Robin Knox-Johnston: The first man to sail non-stop solo around the world

Updated 6:35 AM EDT, Fri May 11, 2018
PHOTO: Bill Rowntree/PPL Media
Now playing
03:37
​The first man to sail round the world solo​​​
PHOTO: Bill Rowntree/PPL Media
Now playing
03:37
​The first man to sail round the world solo​​​
The sun sets are stunning at sea because there is nothing to block the horizon. We were treated to this spectacle in the Atlantic.
The sun sets are stunning at sea because there is nothing to block the horizon. We were treated to this spectacle in the Atlantic.
PHOTO: Courtesy Kellie Pollock
Now playing
02:38
Sailing the world: A bumpy ride on the seas
GERMANY - OCTOBER 02:  WINDSURFEN: WC SYLT/2.10.97, Robby NAISH/USA  (Photo by Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)
GERMANY - OCTOBER 02: WINDSURFEN: WC SYLT/2.10.97, Robby NAISH/USA (Photo by Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Lutz Bongarts/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
Now playing
22:45
The life of windsurfing legend Robby Naish
Hawaiian surfer Billy Kemper surfs a big wave at Jaws, off the coast of the Maui Island in Hawai to win the Peahi Challenge 2016, on November 11, 2016. Kemper won the challenge for the second consecutive year. 
Also known as "Jaws," Pe
Hawaiian surfer Billy Kemper surfs a big wave at Jaws, off the coast of the Maui Island in Hawai to win the Peahi Challenge 2016, on November 11, 2016. Kemper won the challenge for the second consecutive year. Also known as "Jaws," Pe'ahi is on the northern coastline of Maui and can produce waves that are upwards of 60 feet (18 meters). / AFP / Brian BIELMANN / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo credit should read BRIAN BIELMANN/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: BRIAN BIELMANN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
02:26
Surfing the wave called 'Jaws'
Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and trimmer Blair Tuke and shore crew manager Sean Regan hoist the America
Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and trimmer Blair Tuke and shore crew manager Sean Regan hoist the America's Cup in the Great Sound during the 35th America's Cup June 26, 2017 in Hamilton, Bermuda. / AFP PHOTO / Chris CAMERON (Photo credit should read CHRIS CAMERON/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: CHRIS CAMERON/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
22:31
America's Cup: How Team NZ won in Bermuda
AT SEA - JANUARY 7: In this handout image provided by the Volvo Ocean Race, onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. A silhouetted Team Alvimedica behind an Indian Ocean Sunset as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing rolls underneath them into third place during Leg 3 Abu Dhabi, UAE and Sanya, China. The Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is the 12th running of this ocean marathon. Starting from Alicante in Spain on October 11, 2014, the route, spanning some 39,379 nautical miles, visits 11 ports in 11 countries (Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, United States, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Sweden) over nine months. The Volvo Ocean Race is the world
AT SEA - JANUARY 7: In this handout image provided by the Volvo Ocean Race, onboard Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing. A silhouetted Team Alvimedica behind an Indian Ocean Sunset as Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing rolls underneath them into third place during Leg 3 Abu Dhabi, UAE and Sanya, China. The Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is the 12th running of this ocean marathon. Starting from Alicante in Spain on October 11, 2014, the route, spanning some 39,379 nautical miles, visits 11 ports in 11 countries (Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, United States, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Sweden) over nine months. The Volvo Ocean Race is the world's premier ocean race for professional racing crews. (Photo by Matt Knighton/Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images)
PHOTO: MKnighton/Getty Images
Now playing
22:32
The Volvo Ocean Race in Australia
Prologue start on-board AkzoNobel. Photo by James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race. 08 October, 2017
Prologue start on-board AkzoNobel. Photo by James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race. 08 October, 2017
PHOTO: James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race
Now playing
03:00
Drone photography at the Volvo Ocean Race
british virgin islands sailing industry damage hurricanes mainsail spc_00020318.jpg
british virgin islands sailing industry damage hurricanes mainsail spc_00020318.jpg
Now playing
22:19
How sailing is healing the BVI
Yachts sail at the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Sydney Harbour on December 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN / --IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE--        (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Yachts sail at the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Sydney Harbour on December 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAEED KHAN / --IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE-- (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: SAEED KHAN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
22:29
The 2017 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race
les voiles de saint tropez sailing nostalgia yacht design mainsail spc_00000000.jpg
les voiles de saint tropez sailing nostalgia yacht design mainsail spc_00000000.jpg
Now playing
03:55
Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez: Sailing nostalgia
classic raceboats yacht design technology sailing mainsail spc_00050326.jpg
classic raceboats yacht design technology sailing mainsail spc_00050326.jpg
Now playing
22:31
Classic raceboats and yachts from history
yacht club costa smeralda 50th anniversary sardinia sailing mainsail spc_00094221.jpg
