Monday, August 1, 2011

Robin Knox-Johnston: Force of Nature

Gordon Frischer:: " Roaring Forties"
depicting RKJ on Suhaili on 16 th december 1968

Whenever I find myself growing  grim about the mouth; 
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; 
whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, 
and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; [] 
then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

Hermann Melville , Moby Dick.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is in no need of an introduction. At least not in the international sailing community. An iconic figure since he won the Golden Globe, that legendary first single handed non stop sailing race around the world, his has become a household name. In fact he was the only one to finish that heroic race, beating eight competitors who bailed out, abandoned or just simply went berserk and stepped off their boat in the middle of the Atlantic. Robin Knox – Johnston was deservedly praised as a modern time hero when he crossed the finish line after 312 days alone at sea. His no nonsense approach and his perseverance made him famous not only in sailing circles, but also and thanks to the exposure in the British and International media, to a larger public.
His individual accomplishment for its scope, risk and sheer loneliness, came second only to a trip to the moon...

Knox – Johnston collected the price and was knighted.

But that was many years ago.

Now, and we speak about 2006, almost half a century later, RKJ is fighting off other demons. His wife, his companion for so many years, has lost her long private battle against ovarian cancer. It has left her husband profoundly shaken. Reading between the lines of his book we understand that witnessing her terrible dead-struggle and his subsequent loneliness, has put the man on a lee shore. In a real Ishmaelian way, to fight off his permanent gloom, RKJ decides to go back to sea. Not for a simple cruise, but he as a participant in a modern circumnavigation race: the Velux 5 Oceans. This is a top notch regatta designed for state of the art racing yachts, genuine speed machines, skippered by the international elite of single-hands navigators: brave, smart and experienced athletes with huge sponsor fed budgets.

RKJ, now 67 years old, a man of another generation looks a bit awkward amidst this new breed of sailors.

Single handed circumnavigation races today, are best understood as a cross between the formula 1 races and the Iron man triathlon, with this difference that the efforts and resistance of man and machine are sustained for over 100 days in the most dreadful seas of the world with basically no possibility for rescue or even giving up. While RKJ stands a bit apart among the new generation of sailors, the young lions treat him with respect. His experience in offshore racing is an important, but only asset for neither his age, nor his restricted budget and late preparation ensure any confidence.

His book “Force of Nature” recounts his participation in this modern race.

One of the problems of his narrative is that except finishing the race nothing noteworthy happens to RKJ ( at least if we consider it against what normally happens to single-handed circumnavigators). He doesn’t win, true, but that could be expected. Not because of RKJ, for he is a formidable sailor, but because his project is underfinanced, his boat too old, he and his team relatively unprepared. But, he doesn’t loose either. With the exception of one ripped – off toe nail, he and his ship arrive unharmed in each port well within the time-limits. With his tremendous experience and his very British sense of reality, no wave is too steep for him, no gust unmanageable.

One can only conclude RKJ is a bloody good skipper. Still, why he walked barefoot at night on the wet tilting deck of a racing sailboat remains a mystery.

As I was stumbling about on the deck that night, the mainsail swung across just as my bare foot landed on the main sheet, which tightened like a whinched cable and ripped the nail of my left big toe.
From the amount of blood that spurted out around the deck, it was as if my leg had been completely severed. It was a mess, and it soon became clear that the nail had to be completely removed. I snipped it away with a pair of wire cutters – the next best thing to clippers – then cleaned the wound with whiskey and bandaged it up.

But real drama and action do take place in the race albeit on other boats: dismasting, sinking of boats, nail-biting rescue operations. RKJ can only experience them as a spectator and quote the reports of others. He reminds us, a little frustrated, that the newspapers and the public back home seem only to be interested when things go wrong. Was it not for his age, he would not even been mentioned in the press.  

RKJ unfortunately has not written the book himself. Someone has helped him. While RKJ worries that the public would think him too old for the Race it does not seem to bother him that they find him too common to write his own book. For one reason or another, publishers assume that such adventurous sailors cannot write and need help from a ghost writer to get a book ready by the time the sailor is safely home. This is a pity for not only do we lose the “voice” of RKJ but these ghostwriters cannot write either. They just apply the “adventure –tale – format” over the sailor’s narrative and come out with a story which is as stale as fast-food menu leftover: opening chapter: a critical moment to captivate the attention of the reader – don’t mention the outcome – chapter 2 some biographical stuff, chapter 3 everything goes wrong – our hero will not make it ! Chapter 4 The hero overcomes the problems and does make it ! Chapter 5 final moments, looking back, lessons learned, acknowledgments etc etc.

Clearly, the book is no more than part of the merchandising, one more way to collect the much needed money to pay back his debts. But adventurers, be they sailors or mountaineers or fisherman really can write. Bernard Moitessier did it with his Tamata, brilliantly one should add, David Lewis did it with his “Icebird” and Slocum’s account of the first single handed circumnavigation of the world has attained a cult status.

This said, I do not think we should cast the book overboard. RKJ might not be a writer, but I am sure he must be one hell of a storyteller and when his own voice makes it trough the written lines it is pure joy. In a world dominated more and more by the professional athlete – sailor, the old seadog’s comment is refreshing to say the least. Listen to him for example contemplating his performance in the first leg of the course while his race boat thunders down the waves under auto-pilot:

I was some 1000 miles behind the leading group.
I had stowed some excellent wine in the hold […] and since it was warm, around 25 degrees, that evening I poured myself a glass of Chateau Ugarte, recovered some pickled olives from a jar that unfortunately had cracked and stretched out in the cockpit.
This is a little tradition of mine. I like a bit of time to think about how things are going, reflect on the weather and consider my tactics in a relaxed manner.

Can’t you but admire a guy like that?

So why not go to his Yacht club with a tape recorder under the arm and ask him to tell the story himself? I am sure we would get a completely different kind of book, hilarious and tragic at the same time but at least filled with life and blood. Because the topics he want to shout about, scream about, cry and laugh about, all peep up between the lines of this stale book. The dead of his beloved wife for instance, his relation with that bloody French sailor Moitessier, who unconsciously stole part of his fame and glory after the Golden Globe, the computer nerd morons who ruined his race by miss-installing his navigational software and who did not take the time to explain him all the wizardry of these new toys. He would tell us about the world who seemed to change for the worse, where heroes are replaced by heavily sponsored athletes, but he would also tell us also about the fraternity of men at sea, who will risk their lives to save their competitors. And when it all becomes too much, he would bring us to laughing tears with one of his whiskey anecdotes:

The day I had to say goodbye to the last few drops of precious whiskey was a bad day.

It had taken four and half weeks to consume four bottles, which seems pretty abstemious. When working out my supplies, I had not allowed for medicinal usage, and when it came to cleaning and dressing the toe I decided my nursing efforts deserved to be rewarded by a tot. Then it seemed silly to leave a few scanty dregs in the bottom of the bottle, and it would have been a tragedy if the cork had come out and caused a spillage. Better to drink what was left and avoid a potential disaster.

«A man who reconciles you with our species », Pierre Clostermann would have said.