Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Seattle-bound Clipper Race has its origins in 1968 Golden Globe

The start of the Seattle Pacific Challenge on March 20, in Qingdao, China. (Photo courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race)

The start of the Seattle Pacific Challenge on March 20, in Qingdao, China. (Photo courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race)

Twelve fully crewed 70-foot yachts participating in the 10th Clipper Round The World Race set out on Leg 6 in Qingdao, China yesterday, March 20, and their next stop will be all the way across the Pacific Ocean, putting them in Seattle on or about April 15. (Read a Leg 6 race preview here, watch a preview with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston below and track them across the Pacific here.)

Being the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world in 1968-69, the race’s visionary, executive director and founder Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, knows a thing or two about racing around the world. Since starting the Clipper Race in 1996, his aim has been to get anyone, regardless of previous sailing experience, the chance to embrace the thrill of ocean racing; it is the only event of its kind for amateur sailors. And Visit Seattle has a team representing the city in this latest incarnation of the race.

Photo of Visit Seattle courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race

Photo of Visit Seattle courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race

Racers aboard the boat Visit Seattle pose with a "6 Weeks Till Seattle!!" sign as they race towards China. (Photo courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race).

Racers aboard the boat Visit Seattle pose with a “6 Weeks Until Seattle!!” sign as they race towards China. (Photo courtesy of the Clipper Round the World Race).

But without Knox-Johnston’s experience racing around the world in the extraordinary Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1968-69, none of this would have been possible…

The Sunday Times Golden Globe Race

The 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race around the world is an often told story. Interesting characters, gripping adventure, catastrophic events, intrigue, success and failure all wrapped into what at that point was the longest race in the world.

It’s a complex story. Far too complex to give it justice in a short article, but I’ll try and at the end there are four books suggested for further reading.

In 1967, Francis Chichester sailed solo around the world, becoming he first sailor to sail solo west to east via the great capes.  Stopping once in Australia for an extensive refit, his voyage captured world acclaim earning him a heroes welcome upon his return to England. When he was knighted, he was dubbed with the same sword used four centuries earlier to knight Sir Francis Drake.

There were several sailors eyeing the next prize. An unsupported, non-stop solo trip around the world. In an interesting twist, many of the sailors had set the goal prior to any thought of a “race.”  The race was a construct by London’s Sunday Times and the rules were such that anyone leaving between June 1 and October 31 were automatically in — whether they wanted to be or not. There were two prizes, one for first and one for fastest.

Nine intrepid voyagers took up the challenge. In order of departure, they were: John Ridgeway, Chay Blyth, Robin Knox-Johnston, Loick Fougeron, Benard Moitessier, Bill King, Nigel Tetley, Donald Crowhurst and Alex Carozzo.

Ridgeway and Blyth had previously rowed across the Atlantic, but unbeknownst to the public, at that point in time, Blyth had next to zero sailing or navigating experience. Both men were sailing 30-footers more adept at weekend sailing.

Robin Knox-Johnstone was a 29 year old merchant marine using a boat that decidedly was not his first choice.

Bill King, then age 57, was the only British commander of submarines to serve throughout the entirety of World War II. Living until 2012, he was 102-years-old and the last surviving submarine commander.

Fougeron and Moitessier, both Frenchmen, sailed on the same day and Moitessier was by far the more famous of the two.

Tetley and Crowhurst had the only trimarans in the group and at 66-feet, Carrozz’s monohull was the largest of the fleet.  Crowhursts departure was marked by haste and shortcuts with much of his gear left on the dock. Carozzo’s departure was worse. Technically “leaving” by the deadline, he promptly tied to a mooring so he could ready the boat (unassisted as the rules dictated).

Nine men. Each battled the elements, their boats and themselves. Each suffered catastrophic events. Knockdowns and broaching. Gear failures were rampant.

Ridgeway was the first casualty, his voyage was over just six weeks after it began. He had been hit twice by press boats upon his departure and it weighed on his mind over the the next few weeks. A bulge began appearing where a shroud joined the deck and it was apparent that neither he nor his vessel were up for the race.

Blyth was the next to go. Battling Force 11 winds, his 30-foot, twin-keeled sailboat was getting hammered. He broached three times in a single hour and 11 times in one day. On Sept 20, after the third knockdown, he called it quits citing “Boat will not track downwind. Common sense must prevail.” Three years later he did sail around the world the “wrong way,” and is now Sir Chay Blyth.

In late October, Loick Fourgeron, also on a 30-foot boat, hit force 12 (hurricane) seas and was violently battered. As visions of his wife and family became vivid, he decided to quit the race.

At the same time, roughly 400 nautical miles from Fourgeron, Bill King’s vessel suffered race ending damage. He had turned nearly turtle and thought that after all his World War II episodes that this was it. Jury rigged, he made it to Cape Town three weeks later. He ended up sailing around the world in 1973. Late in life he offered the following words of wisdom, “Best advice I can give about Cape Horn is, don’t go there. The wind blows like shit.”

