Feature

Around the World in 38 Years:
Sailing Legend has Strong Link to 1969 and NASA
05.18.07
Three months before the first NASA astronauts walked on the moon, Robin Knox-Johnston sailed his 32 ft sailboat into Falmouth Harbor on the lower west coast of the United Kingdom.

At the start of his journey almost a year earlier, Knox-Johnston's radio equipment failed after two-and-a-half months. He navigated his boat with a sextant in a pre- Global Positioning System world. The weather forecast came from an on-board mercury barometer.

Despite the physical, mental and technological challenges, Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race on April 22, 1969 and became the first man to sail non-stop around the world -- alone -- 313 days, 30,123 miles.

Sir Robin. Image Right: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston views the many NASA artifacts on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center (VASC). Credit: Sean Smith.

Same month, 38 years later, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston walked into the Virginia Air and Space Center (VASC), the official visitors center for NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He looked around at the various planes and displays, and said warmly, "This is a sight."

Standing by the Apollo 12 capsule Yankee Clipper, the second successful lunar-landing mission, Knox-Johnston reflected on 1969, the historic year of "firsts" for himself and NASA.

"I was exploring in one direction -- not really doing much for mankind -- whereas, I think the (NASA) moon project did a great deal for mankind," said Knox-Johnston. "People always made a comparison because I had got round the world just before they landed on the moon. I was very aware of what they (the astronauts) were doing, and I think like almost every human on the planet felt that it was the most fantastic achievement that we got to our nearest neighbor in space. I took great pride and great interest in it, and I was very excited about it at the time."

Almost four decades after his first solo circumnavigation, the grandfather of five is at it again competing against younger skippers -- all at the helm of high-tech sailing machines. The 68-year-old knight of the British Empire had recently finished the second leg of the Velux Five Oceans round-the-world yacht race in nearby Norfolk.

With a week before the start of the third and final leg to Bilbao, Spain, Sir Robin was taking in the local sights of southeastern Virginia including this stop at the VASC. An environmentalist, as well as competitive sailor, Knox-Johnston is interested in NASA, climate research, and the health of the planet. "Sailors are keen on the environment and want to see it protected," said Sir Robin. "Seventy-five percent of our planet is the ocean. That is what gives us our moderate climate and enables we humans to survive. We better think about looking after it a bit. The more we know about it, the less likely we are to damage it. Any climate research being done -- frankly -- gets my vote."

Sir Robin. Image Left: Solo sailing legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston sailed onboard his Open 60 Saga Insurance in the VELUX 5 OCEANS round the world yacht race. Credit: www.robinknox-johnston.co.uk

The first man to sail solo non-stop around the globe was making the trip again at a time when NASA prepares to return to the Moon, go on to Mars and beyond. "I think there is still so much more to learn isn't there," Knox-Johnston added. "What impresses me about this whole NASA program -- right from the beginning -- is the spinning off of technology that has been absolutely enormous in ways that no one anticipated.

"We see it in sailing and use aeronautical technology more and more in our fast boats including materials and satellite technology. The benefit that is coming from the NASA program for sailors is enormous and I suspect that would continue. I hope you get the new capsule up sooner rather than later."

The Velux 5 Oceans literature states that a single-handed circumnavigation is frequently described as the maritime equivalent of scaling Mount Everest. More than 15,000 people are estimated to have scaled Everest; 163 people have sailed solo around the world or approximately one third the number of people who have been into space.

This is the last solo circumnavigation for the aging mariner, but Sir Robin says he is grateful for another opportunity. As there are second chances for aging astronauts, as well.

During his in-orbit press conference aboard the space shuttle in 1998, another explorer said, "You know, old folks can have dreams too, as well as young folks, and then work toward them, and to have a dream like this come true for me is just a terrific experience."

-- John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth and the oldest man to fly in space by serving as a payload specialist on STS-95 aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

In one of his final log entries for this race on board his racing boat, Saga Insurance, Sir Robin wrote:
"I don't think age has played any part in the event. The others are a bit more elastic than I but that's about it. My age group are, on the whole, pretty well off compared with a couple of generations before …On balance I have enjoyed the sailing and always enjoy that feeling of freedom you get at sea…Thanks for reading. RKJ"

Under clear skies and a few clouds on the Spanish coast, Sir Robin crossed the Velux 5 Oceans finish line in Balbao at 11:22 a.m. local time, Saturday, May 5. He stood with his arms raised on the aft deck of SAGA Insurance taking third place overall.

For more information about Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, please visit: http://www.velux5oceans.com/page/Home/0,,12345,00.html.

You may also visit: http://www.robinknox-johnston.co.uk.


The Researcher News
By: Chris Rink
Langley Research Center
Managing Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Adams