In an exclusive and very personal interview with The Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief Stephen Hull, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston talks about faith, politics, what it means to be British and living life as one of Britain's most influential men.
'The world is full of those who’d hate you to achieve because they’ve done nothing and they’ll try and put you off. If you believe in yourself, do it. I did believe in myself as a small boy, it wasn’t obvious to everyone, but I had that inner self-confidence.’
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston cuts an imposing figure in his dark blue suit, blue tie, black brogues and famous Santa-style white beard.
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We’re sitting on a balcony overlooking the boat show at London’s Excel, thousands of visitors unaware they are being watched over by Britain’s toughest living sea dog. I’ll admit to being slightly intimidated by the stern-faced, athletic 75-year-old grandfather.
In 1969, just three months before Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to step foot on the moon, Knox-Johnston did something of arguably equal historic significance, but with an extra dollop of British Boys’ Own brilliance.
In a remarkable 10.5-month race, which witnessed the death and mental breakdown of other competitors, the boy from Putney in London became the first human to sail single-handed non-stop around the globe in his tiny 32-foot boat Suhaili.
I risk telling him I’m not really interested in his sailing exploits. What interests me most is Knox-Johnston the man. What on earth inspired him to pursue such a wild dream at such a young age?
‘The vision started when I was about eight,’ he told me, sipping coffee from a disposable cardboard cup while clutching his iPhone. ‘I decided I wanted to go to sea. Once you’ve made that comment, it’s easy for aunts to give you presents and inevitably they’ll be about the sea. That programmes you, actually. One loose comment and then suddenly you get interested. By the time I was 12-years-old was a voracious reader. I wanted to go to sea and I did.’
Who encouraged the young Knox-Johnston to fix his vision and who were his mentors? ‘Dad was great, he was a super bloke but he wasn’t a sailor. He worked for a shipping company. I’ve got three brothers and he supported us in whatever we wanted to do. I didn’t have a mentor. I had people I admired, for instance, I suppose I still do. Drake, Cook and Nelson for three different reasons.
‘Drake because he came from a humble background. Cook, the same, a humble background and probably the world’s greatest navigator of his time. Nelson, because he’s a tactical genius. He used the obvious and people hadn’t clicked to it. The three of them, all Brits.’
There’s a strong sense that Knox-Johnston doesn’t suffer fools. When I’d first seen him arrive at the boat show he swept past me, with his no nonsense vibe and long stride. He looked like a man on a mission, even if it was just a brisk walk to the press room. It's something which happens when he talks too. He speaks with purpose and intent, not rambling and ill thought out. He also holds eye contact. He really holds eye contact.
Yet for him today’s men don't show that same sense of purpose. ‘They don’t have that thing of saying, “That’s what I’m going to do. That is what I shall do.”’ I ask him why. ‘No idea,’ he fires back, holding the intense eye-to-eye contact as if he’s still trying to weigh me up like the amateur boxer he once was.
‘It was a different world. You’re talking about nearly 60 years ago and there was full employment and when you left school you went into national service or a job. It was as simple as that. I joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve when I was still at school. It makes your National Service and went into the Navy. I wasn’t alone in doing that.’
Despite his heroic efforts at sea it wasn't until 1995, almost 25 years after he sailed around the globe that he became Sir Robin. Compare this to the likes of Bradley Wiggins who was Knighted a few months after winning the Tour de France. Did that wait hurt and are people rewarded to easily these days?
'There are more people getting Knighthoods now. There are more people going to the House of Lords now and you just think there’s a danger when you do that, you get too many and it lowers the value. On the other hand, there are people who get the honours in both and deserve them. I think there’s perhaps too many failed politicians who get into the House of Lords. I probably shouldn’t say that.'
One preconceived idea I had was Knox-Johnston would be a brazen, cavalier, slightly devil-may-care type of chap. Yet he explains the reality couldn't be further away.
‘I choose to take advice from the right people. I find most people who rush up to offer you advice is probably not worth having. It’s best you sit back and say, “I need advice on this, who’s the best person you know?” and you go and ask them for advice.’
For month after lonely month, Knox-Johnston has lived his life with two of the biggest challenges humans can face: time and thoughts.
