Sir Robin Knox-Johnston: The Global Extreme Sailor

The story of the first person to sail solo around the world.

Photo Courtesy of Martin Hesketh

By Cam Cirillo • Published on 3/10/21 • 3 min read

In 1969, Sir William Robert Knox-Johnston became the first person to perform a non-stop sail passage around the globe. Knox-Johnston is one of the most famous sailors of all time.

On April 22, 1969, the impossible happened. Sir Robin Knox-Johnston completed the impossible feat of circumnavigating the globe, alone and without a single stop. What’s even more incredible is Knox-Johnston aspired to accomplish this feat since childhood. Born in the southwest part of London six months prior to the start of World War II, Knox-Johnston decided early on to pursue his dream of becoming a sailor. He was greatly inspired by Francis Chichester, an accredited sailor that completed his own circumnavigation voyage with one stop in Australia.

By the age of 22, William Knox-Johnston married and traveled the world with his wife Sue, which sparked the name of his iconic 32-foot Bermudan ketch boat called Suhaili. A few years later, Knox-Johnston began the first of many global sailing expeditions with his close friends, sailing from Cape Town, South Africa to London, England. Once these expeditions were accomplished, Knox-Johnston looked back at his mentor and wanted to accomplish what he never could, a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe. He wrote to 52 companies to sponsor his journey, looking for $5,000 pounds to facilitate the voyage. In response, The Sunday Times newspaper in England created The Golden Globe Race and offered a $5,000 prize to the first place finisher. After much debate, Knox-Johnston, the other competitors, and The Sunday Times agreed to start the voyage in June, versus October, as the temperatures would become too deadly. Knox-Johnston was to compete against solo teams of recognized sailors such as Daniel Crowhurst, Bill King, John Ridgway, and Chay Blyth. In total, nine people entered into this global voyage competition.

“Sir Robin Knox-Johnston changed the world, pioneering a new era of sailing culture with his record-breaking accomplishment”

- Cam Cirillo

Only 230 people have ever sailed around the world single handedly, and compared to today, the technology used by Knox-Johnston was bare in terms of the navigational tools utilized to sail around the world. To make matters worse, out of all boats that were to make the journey, Knox-Johnston’s had by far the slowest. Further, he was considered by the media as the “underdog” of the group. But, these factors did not weaken his passion for the task at hand. Throughout the duration of the journey, he faced whipping winds and intense storms all while his boat suffered severe damage. But as you could’ve guessed, this did not deter Knox-Johnston or his pursuit to achieve the impossible.

On day 312 at sea, Knox-Johnston completed the final leg of the expedition and sailed into the British Falmouth Harbor, being greeted by the warm welcome of thousands. He had won The Golden Globe Race, beating the second place competitor by 20 days. In honor of his achievement, he was invited to Buckingham Palace and was bestowed the honor of Commander of the British Empire. Knox-Johnston received a number of other prestigious awards, including the 1968 Yachtsman of the Year award presented by the Yachting Journalist Association.

Years after his nautical triumph, Knox-Johnston and a team of sailing professionals beat his former world record with a circumnavigation time of 74 days, 22 hours, and 18 minutes. He was once again knighted by the Queen of England, and formally became Sir Robin William Robert Knox-Johnston.

It is important to note that Knox-Johnston has spent the last few decades encouraging the growth and development of the next generation of great sailors. In the 1990’s, Knox-Johnston and Clipper Ventures CEO William Ward created the world famous Clipper Race, which aims to train amateur sailors on how to properly sail around the world after extensive education. Since its inception, seven trained sailors have completed the global circumnavigation. Sir Robin William Robert Knox-Johnston is an inspiration to the world, becoming a legend and one of the greatest skippers ever to sail the seas by channeling the mindset of Go Where Others Don’t Go.

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