People and boats: Robert Knox-Johnston and Suhaili

People and boats: Robert Knox-Johnston and Suhaili

They've been together for over half a century and they're not going to part - the man who first sailed around the world and his little friend...
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- Looks like this Frenchman is building a new boat again, this time a trimaran - Mr David Knox-Johnston spewed out a newspaper article - do you think it would be good for a transoceanic cruise, Robbie? A young man in the uniform of a merchant navy officer shrugs his shoulders in doubt:

- You can't tell at once, you should know the details first.

- Isn't he going to break Chichester's record or even go round the world without stopping? Everything else in yachting is already done, isn't it? However, let's discuss this in more detail in the evening - Knox-Johnston Sr. is in a hurry to his office, and the vacation of his son, recently appointed second assistant to the cargo and passenger ship Kenya, is just beginning.

On the calendar March 1967 - indeed, in the years since Joshua Slocum's first circumnavigation, the world of sailing has done almost everything possible. At this time the famous Francis Chichester is just returning from his record sailing around the world: having made one single trip to Australian Sydney, his 53-ft Jipsy Moth IV should return to his home shore in April-May.And then there's the «Frenchman»Eric Tabarley, so unexpectedly ahead of Chichester in the OSTAR-1964 races. I remember then the whole Paris press was fighting in the ecstasy of loud headlines: the British «monopoly on sailing records is destroyed ! «The French rule the Anglo-Saxon ocean !»What if he or some other yachtsman from the continent really manages to sail around the globe without entering the ports? When one thinks of such humiliation threatening Union «Jack, the Scottish-Irish»blood of a young sailor boils with a key.

But why wouldn't Robin himself be the first one on a non-stop voyage around the world? Doesn't it take a big, fast boat to get around the world on a 32-foot Suhaili? Of course, just recently she managed to successfully cover 15,000 miles from Indian Bombay to Plymouth, but with a three-person crew and frequent stopovers. Well, why not? Because in the old days, the Knox-Johnstons were not so desperate...

Ancestors and boats

The baby, born in London on 17 March 1939, was named by three names at once: William (after his grandfather), Robert (traditional) and Patrick (after the patron saint of Ireland). He became the eldest son in a family with strong marine roots. There were at least two captains of the East India Company named Robert among the ancestors on the fatherly line.

The last of them had almost 20 years of captivity in Ceylon, escape from there on a sailboat to Indonesia and, after various adventures, finally return to England. Here he immortalized his name by creating a capital work describing the life and living conditions of the island of his long imprisonment and was awarded a portrait in the Royal Greenwich Maritime Museum.

However, family legends also hinted at the much less law-abiding Knox-Johnstons, like one of the last pirates hanging from a sea robbery off the Scottish coast. As for the relatives on the mother's side, the most famous sailor was Thomas Cree, captain of the first rank in the Royal Navy.

Anyway, it was little Robin was the only one of the five children of David Robert and Elizabeth Knox-Johnston, who from early childhood showed an extraordinary interest in the sea and boats.

Robbie made his first attempt to make a vehicle on the waves as early as four years old.

Alas, the flesh built from orange boxes immediately sunk, unable to withstand the weight of its creator. Similar failure befell the canoe, which has already built a 14-year-old with his own hands. During tests on the calm waters of the canal 10ft. the boat scooped up the water and went down, but the persistent boy managed not only to lift it, but also made changes to the design, which allowed him to use the canoe for its intended purpose.

In 1956, Robert failed the entrance exam to the Naval School (summed up his knowledge of physics, which is so useful to him in the future), but did not abandon his dream of the sea. Having entered the merchant fleet as an apprentice, he managed to rise to the third assistant captain in six years, to get married, to settle down in India and ... to think about building a new boat.The idea is simple: in England, a descendant of the glorious Knox-Johnston family expected a new purpose, so why not get there on his own sailboat, which can then be sold, paying off the travel costs. It was also planned to earn money by shooting a film about a voyage across two oceans.

Says it was done - together with a friend, also from the merchant navy, Robin began to choose the type of boat. Originally, young enthusiasts had been seriously considering buying a local dhow, but they got into it on time because it was almost impossible to find a buyer for such an exotic boat in Britain.

The decision was made in favor of a more familiar kech. The boat had to be relatively small (to fit in the budget) and at the same time comfortable enough for long journeys. Having received from one of the English firms the standard project of enough old-fashioned family «boat», friends have taken up its refinement. That's how Suhaili came into being.

