I am definitely not one to dwell in the past but there are times when it’s good to look back and today is one of those times. It was fifty years ago today, April 22, that Robin Knox-Johnston sailed into Falmouth Harbor on the south coast of England to become the first person in history to complete a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the world. He was the winner of the first Golden Globe race and he did it, as he said numerous times in his book, for Queen and Country. What an incredible feat it was at a time when most people thought that it was not possible to sail all the way around the world without stopping.
A couple of years earlier England, and indeed the world, had been inspired by another Brit, Francis Chichester, who completed a solo circumnavigation but Chichester stopped in Australia. Chichester was the first person to achieve a true circumnavigation of the world solo from west to east via the great capes and he was knighted for his accomplishment. Three short years later Robin Knox-Johnston closed the loop on a non-stop lap of the planet. This past weekend in Falmouth there have been numerous festivities and today, at the precise moment Knox-Johnston’s yacht Suhaili crossed the finish line, RKJ will recreate that moment, five decades later.
I say it good to look back because only by doing so can we see how far we have come in this sport we all love so much. Think about this; it took Robin 312 days to get around the world. He navigated with a sextant and used a taffrail log to get his boat speed in order to estimate his position. These days the fastest time for a solo circumnavigation is 42 days and 16 hours, the record being held by the French sailor François Gabart. No sextant and taffrail log for Mr Gabart. He knew precisely where he was every second of the day thanks to modern satellite technology. What an incredible leap forward in just 50 years.
There was a time not so long ago that it was thought impossible to circumnavigate fully crewed in under 80 days, a timeframe that was a nod to the book Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. A group of sailors met on a barge on the Seine river in France to outline the challenge. I am not sure if any of them thought that it would be possible, at least in the short term, but just a couple of years later the French sailor Bruno Peyron and his crew, including American Cam Lewis, lapped the planet in 79 days and 6 hours to win the first Jules Verne Trophy. That record time now stands at 40 days and 23 hours.
Frenchman Thomas Coville, who once held the fastest solo circumnavigation record, will set off later this year in his brand new Ultime trimaran to try and break not only the fastest solo circumnavigation time, but the fastest fully-crewed time as well and many pundits believe that he has a very good chance of doing so. Can you imagine if someone had told Knox-Johnston that in fifty years time someone would do what he had just done over seven times faster?
Can you imagine if someone had told Knox-Johnston that in fifty years time one person would be able to manage a mainsail that was ten times the size of the mainsail on Suhaili? Me neither, but I guess the question that bears asking is where will we be in 50 years? What will the record times be and what about sail technology? I can’t imagine that there will be as much progress as we have experienced over the last 50 years but you never know. I won’t be around to see it but there are definitely some exciting times ahead. – Brian Hancock.