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First Round the World Sailing Race

Copyright 1996 - 2011 Michael Kasten

The Story

During the first round-the-world race for single handed sailors, Robin Knox-Johnston is credited as having been the first person ever to sail around the world single handed without stopping. Depending on one's interpretation of the situation, this is probably not in fact the case...! Consider the following...

Nine vessels started out. Three vessels completed the circumnavigation by actually crossing their out-bound track. Knox-Johnston's Suhaili was not the first to do so. Ahead of him was Bernard Moitessier in his steel ketch, Joshua. This is not an outrageous claim... read on..!

Between the two other vessels -- Nigel Tetley in Victress, a plywood trimaran, and Robin Knox-Johnston in Suhaili -- it was a very close race. It turns out that Nigel Tetley crossed his outbound path on March 22, 1969 at 18:00 Local Time at Long 30 degrees 38 minutes W (or 20:00 GMT). Knox-Johnston however crossed the finish line in England the same day, four and a half hours earlier, at 15:25 GMT, never having crossed his outbound path until that moment.

Two weeks prior to that day, on March 8, 1969, aboard the steel ketch, Joshua, Bernard Moitessier crossed his outbound track in the South Atlantic. In so doing, Moitessier became the first human ever to circle the globe under sail, single handed, without stopping.

This exposes two additional firsts:

Moitessier, having spent some 250 days alone at sea was evidently disgusted at the mere thought of being fawned upon by acres of British media people. With that in mind, Moitessier hung a right in mid-South Atlantic and continued onward, almost immediately crossing his outbound path, again rounding the Cape of Good Hope, again crossing the Indian Ocean, again sailing across the Pacific, landing finally in Tahiti, all without stopping!

A fourth contestant, Donald Crowhurst, sailed aboard a second Victress trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron. Crowhurst carried all the electronics he could find. After departure from England, Crowhurst listened to the progress of the race on his radio set, as well as the worldwide weather. In a massive deception, throughout the race Crowhurst radioed in false positions, which were gauged to be always just a little bit ahead of the fleet. Meanwhile, Crowhurst actually only sailed around the Atlantic at a leisurely pace...

Tragically, in his attempt to stay ahead of the falsified positions radioed in by Crowhurst, Nigel Tetley sailed his plywood trimaran Victress so hard that the boat broke up in the North Atlantic almost immediately after he crossed his outbound track.

Tetley was rescued, but he never did receive proper credit for his feat:

Later that same year, Donald Crowhurst's trimaran was found drifting in the Atlantic. Two log books were discovered onboard: One, a falsified log; the other, the real log. The last entry in the real log was, "It is the Mercy."

After writing those words, Crowhurst, unable -- or unwilling -- to face his own deception, jumped into the sea, never to be found.

This race is a classic tale of the tortoise and the hare. Knox-Johnston's Suhaili, a very slow boat, although not in fact the first vessel to accomplish the circumnavigation, did at last actually make it back to the pre-arranged finish line in England, and therefore claimed the prize.

Very much to his credit, Robin Knox-Johnston donated the prize money he received to Crowhurst's widow.

The Lessons

In the late sixties when this bizarre race was accomplished, several of the contestants sailed with just a hand-crank radio. Crowhurst was an exception: he outfitted his trimaran with every known electronic device, and unfortunately did so in lieu of adequate preparation of the actual boat...! Moitessier was another exception though in the opposite direction. Moitessier claimed, "A good slingshot is better than all the transmitters in the world." Moitessier threw all that stuff overboard including even his engine, in order to make room for more food..!

A number of years ago Robin Knox-Johnston wrote an article in Cruising World magazine about sailors who choose to sail solo. The main thrust of that article was to suggest a list of devices and equipment which any solo sailor could not possibly do without. That concept did not sit well with me. Here is why...

While it is true that if we enact laws requiring that sailors must have every known electronic device onboard there would be fewer issues with collisions and rescues at sea - albeit largely because there would be far fewer sailors...! Why...? Because not everyone has a bevy of wealthy sponsors. Fewer yet have an unlimited bankroll.

A few questions arise:

No, I think, to each of the above...! Although the latter question is possibly the most difficult to judge. If we are to make requirements then, let them be reasonable.

For example before an airplane pilot can fly solo he must log enough hours to qualify. Experience is therefore the necessary ingredient, the lack of which cannot be compensated for by instrumentation, certification, laws, government mandates or what have you.

Crowhurst's electronics did not save him. It was lack of experience, pressure due to media expectations, and a rushed preparation that caused his ruin.

In addition to the requirement of experience, a certain degree of autonomy must be achieved in our watercraft. This means independence from shore-side facilities to the greatest extent possible. It is a concept I have described in detail in my article on Nomadic Watercraft.

We should above all observe that the solo sailor seeks mainly to be left alone.

Michael Kasten

Metal Boat Quarterly #7 - Summer 1996 Editorial - Updated 2003, 2006, 2011.


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