Feature: Sir Robin

22 April 2016

In a very personal interview with The Huffington Post UK editor-in-chief Stephen Hull, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston talks about fear, the universe and living life as one of the UK’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. Trust yourself.”

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston cuts an imposing figure in his dark blue suit, blue tie, black brogues and famous Santa-style white beard.

I’ll admit to being slightly intimidated by the stern-faced, athletic 76-year-old grandfather and Britain’s toughest living sea dog.

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.

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. “I decided I wanted to go to sea. 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? “Dad was great, he was a super bloke but he wasn’t a sailor. 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.”

There’s a strong sense that Knox-Johnston doesn’t suffer fools. When I’d first seen him arrive he swept past me, with his long stride. He speaks with purpose and intent, not rambling and ill thought out. He also 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 is what I shall do.’”

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.”

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.

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 third in class in a 3,542 mile 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?

“There are always things that bring a little bit of apprehension. 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.”

I ask him what it means to be a British man.

“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. You treat ladies with respect. You treat other men with respect.”

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 billion years. We’re reaching out, we’re getting closer to 13 billion years now with our modern telescopes and we’re 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.”

He looks, if only for a moment, completely content at being genuinely mystified.

I’m left with the feeling that possessing self-confidence, which is something millions struggle with, is something that marks Knox-Johnston out. It’s a quiet, determined resilience.

I was keen to know which bit of advice he would offer his young 12-year-old self.

Knox-Johnston takes an extra long time to think. It's the most thoughtful I've seen him.

“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.”

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.”

-Read the full interview here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/01/23/robin-knox-johnston-interview_n_6532932.html

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