Alex Carozzo, an Italian and the last to leave, had his 66-foot boat built in an improbable seven weeks. The boat started out fine, but Carozzo did not. The stress of pulling things together in such a short timeframe had taken its toll and just a week into his voyage his ulcers got the better of him. Vomiting blood, he dropped out of his race shortly after it had begun. He went on to build boats later in life and translated Chichester’s “Gypsy Moth Circles the World” into Italian.

As 1968 drew to a close, five had dropped out and four were left. Knox-Johnston was the farthest along with Moitessior closing in. Tetley was in third and while Crowhurst had reported record setting daily runs, his exact position was unknown.

Of the four remaining competitors, Tetley had the most heartbreaking event. On April 22, he technically completed a circumnavigation having crossed his outbound track in the Atlantic. In retrospect, he would have claimed the fastest time. He did complete the first solo non-stop circumnavigation by a trimaran. On May 20, he was less than 1,200 miles and about two weeks from completion. He believed that Crowhurst was on his tail and he continued to push his boat. After bashing all of the way around the world, and tantalizing close to reaching home, the port bow broke off and pierced the main hull. The boat was sinking and he issued a Mayday. The trimaran did sink and he was rescued the following morning in his life raft.

Moitessier pulled what is now known as a “Moitessier.” While not in the lead (as is often assumed), he was in position to give Robin Knox-Johnston a run for his money. He could have certainly finished with the fastest time, as he had the larger boat, but it could have been a real race to the finish. He and his boat were in fine shape. But he had a life long disdain for the material world and rather than subject himself to accolades he decided to “save his soul” and continue sailing halfway around the world again to the South Pacific.

The Crowhurst story is well known. Before he left he had mortgaged everything on the race. Failure would mean financial ruin. The boat had been built quickly and many shortcuts had been taken.  There were wires throughout the boat connected to … nothing. It was soon apparent to him that the boat would not withstand the rigors of the Roaring 40’s in the Southern Ocean. He faced an awful choice — financial ruin if he quit, near certain failure and probable death if he pressed on. He began falsifying his position reports and over time built a trap for himself from which there was no escape.

He never left the Atlantic and sailed erratically, largely avoiding the shipping lanes. The evidence points to him committing suicide on or about July 1, 1969. It’s possible he simply could have fallen overboard, but the log book suggested his mind lost grip on reality in those final weeks.

In the end, there was one competitor left.

Robin Knox-Johnston was sailing a boat that wasn’t designed for ocean racing. He endured knockdowns, gear failures, structural problems and towards the end sickness that was likely due to his appendix. But common to each potential race ending event, he would grab a cigarette, have some whisky or brandy, ponder the alternatives, envision solutions, then solve the problem.

His boat was leaking when the race began. He could see a gap open and close between planks while underwater looking for the leak. He fixed it. His drinking water became contaminated. He rigged a way to catch rain water. His engine died. His radio died. His gooseneck connecting the boom to the mast failed. Twice. He fixed it. Halfway around his self-steering system failed altogether. He went “old school” and steered by trimming the sails.

The boat suffered a vicious knockdown from a huge wave; the force so strong a seam opened up around the cabin trunk.  Water began to pour in. He reinforced the cabin trunk. He accidentally doused his eye with battery acid and at one point inadvertently sat, buck naked, on a scalding pan. His sails split, he sewed them back together. He, like his boat, was bruised and battered, but was always moving forward.

He did think about quitting. He debated it. But then resolve would set in and he’d press forward. He flaunted a Shackleton like ability to roll with the punches, persevere and drive forward. All the while, he was well aware that Moitessior was closing in on him.

Robin Knox-Johnston, now with a “Sir” in front of it, would likely dislike the analogy, but he reminds me of Roald Amundson’s successful first trip to the South Pole. Like Amundson, Knox-Johnston first went with the “tried and true” and then innovated when circumstances dictated. On some levels Knox-Johnston’s boat, Suhaili, was wrong for the race, but it was HIS boat. It was built for him and a friend. He had lived on it for two years and sailed it from India to England. Stem to stern, he knew the boat. Which would prove to be a huge asset during the race — and is a good lesson for all boaters.

Knox-Johnston aboard Suhaili

Knox-Johnston aboard Suhaili

He was also largely happy at sea. He wasn’t plagued by self doubt or lack of faith in his boat. Deemed “distressingly normal” by a psychiatrist before the race, he was grounded and steady. Upon returning to England, he promptly insisted that the 5,000 pound prize he was to be awarded go instead to the Crowhurst family.

All these inspiring events played out just shy of 50 years ago. So when Knox-Johnston’s Clipper Race turns up in Seattle in mid-April, head to downtown Seattle and Bell Street Harbor to check out the boats and get inspired.

For further reading on the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, check out:
“A Race too Far” by Chris Eakin
“A World of My Own” by Robin Knox-Johnston
“A Voyage for Madmen” by Peter Nichols
“Trimaran Solo. Victress Round The World” by Nigel Tetley
“The Long Way Around” by Bernard Moitessier

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