set to continue to offer excitement and danger in equal measure.