Robin Knox-Johnston, is excuse the cliche, a true legend of sailing and adventure. Even now, a non-stop solo circumnavigation feat is still regarded as the Everest of sailing. In this year's Vendee Globe, only 10 of the 30 who entered the race completed. Imagine what it was like to undertake this feat in 1969. Here is what RKJ had to say in his own words:
'Psychologically then there was the worry of not knowing whether a non-stop voyage was possible. Nor did anyone know what sort of boat was right for the task. We navigated as Captain James Cook had 200 years before, had no weather forecasts, no emergency beacons and no reliable communications. You judged the weather to come from barometer readings and studying the clouds."
The response to this movement was overwhelming!
There were over 35 blog posts from around the world. You can see excerpts and links to them, here here and here. They covered the story of the Golden Globe Race, the life of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and even a few accounts of personal encounters. The posts were universally admiring, warm and entertaining.
On Facebook, there was a group dedicated to the day that over 160 people joined to share their well-wishes, photos and stuff. Even the Twittersphere was a twitter. You can see tweets, here and here. There were also discussion going on in Sailing Anarchy, Wooden Boat Forum and other online sailing communities.
This was a testament to the huge goodwill that there is towards Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. To Brits like me, the connection is obvious. He is a British hero in the true British sense. He is a down-to-earth, unassuming and approachable guy who stunned the community by what he accomplished. I am sure he is blushing at the adulation.
To the sailing community at large and especially in the UK, he is held in the highest esteem for what he has done for our sport and for all that he has accomplished since the Golden Globe. I wanted to share an email I received from fellow sailor O'Docker. It summed up to me the essence of what his circumnavigation means for all of us.
I'm always struck by the tone of reverence English writers have for Robin Knox-Johnston. I think the rest of us may understand and respect what he accomplished, but can't quite feel what he means to his countrymen.
We all know of the famous race and of how Sir Robin came to be the only finisher - you almost can't be a sailor today and not know the story. But I grew up far from the sea, more than an ocean away from him, in an urban culture that took little note of his victory. On April 22, 1969, my hometown newspaper was far too absorbed in the new baseball season to much care about the idle adventures of some English yachtsman.
For those of us who sail, though, there is a very real connection with RKJ. Few of us will ever circumnavigate. Fewer still will do it alone, or in the Southern Ocean, or all the way around without stopping. And none of us will ever again be the first to try. But we all know what it feels like to attempt something scary we've never done before.
Learning to sail is a series of terrifying 'firsts' for everyone. The first time on your own at the helm. The first dinghy capsize. The first time we back out of the slip in a boat big enough to do serious damage. The first time we take the family out and realize the trust they've placed in us. The first passage - even if only from one side of the bay to the other. We agonize over all that could possibly go wrong, and still we know there are things we must be forgetting - there are monsters out there we can never know.
It's in our moments of personal terror that we begin to realize just what Sir Robin accomplished - how much more terrible his monsters must have been than ours, and the courage it took to confront them - with a whole nation watching.
For if they didn't care much in Philadelphia or Peoria, in England they were watching.
In 1969, the sun was setting with humiliating regularity on what was left of the empire. The world's greatest sea power was no longer. It had been too many years since Spitfires circled low over Duxford, or that shrewd orator vowed to fight on the seas and on the oceans and to never surrender. The space race was being fought in an ocean unpatrolled by English ships.
It was the perfect moment for a confident young sailor on a 32-foot boat to do something at sea that no one had ever managed before - alone, with no teams of scientists or technicians to guide him home - an English sailor who would be damned if a Frenchman would get there first.
On April 22nd, anyone who's ever held a tiller in his hand will regret, if just a little, not being English.