Adventure Wind

The yacht was laid out at Kolaba Shipyard (Bombay) in November 1963 and was built by local craftsmen using the simplest tools and with centuries of proven technology. The process was slow and it was not until December 19, 1964, that the ship was finally launched and christened... with coconut milk to choral mantra singing by native workers. Named after the local southeast wind in the Persian Gulf, the Suhaili did not look much like a racing boat, but at first glance gave confidence in its complete reliability.

Extreme length (LOA): 44 ft (approx. 13.41 m).
Hull LOA: 32 ft 5 (9.88»m)
Waterline length: 28 ft. (8,53 м)
Width: 11 ft. 01» (3,37 м)
Precipitation: 5 ft. 06» (1,67 м)
Sheathing thickness: 1.25» (3.18 cm)
Carrying capacity: 14 tons
Stock of water: 86 gallons (325.5 l)
Engine (diesel): 38 hp.
Sailing equipment: Bermudian Quech.
Sail area: 666 ft2 (approx. 62 m²)

The Suhaili hull was made of Indian teak, from which many modern boats can only afford a deck.

On Suhaili, almost everything has been made of teak: keel, bends, stringers, deck decking, cabin trim and finishes.

Additional stability was provided by an iron ballast keel weighing 2.25 tons, which was attached to the hull with 14 two-inch bolts. Both masts (originally) were solid, made of Kashmir pine, which weighed considerably on the structure and (according to Knox-Johnston's personal observations) added adrenaline to each roll.
It took another year for the boat to be finally finished and equipped, as most of the rigging and equipment had to be taken from England. It was only in December 1965 that Suhaili went out to sea and headed west. Her crew consisted of three people - Robert himself, his brother Christopher and their friend Heinz, a radio operator with experience of sailing on commercial ships.

Suhaili: towards a dream.

After leaving Bombay, Suhaili crossed the Arabian Sea and, after a short stop in Muscat, continued to descend gently south along the east coast of Africa with frequent stops at ports of opportunity. By April 1966, the adventurous travelers had reached Durban, where the entire expedition was firmly grounded. Money ran out, so the friends had to put the boat on the prank at the port of Durban for a while and look for work themselves.

Fortunately, everyone managed to find a job as a captain on a coaster, Heinz as a ship's radio operator and Chris as a clerk for an insurance company. The forced anchorage lasted almost six months: only by October was it possible to save up the sum, which should have been enough for the rest of the journey to England. However, the mainsail mast was broken at the trial exit, which took another month to replace. It was only at the end of November that Suhaili was able to go out again and, having circled the Cape of Good Hope, arrived in Cape Town.

From here, Knox-Johnston decided to go to his home shore without stopping. On Christmas Eve Suhaili left the port of Cape Town for a 74 day cruise in the cozy marina of English Gravesend.

So, Suhaili's first long journey was a success.

«Robust, enduring, long-range, loyal and reliable -»that's how Robin himself characterises his boat.

But is it suitable for an unstoppable voyage around the world?

It cannot be improved.

On 27th May 1967 almost a quarter of a million enthusiastic Englishmen met the triumphant return of Gypsy Moth IV. Francis Chichester was the first to circumnavigate the globe on his own with just one port call. Excellent results were also achieved in speed: 29,617 nautical miles in 226 sailing days or 131 miles per day!

Is it possible to break such a record? Robert did the simplest calculations and concluded: yes, but not on Suhaili.

On the transition from Cape Town to England, the baby showed a good average speed of 112 miles per day or about 4.7 knots, but for a round-the-world race it is clearly not enough. Yes, and rankout (even after changing the main mast from solid pine to hollow wood) remained heavy.

Based on these considerations, Knox-Johnston decided to build a new boat. He was able to find a suitable project quickly enough: this 53ft steel yacht with original bows, which should make it more stable on course. She was to be fitted with two masts from a production Dragon yacht, thus saving money and, if necessary, equipping the vessel as a schooner, thus increasing her manoeuvrability and seaworthiness in headwinds.

However, the question was once again one of money: at the lowest possible cost, the hull was to be built for £2800, and together with the rigging it was to cost £5000.

Robin made a difficult decision: to sell Suhaili and invest the proceeds in building a boat for a round-the-world trip. At the same time he sent hundreds of letters to leading British companies, trying to find sponsors for his bold idea. Alas, the answer was either silence or polite rejection. The situation was further complicated by the fact that, in January 1968, the Royal Navy called him under its banners for routine training as a reserve officer.

It's been another two months, but there's no one willing to buy a Suhaili.

Meanwhile, on 17 March, the Queen of the British Weekly - the Sunday Times - solemnly announced the establishment of the Golden Globe «Award for the Daredevil», who will be the first to sail around the world alone without entering the ports. The second prize of £5000 was intended for the fastest speed.

