Understanding this, I ask Knox-Johnston about the current crop of circumnavigators grabbing the headlines. In 2009, two 17-year-olds, American Zac Sunderland and Brit Mike Perham, completed solo voyages. Currently, two 16-year-olds, Sunderland's younger sister Abby and Australian Jessica Watson, are making voyages of their own. In October 2009, a Danish 14-year-old attempted the same, but a court prohibited it and put her under state supervision until July of 2010, when she claims she'll set sail once again.
When I bring up the fact that the World Sailing Speed Record Council recently announced the discontinuation of the award for the youngest and oldest record holders, Knox-Johnston’s face reflects both the seasoned veteran and the popular grandfather.
“I have certain concerns,” he says, pausing. “My concern is that everyone ages differently. Some 16-year-olds are as mature as 30-year-olds. But others, well, their parents might be pushing them. And if we start having records for the youngest, I guarantee you it will end in tears.”
Knox-Johnston’s father is credited as being the impetus in his own voyage, when one morning in March of 1967, he subtly hinted to his son that a nonstop circumnavigation was “about all there’s left to do now, isn’t it?” But Knox-Johnston was no teenager at the time, having already put in plenty of sea time as an officer in the merchant navy.
It’s this kind of experience that Knox-Johnston says is imperative to a successful voyage. “During storms and such, you have to draw on reserves. And those reserves are drawn from experience. Only the individual understands this, and my concern is that at ages 13 and 14, children don’t truly understand this for themselves. If their parents say to them ‘you’ve got to do this because I told you to,’ well, at that age, they tend to listen to their parents.”
At 71, Knox-Johnston is clearly not ready to disappear into retirement. The Velux 5 Oceans Race and Clipper Ventures are in full swing, with Knox-Johnston acting as a tireless media liaison. He makes frequent trips to Asia to cultivate the growing sailing presence there, and he is involved with both the China Sea Race and the Sydney Hobart Race. He complains of jet lag during our interview, although in the 40 years since his Globe Challenge victory he’s undoubtedly gotten used to it.
But Knox-Johnston plans on returning home in many senses, sometime, when the adventures start winding down and his classroom is filled with his grandchildren. Smiling, he tells me about Suhaili, the 32-foot ketch he sailed around the world back in 1968, and how he has plans for her future. In 1997 she was given to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but he bought her back in 2002 when he realized the controlled atmosphere was shrinking her planking. Over the last eight years he’s been slowly refitting her with a mind toward short cruises around the waters where he grew up.
For as much sailing as he’s done in international waters, and for as much as he’s brought to the sport, there is something beautiful about imagining Knox-Johnston finishing his time on the water with the boat that got him started. But something about the restlessness in his eyes as he describes his boat leads me to believe that he’s not planning on relaxing.