It was those two elements, not those of the sea, which ultimately led fellow Sunday Times Golden Globe Race competitor Donald Crowhurst to take his own life. 'That was very sad,' he says. 'I didn’t know him and I didn’t know of him until I got back. I was aware of his name and nothing else so I didn’t realise what was probably going on.'
Yet even to this day the veteran Knox-Johnston still competes in challenges which stretch men and women half his age.
Last November he finished 3rd in class in a 3,542 race across the Atlantic from France to Guadeloupe.
What is it like being alone with those thoughts? Does he feel fear and apprehension, for instance when he sat with Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the Arctic or followed Chris Bonington up a mountain?
‘I think we all do in life, don’t we? There are always things that bring a little bit of apprehension. Will this interview go well? Will this meeting go well? Those are the mundane things in life, for sure.
‘Actually, I wasn’t frightened then (in the Arctic) because I felt, same with Chris really, you’re dealing with an expert and you’ve got the confidence that comes from knowing you’re with an expert and they’re both friends and I trust them. That takes a lot of the fear away. Fear is of the unknown, isn’t it? The more experienced you are, the more incidents you’ve had in life the less you’ve got to fear because you’ve seen it.
‘You go and climb a mountain, that’s an adventure. It doesn’t have to be something you’re terrified of. Normally, I take calculated risks. I don’t rush into things that I’m not familiar with. You’ll find if I’m doing something, I’ve always thought this through. I’m going to go climbing, who am I with? Bonington. Yes, okay. I’ve probably got the best. If we go climbing I just do what he tells me and I’ve had some great climbs with Chris because of it. He’ll turn around and say, “You’re not a natural climber or a natural mountaineer” and I said, “That’s fine, Chris”.’
I’m eager to bring the conversation back to being a man and so I ask what it means to be a British man? Knox-Johnston is calm and clear when he talks. He hovers on words when he’s thinking and it creates a powerful impact.
‘I think it conjures up a whole lot of things. One, first of all, to be a gentleman. It’s just standard behaviour. That means you’re tolerant, considerate and you put yourself forward when a dirty job needs doing. That should be what a gentleman is. You treat ladies with respect. You treat other men with respect. Britain is a funny place because, having been isolated for the best part of 1,000 years, I know armies marched over us, they have, but they had no long-term effect. We’ve not had armies marching over us and we have a different attitude to the rest of the continent, which people don’t grip.
‘Here we value land. It’s safe. We haven’t been marched over so land is what we value. I don’t think people quite understand that’s created a very different attitude for the Brits, which certainly the continentals don’t get. It doesn’t mean we want to be isolated from them. I’m a great supporter of the EU as a trading thing, we don’t want to get out of that, it would be stupid, but I don’t want a federal Europe. Not yet. I’m not ready for it. Maybe my grandchildren will be, but I’d have trouble with it.'
The iPhone which he's been fiddling with during our interview rings and he answers. A warm, jovial side opens up. He's talking to some crew heading back to the UK.
'I’m extremely well,' he says sitting back, dropping his guard. 'I’m doing an interview with someone at the minute, Josh. Can we talk tomorrow morning? Would that be all right? All right, chum. And you chum. Take care, bye,'
It's in those unguarded moments that you learn most about the person you're interviewing. The same thing happened after the interview when Sir Ben Ainslie wandered over for a chat. I'm not sure he knew I was a journalist and the conversation was of a personal family matter. It was obvious he looked up to the warm character of Knox-Johnston.
Back to business. What does he think about Nigel Farage and Ukip? ‘What Nigel Farage has done is point out a lot of issues which the average Brit is concerned about but he’s cherry-picked to a certain extent. I can’t see myself voting for him. I just don’t see it happening. At the same time I would say, you’ll probably appreciate, I’m a natural Conservative really but I do think there’s things I think the Conservatives should adopt that he’s talking about just as I feel at times the things that socialists say that should be adopted or the liberals say that should be adopted.
‘I’m not a right-wing Conservative. I’m very middle of the road, actually. I’m a liberal Conservative really, but I wouldn’t support the Liberal party because I feel they’re not a natural party of government.
