An archive of more than 3,000 negatives – many never published – taken during Sir Robin’s solo, non-stop round the world voyage in 1968/9, was saved from a skip. We told the story first in the CB299 issue of Classic Boat. Here we recap as we mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Robin’s departure from Falmouth in 1968, half a century ago.
Classic Boat/PPL Media exclusive, published in CB299. Read the story of how the photos were found by scrolling past the photos.Subscribe to Classic Boat here.
His handwritten logbook
Final farewell to his parents
Celebrating on his first night back ashore in the Chain Locker (Falmouth)
After finishing the race and still wearing his oilies
The radio before the race (when it was still working!)
A press photographer on board a Cessna 172 captures the first pictures of RKJ returning to Falmouth
With a welcome bottle of champagne in hand, RKJ returns to Falmouth as the triumphant winner of the inaugural Sunday Times Golden Globe Race
RKJ (centre) with his bother Chris (left), and crew-mate Heinz Fingerhut, aboard Suhaili
Splicing rope aboard Suhaili before departure
After 312 days at sea, RKJ takes his first few steps on land
The valuable archive had been gathering dust in the Sunday Mirror Library, and was about to be dumped in a skip, when the London newspaper moved from Fleet Street to Canary Wharf.
By pure chance, Bill Rowntree, the staff photographer who covered Knox-Johnston’s departure and return to Falmouth in the famous 32ft (9.7m) ketch Suhaili, happened to be in the newspaper building the day of the big clear-out.
The pictures cover RKJ’s early preparations in Surrey Docks in 1968, the shakedown sail to Falmouth, his departure, including long-lost photos of his parents bidding him a tearful farewell, and all the pictures of his momentous return 312 days later as the only finisher in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.
The colour pictures in RKJ’s bestseller, A World of My Own, were lost after publication, but PPL Photo Agency holds what was left of the Knox-Johnston archive within its Pictures of Yesteryear Library. This also contains the archives of other famous sailing pioneers, including Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Chay Blyth, and photographer Eileen Ramsay, who captured many of these great events between 1949 and 1970. It was my call to Rowntree to see if he still had the negative for Henri-Lloyd that prompted the question: “What should we do with the other 3,000 pictures I have here?”
We organised for Bill and Robin to meet at the agency to go through the forgotten archive, and as the two reminisced, it soon became clear that we had found many historic pictures, and many more that had never been published before. Each fresh picture found led to another story as these two yarned the day away.
The Sunday Times race was spawned from interest generated two years before by exclusive coverage given to Francis Chichester’s solo one-stop circumnavigation. The newspaper executives were sold on fostering a non-stop sequel, seen then as one of the last great challenges left to man. Needing money to prepare Suhaili and buy supplies, Knox-Johnston approached the rival Sunday Mirror for sponsorship, which resulted in the event becoming as much a battle between the Sunday papers, as it was for the nine starters that set out during 1968 to capture the Golden Globe trophy, and win the £5,000 prize money.
The first that photographer Bill Rowntree and Australian journalist Bruce Maxwell got to know about it, was a call from the editor’s office. “My first thought was what have I done wrong, but Bruce and I need not have worried,” recalls Bill, adding: “We went into Mike Christiansen’s office and he introduced us to his guest. ‘Bill. Bruce. This is Robin Knox-Johnston. He’s going to sail round the world non-stop, single-handed, and you two are going to help him. Okay, off you go’.”
In my 36 years at the Sunday Mirror, I don’t think I ever had a shorter briefing – or a better assignment!”
FIT FOR PURPOSE
The three of them then went to have a get-to-know-you drink on one of the entertainment ships moored along the Embankment, where Robin told them a little about his previous life in the Merchant Navy, how he had built Suhaili during his time in India, and how he had sailed her back to London. “We found all this very impressive until a tug passed by on the Thames, and Robin was thrown off his stool by the motion. The question both of us thought, but didn’t dare ask, was: ‘If Robin couldn’t keep his balance on a ship moored in the Thames, how would he cope sailing alone at sea?’.”