The conditions of the Golden Globe Race were extremely simple and at the same time very tough: a boat of any design and size, start and finish - in one of the British ports. It was necessary to go out to sea from June, 1 till October, 31, and the route necessarily had to pass around capes of Good Hope, Lewin and Horn. Participants were not allowed to visit any ports or uninhabited bays (even without going ashore), receive any cargo (including mail), or use outside help. Even an accidental violation of any of the rules meant an automatic drop-out.

The news of the Golden«Globe» further fueled the already boiling sails in the world. Even before the March announcement of the Sunday Times, several yachtsmen began preparing for a single non-stop round the world, carefully hiding their plans from each other. To camouflage themselves, many of them (including Knox-Johnston himself) were spreading rumours about their planned participation «in just the OSTAR-68 single» transatlantic race.

Now it's harder to keep a secret, but the chances of attracting the sponsors' attention are much greater. Finally, Robin was lucky enough to be able to sell Suhaili to a couple of British publishers and an American story about the creation of his baby and her first journey. What's more, the bosses of the Sunday Mirror, who want to take a ride on the crest of the wave of the Sunday Times' clever advertising move, also had a literary talent.

However, the money was still not enough to buy a new boat, and the time was running out. In addition, closely following potential rivals, Knox-Johnston suddenly found a formidable competitor, and again the French. Instead of Eric Tabarli, he was replaced by Bernard Moissier, who had already sailed around the world. Robin made the final decision: to sail on Suhaili, and go out to sea no later than June 1!

In just two months he managed not only to overhaul, but also to significantly modernize his boat.

Suhaili received a new rigging and a set of sails, the wooden bizzan mast was replaced by a shorter and lighter duraluminous mast. Thus, it was possible to increase significantly the stability of the ketch, avoiding «adrenaline» rolls at every change of tack.

Special attention was paid to the ship's automatic control system. For the installation of the autorail and additional rudder at the stern there was a special design that gave the boat a curious and technological look, with the wind «autorail» provided a special small sail vane.

By the way, apart from the unusual auto-steer, Knox-Johnston was seriously going to take the original electric current generator on a round-the-world voyage.

It had to be powered by a special propeller screw attached to the bottom and driven by an overflow of water. However, this idea did not delight the conservative sponsors from Sunday Mirror, so Suhaili was powered by a traditional petrol generator. The sponsors also insisted on supplying the boat with a powerful (and very expensive!) radio telephone, which would allow weekly subscribers to regularly learn all the details of the journey.

Finally, it's time to take care of the supplies. Only the simplest products, dried fruits and sardines, were already considered delicacies.

Since the voyage was supposed to last about 10 months, Robin and his company of volunteers had to varnish about a thousand and a half cans of canned food and mark them with a special code, so that after the inevitable self-adhesive labels, the process of eating each time would not turn into Russian roulette. The dehydrated foods, which Knox-Johnston later discreetly described as «extremely convenient if you have enough fresh water, have also not been forgotten.

The need to complete hundreds of big and small (but always important) things caused the start of the voyage to be postponed for two whole weeks. It was not until June 14, 1968 that Suhaili finally left Falmouth for a new adventure that did not slow down the start...

Chasing the Golden Globe.

Already on the 16th day of the voyage, just south of the islands of Cape Verde, Robin suddenly noticed that the boat was gathering water quickly. Diving to inspect the hull, he found with horror an almost two-meter slot in the keel mount - and it was in the middle of the Atlantic! Get out of the game? No way!

Cotton fibre, canvas strip, resin - all that's left is to put this plug «in the» bottom at a depth of 1.5 metres. It was complicated by the fact that the sea was full of sharks.

To distract the attention of these cold-blooded killers, Knox-Johnston had to shoot one of them. While the other predators were tearing up the victim's body, he nailed down an improvised patch and fixed it with a copper strip accidentally forgotten on board by radio technicians.

Suhaili continued her journey, but on her way to the Cape of Good Hope her captain was facing new challenges: soon she had to dig a similar gap in the bottom, but already on the starboard side. Time and again there were problems with the steering wheel, the electric generator failed, which had to be repaired right at the rocking.

Even an ordinary cheese showed extraordinary magnetic properties, deflecting the compass arrow as much as 60 degrees!

On the way to Cape Town, Knox-Johnston was so imbued with all the charms of a non-stop round-the-world voyage that he compared it to a 10-month high-security solitary confinement. He even thought about retiring from the distance, but ... still turned east, circling the Cape of Good Hope and every day more and more feeling the rage of roaring forties.«

Storm winds haunted Suhaili at almost the entire Indian Ocean crossing. The boat was put on board several times and only by a miracle could she climb without losing her rank. On the way to Australia, the wind bow finally failed and the cabin was flooded through cracks in the cladding. All this made Knox-Johnston once again think about giving up further participation in the race. Fortunately, he postponed the final decision to New Zealand, where he had a rendezvous to hand over travel notes and other travel material.