yacht club costa smeralda 50th anniversary sardinia sailing mainsail spc_00094221.jpg
Now playing
22:30
50 years of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda
Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and trimmer Blair Tuke and shore crew manager Sean Regan hoist the America
Emirates Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling and trimmer Blair Tuke and shore crew manager Sean Regan hoist the America's Cup in the Great Sound during the 35th America's Cup June 26, 2017 in Hamilton, Bermuda. / AFP PHOTO / Chris CAMERON (Photo credit should read CHRIS CAMERON/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: CHRIS CAMERON/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
03:04
Blair Tuke's pursuit of history
PHOTO: Ben Thouard Photography
Now playing
01:30
He loves giant waves, hates being underwater
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team skippered by English Ian Walker sails to Gothenburg at the end of Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Lorient to Gothenburg at the end of Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Lorient (France) to Gothenburg (Sweden) to win the overall race in west Sweden on June 22, 2015. The Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is the 12th running of this ocean marathon. Starting from Alicante in Spain on October 4, 2014, the route, spanning some 39,379 nautical miles, visits 11 ports in eleven countries (Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, United States, Portugal, France, The Netherlands and Sweden) over nine months. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND        (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team skippered by English Ian Walker sails to Gothenburg at the end of Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Lorient to Gothenburg at the end of Leg 9 of the Volvo Ocean Race from Lorient (France) to Gothenburg (Sweden) to win the overall race in west Sweden on June 22, 2015. The Volvo Ocean Race 2014-15 is the 12th running of this ocean marathon. Starting from Alicante in Spain on October 4, 2014, the route, spanning some 39,379 nautical miles, visits 11 ports in eleven countries (Spain, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, China, New Zealand, Brazil, United States, Portugal, France, The Netherlands and Sweden) over nine months. AFP PHOTO / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Getty Images
Now playing
22:31
Volvo Ocean Race: The Everest of the Seas
TOPSHOT - Class Ultim trimaran "Team Actual" of French skipper Yves Le Blevec takes the start of "The Bridge 2017" transatlantic race on June 25, 2017 from the French western port city of Saint-Nazaire.
"The Bridge 2017" is a 3,152-mile (5,837 km) race between the British cruise liner RMS Queen Mary 2 and four trimarans, from Saint-Nazaire to New-York City. / AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD        (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Class Ultim trimaran "Team Actual" of French skipper Yves Le Blevec takes the start of "The Bridge 2017" transatlantic race on June 25, 2017 from the French western port city of Saint-Nazaire. "The Bridge 2017" is a 3,152-mile (5,837 km) race between the British cruise liner RMS Queen Mary 2 and four trimarans, from Saint-Nazaire to New-York City. / AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
22:30
The Bridge: Catamarans vs Queen Mary 2
French skipper Thomas Coville sails Sodebo Ultim multihull on July 4, 2017 in New York city after they placed third in The Bridge 2017, a transatlantic race between the cruise liner RMS Queen Mary 2 and the world
French skipper Thomas Coville sails Sodebo Ultim multihull on July 4, 2017 in New York city after they placed third in The Bridge 2017, a transatlantic race between the cruise liner RMS Queen Mary 2 and the world's fastest Ultim trimarans from Saint-Nazaire to New-York City. AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE / AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:13
The sailor who conquered the world
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 06:  Members of Emirates Team New Zealand lift the America
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 06: Members of Emirates Team New Zealand lift the America's Cup trophy in celebration during the Team New Zealand Americas Cup Welcome Home Parade on July 6, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images
Now playing
22:31
Kiwi glory: Relive the 35th America's Cup
TOPSHOT - Emirates Team New Zealand skippered by Peter Burling is seen capsizing at the race start in race 5 of the 35th America
TOPSHOT - Emirates Team New Zealand skippered by Peter Burling is seen capsizing at the race start in race 5 of the 35th America's Cup Challenger Playoffs Semi-finals on June 6, 2017 in Bermuda's Great Sound. / AFP PHOTO / Mark Lloyd (Photo credit should read MARK LLOYD/AFP/Getty Images)
PHOTO: MARK LLOYD/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Now playing
01:06
America's Cup: Dramatic capsizing Team NZ
PHOTO: Paul Larsen
Now playing
02:16
The world's fastest ever sailor
Now playing
22:29
Mainsail: Antigua Sailing Week regatta
mainsail carlo borlenghi spc c_00021627.jpg
mainsail carlo borlenghi spc c_00021627.jpg
Now playing
06:01
Flying in the sky to photograph the sea
women in sailing challenges shirley robertson mainsail april 2017 spc_00012522.jpg
women in sailing challenges shirley robertson mainsail april 2017 spc_00012522.jpg
Now playing
22:32
Mainsail: Women in sailing
conrad colman vendee globe face to face with mother nature sailing mainsail spc_00014629.jpg
conrad colman vendee globe face to face with mother nature sailing mainsail spc_00014629.jpg
PHOTO: conrad colman
Now playing
22:30
Mainsail: The 2016-2017 Vendée Globe

Story highlights

Knox-Johnston made sailing history in 1968

Solo non-stop around the world race returns this year

(CNN) —  

Of the nine entrants in the first ever solo non-stop around-the-world sailing race, one finished, six retired, one was rescued and one disappeared – believed to have committed suicide.