Bruce remembers: “The first thing Robin told Bill and me, is that we had to sail Suhaili from Surrey Docks to Falmouth to get her ready and sort out things like provisions, the radio, and other bits and pieces. I think he saw us as free-and-willing labour.”
Robin’s perception was that Bill did nothing but take photographs. “I had to tell him that there were certain activities in the confined quarters of a yacht that I just would not let him photograph!”
The trio then discussed roles. “Against my suggestion, Bruce was appointed treasurer because he and Bill felt that having collected the subscriptions, I might not return,” says Robin. “Bruce muttered darkly that the newspapers were full of stories of defaulting loan-club treasurers around Christmas time. I had to agree that since the treasurer was automatically in charge of the beer kitty, it was a natural job for any Australian like Bruce. I had to be content with being President instead.”
What I find so interesting now, is the pictures of the thin, clean-shaven Knox-Johnston when he set out, and the more fulsome figure that returned. He seems to have put on weight – but how? The answer is hidden below deck in the shape of a well-stocked tinned store. Which then begs the question: how did he find the room?
HOLD THE FRONT PAGE
The rivalry between newspapers for Robin’s story on his return to Falmouth in April 1969 was intense. On the one hand, there was the Sunday Times, loftily lauding it as their race; the Sunday Mirror, which had sponsored him; and the Sunday Express, which was trying to scoop their two rivals. Bill recalled one episode: “Cliff Pearson, our assistant editor, had established himself in the Green Lawns Hotel, Falmouth, to mastermind our coverage of Robin’s return. Before the start, Bruce and Robin had developed a secret code, so that anyone listening in to their radio communications would remain in the dark.
The Sunday Times were desperate for a sighting of Robin, but Cliff was not going to help them. That morning, with deadlines looming, there was a call over the hotel intercom during breakfast. “Urgent phone call for Mr Pearson, urgent phone call for Mr Pearson.”
Cliff picked up his papers and charts and went to the phone booth in the lobby, pursued by rival reporters. They watched as Cliff had a long conversation. As he left the booth looking very preoccupied, a slip of paper fell to the floor. The moment he turned the corner out of sight, the Sunday Times’ reporters grabbed the paper.
Out at sea, Bill and Bruce, together with a group of technicians, were stationed off the Scilly Isles aboard the MTB HMS Fathomer, playing ‘ducks and drakes’ with the passenger ferry Isles of Scilly, chartered by the Sunday Express. Bill recalls the sequence of events: “Shooting the pictures was the easy part; getting them back to the editor was the tricky bit! Back in 1969, there was no equipment made to carry out these difficult tasks at sea, but my two mates worked out how to transmit a picture using a Muirhead wire machine, normally used at football matches, via an HF link through Niton Radio station on the Isle of Wight. Making a print requires great skill on land, let alone bobbing around in a small boat on the ocean. I took my hat off to them. Without their enthusiasm and initiative we would never have got the pictures back in time. It was, I believe, the first time anyone had successfully wired a picture from sea back to a newspaper desk.”
The Isles of Scilly, which had a bigger radar set, had been tracking Fathomer, and alerted by the open-radio communications with Suhaili, was soon on the scene, and the two shadowed RKJ’s boat through the night. The Sunday Express team had one advantage over both the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Times – they had Robin’s parents and family on board, but no wiring facilities. The Sunday Times had neither, having relied on the aircraft to get the first pictures.
In the end, the Sunday Times had to beg the Sunday Mirror to use their picture, which they were forced to publish with a Sunday Mirror credit on their front page.
It took two more days for Robin to reach Falmouth, where he recalls: “I was asked to hold back for a few hours and when I asked why, the response was not what I expected: ‘the Mayoress has a hair appointment at 09:00 and won’t be ready to greet you.’ I reluctantly agreed, but then the wind changed and I didn’t arrive until much later, by which time her hair was a mess!”
Robin’s first unsteady steps ashore on the Royal Cornwall’s landing were later marked for posterity with an inscription chiselled into the stone. It was only a few years ago that someone noticed that Knox-Johnston had been spelled without a ‘t’. Four decades on, and now with a knighthood and three further circumnavigations to his name, every sailor knows of Robin’s remarkable pioneering feat – and how to spell his name!
By Barry Pickthall
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