Robin Knox-Johnston was born in Putney, London on March 17th, 1939. He had a traditional, English middle-class upbringing. He didn't especially excel at school and wasn't much of a sportsman. An average sort of chap.
Although he grew up in the age of rock and roll and the swinging 60s, RKJ was a traditional bloke. His heroes were historical figures like Frobisher and Drake.
At 17, he tried to enter the Royal Navy but failed the exams and joined the Merchant Marine instead, as an apprentice to the British India Steam Navigation Company. He learned his nautical craft, over several years, working the routes between London, East Africa and India. The British Merchant marine was tough place to grow up. Run along 19th century lines, it was everything you could imagine about a stodgy, uptight and disciplinarian environment to work in.
While stationed in India, RKJ and 2 fellow officers, commissioned the construction of sturdy, bluff-bowed double-ender based on the style of a Norwegian lifeboat. Constructed by hand in Indian teak, she was heavy, solid and anything but like the newer sleek fiber glass yachts. More like a small dhow that the shipyard was used to building They named her Suhaili after the wind in the Arabian Gulf.
This should have been joyous time for RKJ but it was anything but that. His marriage had fallen apart and his partners lost interest. RKJ soldiered on, buying out the partners. He, his brother and another officer sailed Suhaili back from India, with stops to work ashore and a final leg, 8,000 mile 74 day leg back to England.
Back home, the news was all about sailing. Francis Chichester was two months from home. In addition, Eric Tabarly, a Frenchman had just won the OSTAR transatlantic race. RKJ and his father were discussing it over breakfast and speculated that Tabarly might go after Chichester's record or go round non-stop "That's about all there's left to do now.." his father speculated.
The prospect that anyone but an Englishman would achieve this rankled RKJ. In his view, this should be a record set by an Englishman. Could RKJ be that Englishman?
Suhaili had proved to be seaworthy but slow - too slow for a race around the world. RKJ started to wonder what sort of boat he would need and whether he was personally suited to the task. Like a brutal prison sentence - solitary confinement, hard labor and the possibility of death - the prospect of a non-stop, solo circumnavigation was awesome. Would he go mad?
These days, we take a circumnavigation for granted, maybe even a solo one but in 1967, it had not been done. The prospect was hard to imagine, even terrifying.
In April 1967, RKJ decided that he would do it. This is something about RKJ. He thinks it through, sees the shape of the voyage, makes a decision and irrespective of what others say, he gets on with it. There is no turning back.
His first order of business was to get the right boat. He put Suhaili up for sale and then began discussion with Colin Mudie, a well-known yacht designer who was enthusiastic about the venture.
Mudie's design was a 53 ft long yacht, simple and lightweight although made from steel. The construction was so unusual that it took a while to find someone who would build it. Even the cheapest possibility of getting the boat built and ready for sale was 5,000 GPB about $100,000 in today's money.
The problem was that RKJ had no money, nobody would sponsor him and Suhaili was not selling. RKJ was undeterred by this and started to think about what it would take to ready Suhaili for the job. She wasn't fast but she was seaworthy enough. She would need a refit, new sails and need to be loaded with a year's supply of food. This was still more than he could personally afford.
Fortune smiled on RKJ in the form of George Greenfield, a literary agent who specialized in adventurers, including Francis Chichester. Greenfield's instincts about RKJ was that he was made of the same stuff as Chichester and gave him an advance on the rights to a book about the voyage. This was enough for the refit. He still needed more to get the boat ready.
RKJ approached the Sunday Times who had backed Francis Chichester but they felt that his prospects were not good enough and had backed another, "Tahiti" Bill Howell. Ironically, Howell dropped out before the race started. Greenfield persuaded the Sunday Mirror to step up.
RKJ had the funds he needed to get Suhaili ready for the venture. It was early 1968 and although the race had not officially been announced, RKJ was getting ready.