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Sir Robin Knox Johnston, the Clipper and the Hobart

by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor on 19 Dec 2015
Robin Knox-Johnston aboard Suhaili at the finish of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race Bill Rowntree - PPL http://www.pplmedia.com
The Clipper Round the World Yacht Race presents itself as one of the most unique yacht races afloat. The event organizes the boats and the professional skippers, but the crew is comprised of paying clients-often times inexperienced or utterly green sailors-who participate in a series of training programs before then signing on to a crew and a boat. Some sailors take on the entire around-the-world race, while others only sign up for a single life-changing leg, but-irrespective of duration-there’s no question that the crews debark their boats as newly minted offshore sailors, rather than green-around-the-gills landlubbers.

The race was the brainchild of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, 76, who was the first person to sail solo nonstop around the world during the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968-1969, which he won aboard the now-legendary Suhaili after Bernard Moitessier, aboard his beloved Joshua, decided to simply keep sailing the Southern Ocean, rather than worry about crossing a finishing line.



Since the race’s inception in 1996, “the Clipper”, as it’s colloquially called, has successfully concluded nine editions, and the tenth edition is now well underway after starting from London in late August 2015. The fleet is currently in Sydney, Australia, having completed the long passage from Albany, Western Australia earlier this month.

Next up for the fleet is a run to Hobart, Tasmania, which is scheduled to coincide with the world-famous Sydney to Hobart Race. Racing starts on Boxing Day (December 26) and will take the fleet down Australia’s east coast before plunging across the much feared Bass Straight, a place where the bottom shoals dramatically to an average depth of just 60 meters (ballpark 200 feet) and where the waves can become massive given the right meteorological combinations.



Interestingly, “RKJ” himself is racing to Hobart aboard one of the event’s older 68-footers and is enjoying a friendly rivalry with some of his skippers as to who will reach Hobart first. I caught up with Knox-Johnston ahead of the Boxing Day start to get his pulse on the race to date, as well as the challenges and “team-building opportunities” that await the twelve competing crews as they battle their way to Hobart.

What do you see as the greatest challenges that await the fleet en route to Hobart?

They have already sailed past Tasmania once, and they have been in the Southern ocean, so they are used to the weather and expect it. And the greatest challenge is between them themselves, between each other.



How important was it to the Clipper Round the World Race to sail to Hobart at the same time as the legendary Sydney to Hobart Race?

I think the opportunity for our crews, forty-percent of whom have never been on a boat before they came to us, to take part in one of the world’s classic races is pretty irresistible, and when you talk to the crews they are really very excited at the thought of being a part of this race and doing this race. And so, for us, it was a no brainer. The crews wanted to do it, it’s great for us to be part of this event, and so we’re delighted that all the timing works out.

What are your thoughts on this year’s overall routing, versus previous editions? What is working well, and what would you reconsider for the next event?

The only changes that we’d make to the routing would be to perhaps drop one port and pick up another, but it has to be close to the existing major route. We’re not going to make a major change. The basic route will not change that much, but there could be diversions as the ports change, like for instance this year we went to [Da Nang, Vietnam] and we’re not going to Singapore. There’s a change, but, as you can see, when you look at the whole of the race, over 40,000 miles, that change is fairly minor.



The Sydney-Hobart has a fearsome reputation among Corinthian sailors, but it’s a relatively short hop for Clipper sailors—can you talk to me about the mindset of a regular Hobart sailor, versus that of a Clipper sailor?

I think that for our Clipper sailors, really, they experience the Southern Ocean and they have experienced it three times now [in this edition]. Fear is of the unknown. The first time you get into a gale, you’re frightened. [After] 50 times, you say ‘oh shit, another one’. And to a certain extent they have seen what the weather can be like, they know the boats are tough and can take it, they know they can deal with it. So, I think in a way, our crews are possibly less apprehensive about the race than perhaps some others are.

Tragically, sailors have been lost en route to Hobart in this race. As race founder, what are your thoughts about taking potentially green sailors and teaching them about ocean racing in the middle of Bass Straight?

If this was the beginning of our round-the-world race, I would be concerned about it. But at this stage, when they have sailed halfway around the world and have become pretty experienced, I’m far less worried about them. They know what the weather conditions are like in the Southern Ocean. Bass Straight, I thought, was just an attachment to the Southern Ocean. They know what to expect down there, and they have been through it before, they are not inexperienced. You might say that they are relatively green, but when you think of the time that they have spent in the Southern Ocean in the past few months, they are not as green as a lot of people.



Of all the legs/races in the 2015/2016 Clipper, which leg/race do you see as having the biggest potential to deliver a real pasting to the fleet? Or, do you think that they already received their just pasting after leaving Cape Town?

Well they received a pasting after leaving Cape Town and they received another one between Albany and Sydney. Potentially, though, the most dangerous leg is the North Pacific, Qingdao to Seattle. People underestimate the North Pacific. They don’t realize that it’s a very, very big ocean and you get very big waves there. In that respect, it’s just like the Southern Ocean, but you’re actually getting to colder weather. And that can be a very, very tough leg. But I wouldn’t underestimate, for instance, from Taiwan up to Qingdao: On the nose, snow, hail, very cold. That’s a tough leg.

Do you think that any past or present Clipper sailors will be inspired to participate in the 2018 Golden Globe Race?

[Laughs.] I’m not aware that any of the 30 odd applicants so far have done the Clipper Race. There are 12 nationalities or something. I think that Don [McIntyre, the 2018 Golden Globe Race’s founder] has come up with a fascinating concept.



I think that what Don has done is brought us back to the age of real adventure, when communications were atrocious. If you look at the Single Side Band radios that we have on the Clipper boats, they are twice the power as what I had, forty-something years ago, and they take up an eighth of the space.

I do think that it’s getting back to pure adventurism, and I think it’s fascinating the number of people that have listened to that challenge-it’s great! I think it’s fabulous!

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