Episode 29: Complete The World’s Toughest Endurance Yacht Race…With Rugged Tech

Embark on an adventure with Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Founder and Chairman of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, as he discusses all the tech that's keeping the crew safe in a race around the world.
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Listen In To Learn

  • How advances in technology have made sailing safer
  • The role that technology plays for all of today’s sailors
  • The extreme environments of a round the world race
  • How tech has allowed spectators to keep up to date with the race whilst remaining on solid ground

Tech That’s Tough Enough To Withstand Mother Nature’s Wildest Conditions

In a 40,000 nautical mile race around the world in 70-foot racing yachts where nearly half the crew have little to no sailing experience, the Clipper Round The World Race is not for the faint hearted. Experiencing extreme heat, condensation, corrosive salt water and numbing cold, it’s only the toughest of tech that will survive and see each team through to the finish.

In this fascinating episode, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Founder and Chairman of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, paints a vivid picture of life at sea. He takes us below deck to explain the training and preparation required to sail a yacht around the world, the tech that keeps spectators up to date with race conditions and the scariest experience of his life on the water.

Featured Luminary: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Founder and Chairman of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail solo and non-stop around the world in 1968-69. On 14 June 1968, Sir Robin left Falmouth in his 32-foot ketch Suhaili to take part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. 312 days later on 22 April 1969, he returned, changing the face of sailing forever. In recognition of his achievement, he was awarded the Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1995.

Sir Robin was also the second winner of the Jules Verne Trophy with Sir Peter Blake and in 2007, he became, at 67, the oldest yachtsman to complete a round the world solo voyage in the Velux 5 Oceans Race. Unfortunately, Robin’s record of being the oldest solo circumnavigator has just been broken! A record that proudly stood for 12 years.

“My vision for technology is for it to continue the vast development I’ve experienced over the past half century, which enables speed records to fall, and empowers professionals and amateurs alike to better navigate our oceans whilst feeling ever safer and supported far from land.”

— Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Founder and Chairman of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race

Luminaries Hosts

  • Mark Schaefer Author, Consultant, College Educator. Mark is a leading authority on marketing strategy, consultant, blogger, podcaster, and the author of six best-selling books, including "KNOWN." He has two advanced degrees and studied under Peter Drucker in graduate school. Some of his clients include Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and the US Air Force
  • Douglas Karr Technologist, Author, Speaker. Pre-Internet, Douglas started his career as a Naval electrician before going to work for the newspaper industry. His ability to translate business needs into technology during the advent of the Internet paved the way for his digital career. Douglas owns an Indianapolis agency, runs a MarTech publication, is a book author, and speaks internationally on digital marketing, technology, and media.

NARRATOR: Luminaries. Talking to the brightest minds in tech.

MAN: And my hope is that we come together to share more than technology and expertise and products, but that we share a vision of a future that is better than today, a vision of technology as the driver of human progress.


NARRATOR: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.


MARK SCHAEFER: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Luminaries, where we speak to the brightest minds in tech. This is Mark Schaefer, with my co-host Douglas Karr. And Doug, what an amazing guest we have today.

DOUGLAS KARR: It’s going to be incredible, Mark.

MARK SCHAEFER: It’s amazing. Doug and I have been doing this show for about two years now. And as I looked over the biography of our guest, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, I don’t know how to introduce him. He’s so accomplished, and he’s done so many amazing things. I think the thing, of course, that really stands out is that Sir Robin was the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world. We’re going to talk to him about his adventures, how he incorporates technology into those adventures. So Sir Robin, welcome to our show.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, thank you for having me with you.

MARK SCHAEFER: And what I’d like to do is just sort of let you talk about your journey, how you got to where you are today. And of course, we want to spend some time talking about Clipper Ventures and this Clipper Race ocean adventure, but tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today, and fill our listeners in on your highlights, if they’re not familiar with you.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: OK, Mark. Well, basically, I went to a private school in Britain here, and by the age of 17 decided I wanted to go to sea. So I signed up for an apprenticeship in the merchant marine. And for the next three and a half years, I was only my trade. I then started taking the various exams we have, like second mates, mates, and ultimately masters certificate. So I stayed in the merchant marine for about 12.5, 13 years.

But during the course of that time, I was based out east in India, running between Bombay and Basra, and while I was out there decided quite fun to build a boat and sail it home at the end of my contract.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: So I built my boat in India out of teak with a couple of fellow officers. And they pulled out, so I [INAUDIBLE] my brother and a friend to come and help me sail it home. And we left Bombay, sailed up to Arabia, and then down the African coast. Ran out of money in South Africa.

MARK SCHAEFER: As one does.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, it was rather necessary to buy some food. And so we all got jobs down there. I was captain of a ship for a while, and then stevedoring for a while, as well. And then carried on the voyage, sailed home. And I went back to sea on one of our passenger ships to Kenya.

And while I was doing that, I saw Francis Chichester come back from sailing around the world solo, but with one stop in Australia. And that sort of said to me, hey, there’s one thing left to do. Could I do it? And I came to the conclusion that I’d never live with myself if I didn’t try. So I wrote to 52 companies saying I’ve got this great idea, how about some sponsorship. And they all wrote back saying no. So I decided to go anyway. So I took the boat I got. I didn’t build the boat I wanted, I just took the boat I had, which is probably why I’m alive today.

MARK SCHAEFER: And how old were you then when you did this?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: I was 29 years old then, yeah.

MARK SCHAEFER: So tell us a little bit about the Clipper Race, because this is really, I think, the heart of what you’re doing today, and what we’ll be talking about on the show. It’s really quite an extraordinary event.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, the Clipper Race, it’s an idea I got, I was up in Greenland mountaineering with a friend of mine, and he told me how much it cost him to climb Mount Everest. And it seemed an awful lot of money. And I thought, well, now, what’s the sailing equivalent? And I came to the conclusion it was a circumnavigation.