Here Robin was again in for surprises. First, as she approached the rendezvous point (Bluff Cove), Suhaili jumped out onto the shore. Fortunately, it happened in shallow water and in sandy ground, so Knox-Johnston was able to get off the ground without any help when he waited for the tide and stretched out at the anchor. Secondly, from the news received during the rendezvous, he learned that his formidable rival Bernard Moisture significantly reduced the gap and his 32-ft Joshua continues to catch up with the baby Suhaili. The news of the Frenchman's success literally spurred Robin and forced him to continue the race - the course is taken on Cape Horn.

Alas, at the more than 4,000-mile crossing of the South Pacific, he was much less fortunate than Joshua Slocum. As you know, the 36-ft Spray was so good at listening to the steering wheel that its owner could stay away from the steering wheel all day long. Robert sometimes had to spend 15-17 hours a day at the wheel. To top it off, the transmitter was out of order, so that the patented radio telephone could now only work for reception. However, Captain Suhaili has found the time and energy to celebrate Christmas with dignity: a modest gala dinner, a good portion of whisky and a traditional toast to Her Majesty, which the Royal Navy sailors as a special privilege are allowed to drink sitting down.

On 17th January 1969 Knox-Johnston passed Cape Horn in surprisingly calm weather, only two (!) weeks ahead of Moisture. The battle for the Golden Globe had entered its final phase: Of the 9 competitors, only four continued the race, with Nigel Tetley hopelessly behind on the 22-ft Victress trimaran and reports of Donald Crowhurst's whereabouts and speed (on the 40ft Teignmouth Electron trimaran) becoming increasingly suspicious.

Most sailing experts bet on the French. They even called the exact date of his triumphant return - April 24. Robin was temporarily forgotten, until March 18, when news suddenly came in from Cape Town that Bernard Moiseyes had refused to participate in the Golden Globe Race and set sail for the South Seas, bypassing Cape Good Hope again.

Now everyone has rushed in search of Suhaili, which as if dissolved in the vast Atlantic Ocean.

Only 17 days later it was accidentally discovered southwest of the Azores, and on April 22, 1969 Knox-Johnston solemnly finished in Falmouth, alone circling the globe for 312 days of continuous sailing.

The Golden Globe to Robin was presented by Sir Francis Chichester himself. But the fate of the prize for top speed remained uncertain until mid-summer, when it turned out that the second possible contender for the World Cup.the money prize - Donald Crowhurst - never left the Atlantic and killed himself for fear of an imminent revelation in deception. Thus, Robert Knox-Johnston was the rightful owner of both awards. However, he preferred the glory to money: so desired (once) £5000 were given to the family of the late D. Crowhurst, and the life of 30-year-old national hero of England has just begun...

Get the sails down? It's not time yet!

By Sir Knox-Johnston's own admission, after a legendary voyage around the world, he wanted to return to work in the merchant navy, but fate decided otherwise.

It opened the sea to people who had never dreamed of hearing the sound of waves and the rustle of wind on their sails. He built new boats and brought up more and more generations of yacht captains who led them on ocean voyages. He also sailed 11(!) around the world, already as an instructor skipper.

Sir Robin was involved in numerous sailing competitions. Twice, in 1970 and 1974, he won the Round Britain Race among paired crews. In 1994, together with Peter Blake, he won the Jules Verne Cup, circling the globe under sail in 74 days, 22 hours, 18 minutes and 22 seconds. Finally, in 2006, 67-year-old Sir Knox-Johnston set sail for the Velux 5 Oceans again and came in fourth.

On 1 July 2018, Sir Robert fired an antique cannon from Suhaili to signal the start of another Golden Globe singles race, launched from the French port of Le Sables d'Olonne. By the way, Suhaili»'s granddaughter«Thuriya, a yacht built in the exact image of an old lady, also took part in this competition. Although this boat (run by Indian skipper Abilash Tomi) never made it to the finish line, having lost its masts in the Indian Ocean, Suhaili's descendants seem to have a long life. According to preliminary data, two dozen of its modern copies are going to take part in Golden Globe Race 2022.

According to Sir Knox-Johnston, he managed to make at least 5,000 different people happy by introducing them to the sea. It seems that this account has not yet been closed - so seven feet under the keel and always with the right wind, Sir Robin and Suhaili!

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