Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is sitting in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel. He's in town to receive an award from the Cruising Club of America, and he's telling me a story about his encounter with the American astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“He’s a marvelous man, brilliant,” Sir Robin says. “You meet him and you realize that this man was born to be an astronaut. Everything about him, from the details of his CV to his personal character, echoes that. He is a man who was meant to go into space.”
I have to wonder whether Knox-Johnston recognizes the strength of that sentiment within his own character. When I ask, he misinterprets my question and says, “Me? No, I never gave a thought to joining the air force.”
Nonetheless, he is the epitome of a true seaman, the Unequivocal Sailor, with a lengthy resume of competitive conquest and an extensive trophy collection back in England. And because of this, Knox-Johnston is someone the sailing community can turn to in a time when the America’s Cup is engulfed in courtroom drama and the sport’s most notable circumnavigators can’t watch R-rated movies. It is a time when sailing headlines are followed by controversy, when personal challenges are never grand enough, when bank accounts never cover even the most basic refitting and technological advances seem to eliminate the need for, well, everything.
Knox-Johnston is this person because of the tremendous amount of time he’s spent on the water. He is the first person to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. He and Peter Blake also won the Jules Verne trophy in 1994 for the fastest circumnavigation, at just under 75 days. He’s been named the United Kingdom’s Yachtsman of the Year three times and took line honors during the 1977/78 Whitbread. In the 2006-2007 Velux 5 Oceans solo race, he finished fourth and, at 68, also took home the honor of being the world’s oldest circumnavigator.
In a world of competitive ocean racing, Robin Knox-Johnston is on a first-name basis with the best and most competent skippers in the world. That is, he’s on a first-name basis with them, but they undoubtedly address him as “Sir.”