Clipper Dinner

As Sir Robin Knox Johnson is the president of Liverpool Yacht Club, Beverley and I helped set up a dinner for all the skippers of the clipper race and I got to interview Sir Robin Knox Johnston.

Interview with Sir Robin Knox Johnson

GP - I would like to learn more about you and the Clipper Race that you are doing on Sunday

Well my background is merchant navy, I'm a master mariner and I learnt to sail in the Merchant Navy, because we had to in those days and I was working out east, and I thought that it would be more fun to sail back than to come back by air, so I built a boat called Suhali and sailed back from India.

GP - So then what happened?

I got back in 1968 and Chichester had sailed around the world with one stop and I thought that there was only one thing to be done and that was sail around the world without stopping. Tried to get sponsorship and I couldn't get it, so I took Suhali anyway.

GP – Since then what had you been doing?

Bit of racing,  bit of marina development, writing books and then about 21 years ago, William Ward and I started clippers and we have been tied down to that ever since.

GP – Tell me your inspiration

Well it wasn't so much inspiration as an idea. I was climbing in Greenland with Chris Bonnington and he told me how much it costs to climb mount Everest, and it costs a lot of money and I was thinking what's the sailing equivalent. The sailing equivalent is really the circa navigation of the world, so I did some calculations on the back of an envelope, what it would cost to build a boat, pay skippers, food clothing, support fees, all the rest of it and came to the conclusion that it was about half the cost of climbing Mount Everest. So we put an advert in the Times to see what would happen and we got about 8,000 answers. So we thought that we had better do this, otherwise someone else will manage to start it. So in about eleven months we went from that advert to starting the first race. Built the boats, trained the crews, worked out a route and off we went.

GP – How many novice sailors do you have?

The novice sailors are not sailing for the very first time, they do four weeks training. Let me tell you its been tough, you can go and do a yacht master offshore with that and we train especially for ocean racing. You know the ones who have not sailed before are the easiest to train, because they have no bad habits, I can train them the way I want them. Ones who have done some sailing, some of them think that if they want to do the race, they should just do it and we have to get them to use the same expression, same techniques as everyone else. That's a safety issue, if you are in a gale at night with no light at all and you have someone up front and you have someone half way up the boat serving them, if you don't know what the other one is doing, or using the same expressions that's a problem. So they have to do that training, but about 40% have never been on a boat before and we train them. They are enthusiastic, they are keen and they want to learn, when you have that attitude, you can do a lot with it.

So how many people who are older?

I do not know the figure, because we don't bother with age. What we bother with is attitude and fitness. I would suspect that at least 20% are over 60. Age is a bureaucratic thing, governments love it, you retire at 66 or something, that's very easy, I got a formula. But it isn't judging people by what they are like at 66, some are ready to die and some are like now what am I going to do. So you have got to take the ones who say right “What am I going to do?” and they say I want to do this, then you say fine, your fit enough. All I want is a note from your doctor saying that he knows what you are doing and that's it you are in. As long as you pass the training.

GP – I know that we have one boat from Seattle, while we have one from Quigdao, do we have people from those countries on those boats

I think that on this race we have a total of 38 Chinese and we've certainly got people from Seattle. For the first time ever the number of crew from non Brits, exceeds the Brits, over 50% now are non British. In the past its been more British, its slowly changed, only very slightly, we've just tipped over this time, but its interesting, I like to think we are taking our sport to other parts of the world. We've got 10 South Africans from the townships, they got the sponsorship, they are doing this. That will change their lives. They will become contributors to society, which is pretty damned important. We've had some in the past, we had 18 of them. The first South African to get his Yacht Masters ticket he was one of ours. Another one wrote a song that came second in the pop charts in South Africa and there's a young lady who's now studying to be a lawyer at university, all from the townships and their lives have changed dramatically. They're the people who are going to be the future leaders, because they have overcome difficulties to get where they are and they realize they can do it, and they will go on like that and that gives me more satisfaction than most things.

GP – This race is really for all people.

Yes, that's right, we've had taxi drivers, we've had three or four of them, nurses, farmers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, the odd millionaire, its a total mix, because on the boat, you are not judged by that, your judged by your ability, its a great leveller.

GP – So to enter, how is it all worked out

We charge for it and they know what they have to pay, Its all set out for them, and basically we say come on do part one of the training, and if you measure up to that we go on to parts 2, 3 and 4. If we find someone isn't measuring up in part one there are a few things we can do, if its really bad, we will say “Look, this is really not right for you, We charge you for that week but the rest of it give it you back because that's fair. But if we think, your almost there, then we say, lets do part 1 again, it doesn't cost you any more but do part one again, lets see if you can get up to standard. Lets see if you can get your head right. Quite a few do, they say, I get it now and that gives them a chance to achieve what they want, their dream.