Financial Times

The Next Act: Life Stories – The Sailor

Auriens, in association with the Financial Times, are profiling individuals who redefine later life. This week we profile 78 years old Sir Robin Knox-Johnston.

Still at the helm

The first man to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe is as committed to his craft as ever, and says experience has only made him better at it.

My age seems to matter far more to other people than it does to me. I may be 78 but it never occurs to me that I’m unusual in still sailing competitively. I just do things because I bloody well want to. If I fancy another solo race across the Atlantic next year in the Route du Rhum, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I’m perfectly aware that the younger, fitter chaps ought to beat me but that’s the fun of it. I was the oldest sailor by far when I last did the course from Saint Malo to Guadeloupe three years ago and I finished third.

Sailing is one of those things where experience counts. If you think you can just climb into a flashy catamaran and do well in a race then you’re in for a nasty surprise. You need to have put in the hours and people talk about “old sea dogs” for a reason. By the time I was 29, I’d been captain of a British merchant navy ship, was a fully qualified navigator and master mariner. I’d built my own boat , Suhaili, and sailed her back to the UK from India.  I went on to complete the first solo circumnavigation of the world with her back in 1968, so we’ve been through a lot together.

Solo sailing is as much a psychological discipline as it is a physical one and this mental resolve only gets stronger with age. You’re not as agile or elastic as you once were but your internal reserves are still strong. People sometimes compare the loneliness of solo navigation to other professions where you have to toil at your craft, such as being an author. But there’s a big difference: an author can get up and go down the pub.

“I just do things because I bloody well want to”

There’s great camaraderie in sailing, though. That’s especially true with the Clipper Round the World Race, a competition I co-founded that allows non-sailors to learn how to compete in a circumnavigation race. Many people look forward to retirement but I’m still executive chairman of the company and I love it. I have a simple outlook: as long as you have something to live for then life is worth living.

Clipper only really blossomed after I reached official retirement age, which is telling. I may not be as involved in the minutiae of the day-to-day but when things go awry, I can bring my experience to bear. That’s what having wise old heads around is good for: there’s very little we haven’t encountered. The statutory retirement age is a complete nonsense, actually. When I was 64 and 364 days, everyone was desperate for my advice. But two days later it was more: “Are you sure you can climb those stairs without having a heart attack and has your brain turned to porridge?”

We tend to dismiss experience far too quickly and sometimes that means we don’t keep the senior people on board long enough to make use of them. We often have to relearn history’s lessons the hard way. What lessons would I pass on? Don’t paint your life in pastel shades; paint it in bright colours. You’ve only got this one life so make the most of it.