‘Do you know how many people have been in space? Nearly 700. Do you know how many people have sailed solo, non-stop around the world? Just over 200. Which is the tougher job? Come on,” says Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.
Forty-seven years ago, in 1969, the English sailing legend and explorer became the first man to successfully circumnavigate the world, sailing single-handed for 312 days without stopping on board Suhaili, his 32-foot ketch sailing boat. And, at 77 years old, he’s still competing in races today.
In 1995, Knox-Johnston and business partner William Ward established the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, a unique commercial biennial ocean race and the only global yacht race for paying amateur sailors, with 40 per cent of the crew beginners who have never sailed before.
I join sailing fans as crowds gather around Seattle’s Bell Harbour Marina, waiting for the colourful departure of the 12 identical Clipper 70 yachts on their seventh leg of the 10th Clipper Round the World Yacht Race. The Port of Seattle puts on an impressive departure that includes a US Navy brass band, a flotilla of support boats, a Boeing Stearman bi-plane fly-by and a fireboat spraying high arcs of water into the sky, as the Visit Seattle yacht leads the parade of the sponsored fleet into the bay.
The crew have endured more than their fair share of horrendous North Pacific weather recently and, sadly, two safety breach fatalities within one team – the first fatalities in the 20-year history of the race. By the end of the race, those sailing all the way around the world will be as good as, if not better than, some professional sailors.
“The toughest leg of the race so far has been crossing the North Pacific from Qingdao in China to Seattle. Storm after storm tested everyone. I am so proud of the crew, especially when you look at what they went through,” says Knox-Johnston.
Known as the toughest endurance challenge on the planet, the concept of The Clipper Race is to open up sailing to any paying amateur sailors, not just the elite minority.
Knox-Johnston believes that with confidence, courage, commitment, and the right training with a huge focus on safety, anyone can have a go.
“The essence of good seamanship is safety; amateur or professional, safety comes first. Safety is hammered home. It’s like getting into your car and the first thing you do is clip on your seat belt; go out on deck and you clip on to the safety line,” he says.
This idea came about when Knox-Johnston was climbing with a friend in Greenland. “My friend had just been up Everest and was telling me how much it cost. I thought about the cost of a sailing equivalent and realised I could do it for half the price. We put an advert in the paper and got 8,000 responses.”
A once-in-a-lifetime experience like this comes at a price. For the 2017 race, the full circumnavigation will cost £49,500, plus £5,500 for compulsory training. Each of the eight legs has individual prices, ranging from £5,000 to £6,500.
After four weeks’ training, potential crew can sign up for one leg, combine a few, or stay on board for a year-long circumnavigation. Each of the yachts can carry up to 24 people.
The current race started in London on 20 August last year, leaving St Katharine Docks in London for Rio de Janeiro, then back across the Atlantic to Cape Town, Albany, Sydney, Hobart, Airlie Beach, Da Nang, Qingdao, Seattle, the Panama Canal, New York, Derry and Den Helder in Holland, before returning to London. It was due to end at St Katharine Docks yesterday, having completed a gruelling 40,000 nautical miles.
This year, over 650 race crew from more than 44 countries and of all ages and backgrounds will have taken on the race of their life. The oldest female crew member is 74, the oldest male is 72, the youngest female is 18, and the youngest male is 17.
On board the team Great Britain yacht is Scotsman Ken Brown, 57, and he’s in for the long haul. Brown just stopped work and returned to the UK after years of living in the Middle East.
He gives me a tour of the cabin, which is full of crew stuffing food into every nook and cranny. “There’s no personal space at all, so modesty quickly disappears. Bunks are shared, so when one is on shift the other sleeps,” he says. “Circumnavigators can bring 25kg on board, but we don’t need much.”
All crew take a turn to be “mother” for the day, producing three meals, cleaning the heads (toilets) and the rest of the boat. “Food is mostly curries and stews and we bake fresh bread each day for toast, and always porridge for breakfast,” says Brown.
“So far, my best part of the race has been the Sydney to Hobart race and the welcome into Qingdao in China,” he says. “The worst part was the bitter cold and wet conditions during the North Pacific crossing, and the temperature extremes have been hard to deal with. The most frightening part must be the big storms in the Southern Ocean, Solomon Sea and crossing the Pacific, but I have full confidence in our yacht and we just had to clip on until the storms dissipated,” he says.
I ask what has been the most useful thing he packed and what he misses? “My iPad is good for listening to music, as well as movies when off watch. Obviously I miss my family, and my wife has met me in various ports along the way,” he says. “I miss cold drinks and ice, a nice big comfy bed and yogurt. Also the boat is alcohol free, which is actually a good thing when we are at sea. A month without alcohol is no bad thing.”
And the best bit?
“Witnessing the amazing wildlife and breaching humpback whales, huge schools of dolphins, a tuna feeding frenzy, pilot whales and mola mola fish.
“My advice to anyone thinking about joining the race is, ‘Just do it – you won’t regret it.’”
Skipper Daniel Smith, 32, of racing yacht Derry Londonderry Doire comes from North Ayrshire and has rented out his house to do the race. “It’s a big challenge and a big step, but it’s a chance in a lifetime. We’ve experienced some very exciting sailing, and big storms, especially on leg six, when we won first place crossing 5,868 nautical miles across the Pacific from Qingdao in China to Seattle,” he says.
For Knox-Johnston, the biggest takeaway is that the crew have become professional-standard sailors. “You see them at the finish and they stand there thinking, ‘I’ve done that. I’ve sailed around the world.’”
“Don’t do the easy things in life,” he says. “Where’s the satisfaction in that? Do the tough things, and then you’ve got something to be proud of. I want to hear people say, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve done in my life… so far.’”
• For information or to sign up for the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, go to www.clipperroundtheworld.com
Clipper Round the World support Unicef: www.unicef.org.uk
Getting to Seattle: Icelandair offer long haul passengers the chance to have a stopover of up to seven days in Iceland en route to North America for no extra flight cost. Passengers who stop over on their outbound journey will save approximately £50 per person on APD tax. Icelandair fly from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Return economy class flights to Seattle start from £694 from Glasgow and £698 from Aberdeen. All prices include taxes and two pieces of checked luggage (www.icelandair.co.uk)