I am a bit busy at the moment,” the e-mail began, “finishing off a book…hauling out my boat for some work tomorrow…and then re-launching [it] on Friday. Saturday I am preparing to sail to Falmouth for the 50th anniversary of my departure in the Golden Globe. On Tuesday I sail.”
These were not your typical excuses for a tardy e-mail response, but then again this e-mail was from none other than Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, so I was willing to cut him some slack. In 1969, Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail single-handedly around the world without stopping. He completed his record-setting, 312-day circumnavigation in April of that year, only three months before another team of voyagers set sail for a different round trip into the unknown. The Apollo 11 Moon landing had the full weight of the NASA “machine” behind it, making available the most cutting edge technology of the time. Knox-Johnston’s voyage, on the other hand, was entirely more low-tech, self-funded, and entirely analog. He was, at times, cut off entirely from contact with the rest of the world, in a 32-foot sailboat he built himself, navigating by the stars and sun, using a sextant and chronometer. On his wrist? Fittingly, a Rolex Explorer.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about the Rolex worn by Sir Francis Chichester, who completed a solo circumnavigation in 1967, with one stopover in Australia. Chichester’s accomplishment was groundbreaking but it left one thing yet to be done: sail around alone, without stopping. The Sunday Times newspaper announced a race, the “Golden Globe” to see who could do it, and offered a £5,000 prize to the winner. Nine sailors entered the race. Six of them retired or lost their boats, one man went mad and jumped into the sea, and one abandoned the race to continue sailing to Indonesia. This left only Knox-Johnston to finish, sailing back to England to become the winner of the race and the first person to knock off this “Everest of sailing”.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston aboard the Suhaili | Photo: Hodinkee/Bloomberg
It’s difficult to overstate the difficulty of solo circumnavigation in the 1960s. It was, in most respects, no different from attempting the feat in the 1860s, or the 1760s. No GPS or even radar navigation, no Gore-tex, carbon fibre, LED headlamps, Red Bull or GoPro. Knox-Johnston built his Bermudan ketch, Suhaili, while living in India in the early 1960s, using locally sourced teak wood. His only sponsors for the race were a British chocolate company and a beer company, who both paid him in product. He decided to enter the race when he heard that a Frenchman, Bernard Moitessier, was competing, and thought it would be good if an Englishman won.
Knox-Johnston told me that he acquired his Rolex Explorer, reference 6610, in Kuwait in 1961. He was serving in the merchant marine at the time, sailing the Indian Ocean between Africa, the Middle East and India. It would have been a logical choice for a man who needed something sturdy he could set and forget during long trips at sea in the tropics. No date, no fuss, with water resistance to spare. By that time, the Explorer had been in Rolex’s lineup for seven years. It was evolved from, and inspired by, the Oyster Perpetual worn on the British expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1953, and strongly related to the watch that fellow British sailor, Chichester, wore for his exploits.