Yesterday evening I was lucky enough to attend "Sir Robin Knox-Johnston - a Life in Sailing" at NYYC. Sir Robin is in New York to receive an award from the Cruising Club of America and was able to be a guest speaker at NYYC while he was here. Not surprisingly the place was packed.
As readers of this blog will know, I am in awe of the man and his accomplishments. I have never seen him in person and he did not disappoint. As expected, he is down-to-earth, humble and very engaging - funny in a dry British way. He told his sailing life story and he had some wonderful anecdotes. His single-handed non-stop circumnavigation and victory in the Golden Globe Race in 1968-69 was only the start of a great life in sailing and in fact the rest of his life is just as interesting.
For much of the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, Sir Robin had been given up for lost. His radio transmitter died in the Indian Ocean and after a mail drop off Australia he was not heard from for months. His family feared for his life. He finally was able to make contact in the last few weeks of his 312 day voyage when he encountered a British ship on Easter Saturday who relayed that he was safe and heading for home.
The next day, the priest in his church back home was delivering the Easter Sunday service and inserted into his sermon that it was only appropriate that although given up for dead, Robin Knox-Johnston would reappear on the day of the resurrection.
A few days later, he made the Lizard and was within reach of Falmouth and the finish line. After 312 days at sea, he was craving "a pint of beer, a steak and a bath in that order". He was asked by the race committee what his ETA was . He said that he thought he would make Falmouth at 9 am. "Er, would you mind delaying?", came back the response. "Why?" "The Mayor of Falmouth will be welcoming you with his wife and she has a hair appointment later in the morning so could you sail around for a few hours while she prepares." Sir Robin did just that and finished obligingly at 3 pm.
The rest of his life has been filled with challenges of equal magnitude to the Golden Globe. Most notably he became president of the Sail Training association,a British organization that teaches young people about life at sea and more importantly about life - period. He talked powerfully about the impact that the two week voyages had on teenagers from blighted urban parts of Britain. In his words "This is what made life worthwhile."
At the end of his presentation he was asked why he loved sailing. He was a little stumped by this. It's a simple question that requires a big answer. For Sir Robin Knox-Johnston it was about two things. Firstly, it is because it offers so many different aspects. Whether it's the thrill of competition (and make no mistake, he is very competitive) or it's the relaxed joy of cruising with family. Secondly and more profoundly, it's about freedom and the ability to be in charge of your own destiny.
At the end of the evening, and at the heavy coaxing of the party I was with, I went up and introduced myself. I felt a little like a teenage girl meeting the Jonas Brothers but he could not have not have put me more at my ease. Hearing my accent he asked me where I was from and we talked about the Clipper Race. He then went off and had a cigarette.