‘They love being able to get on with their issues but, actually, faced with responsibility of doing it, they actually don’t like it at all. This is why they’re rebelling against Clegg, who’s done his best to hold the coalition together. I give him full marks for that. I give full marks to people like Danny Alexander who’s been really good with Osborne. The two of them together have a very good partnership. There are things that this country needs doing now. We’ve got to get on. We’ve got to get this country sorted out. This issue we’ve got at the moment about listening in to people, of course we’ve got to have that and the Liberals blocked it.’
We’re chatting in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris and so conversation turns to Muslims. ‘We can’t deal with this problem, Muslims have got to deal with it. They’ve allowed some of these extremists to preach in Mosques, so they’ve got to accept responsibility.
‘What I want Muslims to do is take responsibility and deal with it but I don’t want to start saying they’ve got to leave or something like that. They’re third generation. They’ve got to stop what’s going on, they’ve got to do it. We know that 90-something per cent of them are perfectly reasonable people.
‘Let’s deal with that percentage. That’s what I want them to do. Do it, chum, get on with it. We’ll back you but you’ve got to do it.’
Faith is a subject I hesitate to raise. It’s clear Knox-Johnston isn’t a man of religious belief. When his wife Sue died in 2003 he tells me he did start to attend church to look for answers, but it didn’t last long. ‘I just drifted away from it,’ he said, showing for the first time since meeting a raw emotion he looked uncomfortable with. ‘I was thinking “a good god wouldn’t have done that so who is this god?” Then I started thinking about the whole principle and I came to the conclusion that I don’t really believe there is such a thing.
‘If you want to believe in it, that’s your business, fine, go ahead and I’m not going to try and talk you out of it. It’s giving you comfort, that’s great, that’s good for you and you’re enjoying it. My daughter believes, fine. Would I start an argument with her? No. I wouldn’t try and talk her out of it. If it’s giving her comfort, great. Go for it.’
The trend towards mindfulness and finding a time to recharge and unplug is huge. Knox-Johnston until now didn’t strike me as a guy who ever stopped, but he explained how he uses those quiet moments.
‘A great time to think is sitting on a boat, especially when you’re alone because there are no distractions. You just sit, you’re looking at the stars at night and, of course, at sea they’re much more clear. You sit there and think, “What is out there?” We’re slowly exploring it and yet we’ve just scratched the surface of 13 billions years. We’re reaching out, we’re getting closer to 13 billion years now with our modern telescopes and we’re looking further and further into space, discovering more and more. I find that absolutely fascinating. Do I fully understand it? No, of course I don’t. Everything’s amazing to me. Wow. I like a little dram in the evening and what’s wrong with that? A cigarette and a dram in the evening, that’s when I do my thinking.’
He looks, if only for a moment, completely content at being genuinely mystified.
As the interview draws to a natural end I’m left with the feeling that possessing self-confidence, which is something millions struggle with, is something that marks Knox-Johnston out. If he could bottle it, I'd buy it. It’s a quiet, determined resilience which has driven his career and huge success. After an hour or so of probing I was keen to know which bit of advice this 75-year veteran of the seas would offer his young 12-year-old self.
He pauses. And pauses. Looking to where the sky would be on a boat (in this case it's just the metal roof of Excel) and covering his mouth Knox-Johnston takes an extra long time to think. It's the most thoughtful I've seen him during the entire interview. Just when I fear it’s a question too far he looks back down, eyes fixed.
‘Have you ever heard of an American poet called Shel Silverstein. He wrote a poem called ‘The Mustn’ts’ and it goes “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the don’t haves and listen close to me - Anything is possible, anything can be”. Trust yourself. The world is full of those who’d hate you to achieve because they’ve done nothing and they’ll try and put you off. If you believe in yourself, do it. I did believe in myself as a small boy, it wasn’t obvious to everyone, but I had that inner self-confidence.’
You’re very tactical, aren’t you, I ask? ‘You have to be, I think. I don’t think people understand. I go cruising, the race isn’t important, I’m enjoying it. I don’t have to win this race. Once we get in a race I’m serious about, don’t get in my way. I’m coming through.’