British merchant seaman Robin Knox-Johnston, the only man to finish the grueling, mad-cap Golden Globe race in April 1969, wrote his name into sailing’s history book as the first person to sail non-stop solo around the world.

He completed the 30,000-mile journey around the world’s Great Capes in 312 days, enduring savage seas, towering waves and – perhaps worst of all – complete loneliness.

His prize when he arrived back on England’s south coast? £5,000 ($6,700).

“Here was an opportunity to do something that had never been done before, that’s pretty irresistible,” Knox-Johnston told CNN Mainsail 50 years after he first set off on his 32-foot, teak-built boat Suhaili.

“It came at the right time in my life – I was 29, I was fit, strong, a professional seaman, a navigator and I’ve got the boat.

“Why wouldn’t you go for it?”

The 19 sailors lining up for a 50th anniversary version of the race starting in July would no doubt agree.

As one of the last great challenges on earth back in 1968, it was a feat many doubted would be possible, including Knox-Johnston himself. The world of sailing was different in those days – there were no satellites, vessels were less advanced, and food was harder to preserve.

“You need to be stubborn and very, very set on it. I was totally set on it,” he says.

“Did I know if it was possible? No. I just felt I was as qualified as anyone.”

READ: Sailing round the world – with three children

The race, sponsored by the The Sunday Times, was tinged with sadness and tragedy.

Frenchman Bernard Moitessier, fearing fame and attention back home, abandoned the race and sailed one-and-a-half times around the world, eventually settling in Tahiti.

English amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, knowing his boat was unsuitable for the circumnavigation, made up false position reports while drifting around the Atlantic.

His boat, the 40-foot trimaran Teignmouth Electron, was eventually found abandoned with no sign of Crowhurst. Evidence in his logs appeared to show his mental disintegration.

READ: Donald Crowhurst – sailor’s mystery disappearance inspires two movies

Knowing he had to keep his mind active, Knox-Johnston took to learning poetry. He knew one day, back home in England, he’d have to return to a day job and couldn’t risk losing sharpness or sanity.

’Little bit scared’

“I missed the human contact, not being able to discuss things with someone. I just had to sit there and have the conversation with myself – it’s actually quite hard to argue with yourself,” he adds.

Fear is another understandable emotion when your days are spent alone at sea with only its sky-high waves for company.

“Anyone who says they’re not scared at sea is a liar, you’re bound to be scared at times,” says Knox-Johnston.

“When you’re looking at stern and you see a 70, 80-foot wave breaking at the top, stretching from horizon to horizon, don’t tell me you’re not a little bit scared.

“You see it coming towards the boat and you realize you’re going to be swept off – I have to do something or I won’t be here.”

An even tougher test?

To commemorate 50 years since Knox-Johnston embarked on his record-breaking voyage, the Golden Globe Race is having a renaissance.

On July 1 this year, 19 sailors will depart from Les Sables d’Olonne in France in boats at least 30 years old and with no modern navigation or communications equipment, similar to the original race.

That means navigating by paper charts and the stars, with no GPS and no water maker onboard.

“I think this race is going to be harder in some respects, but easier in others,” says Knox-Johnston.

“It’s going to be easier because they know it’s possible, they can use freeze-dried food and things we’ve developed in the last 50 years.

“I think it’s going to be harder for them because they’re not so used to doing without as I was. They’re going to feel more deprived because we have a higher standard of living now. I think that’s going to tough for some of them.”

On the start line for this year’s race will be Kevin Farebrother – an Australian firefighter who’s conquered Everest three times.

“Everyday life is not enough sometimes and I like to see what I’m capable of doing,” says Farebrother.

“This is a huge challenge and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the whole endurance thing, it’s the whole package about whether I can deal with the loneliness, whether I can deal with what’s ahead in the Southern Ocean.

“The most nerve-wracking part will be leaving with all the boats, all the people … then I’ll be good once we get going.”

Today’s solo non-stop around the world record – 42 days set by Frenchman Francois Gabart in a 100-foot trimaran in 2017 – is 270 days faster than when Knox-Johnston, now aged 79, first took to the waves.

It’s evidence of how far sailing and its technology has come over the past half a century, and of just how difficult Knox-Johnston’s feat was all those years ago.

Visit cnn.com/sailing for more news and videos

“There were just two things left for man to do then,” sailing journalist Barry Pickthall tells CNN Mainsail. “One was to sail single-handedly around the world non stop, the other was to land on the moon.”

In 1969, Knox-Johnson was the first to tick off one of those.