The old man and the sea: Taking on the Velux Five Oceans race

In 1969, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to sail non-stop around the world. A mere 37 years later he is taking on the challenge again. He talks to Stuart Alexander about the loneliest sport
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The Independent Online

Some people just do not know when to quit, but Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is adamant that he is not one of them. The nautical knight, already in the seafaring hall of fame as the first man to sail solo non-stop around the world, is 67 and ought to be living a peaceful life at his home near Newton Abbot in Devon reading Hornblower novels.

Instead, he wants not only to go to sea again, but to go racing solo around the world against rivals much younger than himself, in a type of boat he has never sailed before, and through the icebergs and storms of the Southern Ocean. He is a pensioner determined to have the time of his life by notching up his third time around Cape Horn when he competes in the Velux Five Oceans race which begins later this month.

Sir Robin made history with his solo voyage back in 1969. He was at sea for 312 days - 200 more than the race this time is likely to take - and looking back now, he can still remember the loneliness of the experience. "On that first trip there were some times when I felt very lonely," he says. "But these tended to be on Saturday nights, when I was still able to pick up dance music on the radio.

"The other time was just after the weekly radio schedule. Having someone to talk to on the outside was good and then you knew you would not talk to anyone for another week. This time, of course, things will be very different if only I can learn how to use all the equipment."

Did he ever wish he hadn't started? "Of course, at times you asked yourself why you were doing this, what were you doing out there. But, if anyone had come along and suggested that you get off, you would have told them to get lost.

"The first time I left with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, though I never thought of it as an adventure. I left knowing only that I had a job to do. My job was being at sea."

What were the high points? "The high point then was a good day's run and it will probably be the same again.There wasn't much around to stimulate you."

And the low ones? "I do remember the misery of being in wet clothing for five months. That's not something you enjoy. I don't know if this time will be any better, though I have some very good Henri Lloyd kit, but being in a much faster boat the discomfort might last for less time - I hope."

It would be easy to interpret his decision to enter the Velux Five Oceans as an expedient to make sure that the entry list grows a little. After all, the race is owned by Clipper Ventures, the company of which he is chairman. The fleet, at under 10 boats, is looking a little thin, and he needs to make sure that his window manufacturer sponsor is feeling happy.

Taking this on now could be seen as an escape from the two years of pain which resulted from losing his wife to cancer, but uppermost in his mind is the picture of a man perhaps seizing his last chance to take part in the game which he considers is his, the game of a professional seaman. Even he admits he may be too old, at 71, when the next race is due to be staged.

So he has bought, with his own money, the boat, now called Open 60, which won this race in 1998-99 and persuaded Saga Insurance to give his some sponsorship help. While rivals like Mike Golding and Alex Thompson have professional preparation teams to make their yachts race ready, Knox-Johnston had a band of volunteers in a Gosport yard.

Despite the seeming chaos, and an "incandescent rage" because a delivery firm had managed to misplace a vital piece of rigging, the eyes are constantly smiling as the grey beard and crinkly hair constantly bob up and down in animated conversation.

However while preparing for the race in Bilbao, Knox-Johnston damaged his back when he slipped on a sail. The X-rays showed a hairline fracture to his coccyx but doctors advised he could still compete. And compete he will, shrugging aside concerns about his health with a certain impatience. "This is not a death wish. That is the last thing that would cross my mind. Like most singlehanders I am a survivor by instinct, but the comfortable life is just boring.

"I get fed up with people saying that when you're 65 your brain turns to porridge, you have a heart attack every time you climb the stairs and you forget everything you have learned. I am going with a sense of trepidation, but the thing that is exercising me most is how well I can compete with other guys who are much younger and much more used to their boats. I'm not a Dad's Army character. I've entered this race not just to take part but to win."

On the first great voyage nearly 40 years ago Sir Robin had no radio communication with anyone for eight of the 10 months he was at sea. This time, not least because of his sponsors' requirements he will be using daily e-mail as one of the many benefits of satellite communications. "I will leave knowing nothing about blogging, but hope to come back knowing everything about it," he says. Then there is the food. In 40 years this has improved immeasurably. "In 1968 I took tinned food but this time it will be freeze-dried or boil-in-the-bag food. What will be the same is a generous supply of lime pickle."

And the result? Certainly the years have done nothing to dim Sir Robin's competitive spirit.

"To go round the world and come second would be a waste of time. You can't go into a boxing ring and come second. I don't agree with the current trend of giving praise for coming last or just because someone has completed the course. Losing helps people who are going to win. They will learn from that. It helps them discover their limits are and what they are good at.

"Yes, it will be cold, wet and miserable at times. No one likes to be uncomfortable. But if something's easy where's the satisfaction in the achievement?"