And I thought, well, heck, there must be a load of people out there who’d love to do that, but don’t have enough confidence or not enough money to buy a boat. Supposing I supplied a boat and training and, you know, all the backups needed and offered it, how much would that cost? I worked it out on the back of an envelope, and it came to about half what it cost to climb Mount Everest. So I met up with William Ward, and we put an advert in the papers saying we were planning on doing this, and got 8,000 answers.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Once you’ve launched an idea like that, if you don’t do it, someone else will. So we said, right, we’d better go ahead with this. So in 11 months, we built eight boats. We recruited people, skippers, trained up the crews, and arranged a route around the world and started the first race. And really, the race is open to ordinary people who just want to go out there and do something extraordinary with their lives.

So we say to them, look, you don’t have to have any sailing experience, we’ll train you. In fact, I have to say, in many cases, the people who’ve never sailed before, easiest to train. They haven’t got any bad habits. But so we train them up, and we put on the boats, and with professional skippers. And then we run a race around the world, calling at various places along the way.

Now, we’ve been doing this for 23 years now, and we’ve taken some 5,000 people. Really given them an experience of a lifetime. And it’s fascinating to watch how they change. You know, the 18-year-old in a year, a year later, is 24 in maturity terms. But even the chief executive of a company, who’s 60, comes back just standing that little bit taller. They’ve taken on nature in the raw, and they’ve looked it in the eye and they’ve survived it. They’ve something to be proud of.

DOUGLAS KARR: So 40% of the crew are novices. That is absolutely incredible. What kind of training and preparation, and how long is the training? What prepares these people for this incredible adventure?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, Doug, the training’s four weeks. And that’s compulsory. I don’t care if you’ve sailed before. You do that training, because I want everyone to do things the same way. And that’s a safety issue. But it’s four separate weeks of training, starting with just introducing people to a boat, showing them what to look for in the boat, how it works. Get them out sailing as soon as you can, because that’s what they’ve come for, and you want to keep their enthusiasm up. But at the same time, we’re pumping information into them all the time.

Then we assess them. We examine them. And some of them will say, at the end of the first week, I’m never going to get the hang of this. We say, look, you’ve had to pick up an awful lot of information in just seven days. Don’t worry about it. When you come back for your second week, you’ll be surprised how much you learned this first week. And most of them do find that. By the time we’ve finished with them, well, they’re getting pretty good. I wouldn’t say they’re 100%, but they’re getting safe. And that’s the main thing.

MARK SCHAEFER: So how does the race actually work? Because it’s not just simply something like the starting gun goes off and you leave from Seattle, and 10 or 11 months later, you’re back in Seattle. It’s not that simple. So tell us about really the complexity and the logistics of this grand event.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Right. Well, there’s 11 boats, and each can take up to 24 people. We don’t usually sail with that number. We will do some practice race starts before the race so they get the hang of it, but then we’ll set up a start line, fire a gun, and off they go. Now, typically, we’ll start from, say, London, and the next stop will be in Brazil.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: And so they sail away across an ocean, they get to Brazil. We obviously are out there to meet them, check on how they’re getting on, run our own maintenance team, just to make sure the boats are kept in one place. I’ve got my own race director who looks after the racing for me.

And we’ll then get them in, make them do some of the repairs, because we’re trying to turn these people into all-round sailors. It’s not just sitting back there and steering a boat all the time. They’ve got to learn everything that goes into sailing a boat. That means the cooking, thinking about what stores you need on board, what food you need to buy, making sure you don’t end up with curried cornflakes all the way. Yeah, we do check what they buy, just to make sure.

But it’s really a question of making sure, when those boats restart– and we usually have a fairly tight schedule– they are totally ready and safe to set off on the next leg, which typically might be to Uruguay. And so they’ll go down the coast of Brazil and pop into Uruguay. And we’ll do the same thing there, gather them all up. Some of the crew will change. Some will leave, new people will join. And then we’ll start them off again as a group, and the next stop is Cape Town in South Africa.

And so it goes on around the world. [INAUDIBLE] Australia, then we go to China, then we go to United States, through Panama, around the other side the United States. Then we’ll come back towards Europe, normally dropping in Northern Ireland, but not necessarily. But quite often we do. And then we’ll finish back where we started in London. So that’s basically how it works. But it takes about 11 months. It’s quite a long, long process.

MARK SCHAEFER: And the way the people actually win, they accumulate points through different segments and different challenges along the way.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: That’s right, Mark. What happens basically, at the end of the first race, the first boat to cross the finish line gets 11 points. And so on down the line till the last boat gets one point. Now, some boats get it together more quickly than others. Some look after their equipment better, which serves them well later on in the race, because we only give them one set of sails, and say, you know, you’ve got to learn to look after these sails. So some will stretch their sails too much in the first leg, and regret it at the end.

And so things tend to sort of work out. But I would say by the end of the third leg, by the time we’ve got to Cape Town or Australia, we’re beginning to see a trend, who’s doing well. And there’s probably three or four boats that are really up there at the top, one of whom will probably eventually win.

MARK SCHAEFER: And you talked about just everybody joining. I mean, literally– I mean, do you have sort of physical requirements or some sort of test that people have to take? I mean, is this something that, you know, that I could do? I’m a 58-year-old marketing executive?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: You’re probably the middle of our pattern, Mark.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: You should be doing it. It’s basically, yes, there are physical tests, but they’re pretty straightforward. Can you climb into that top bunk when the boat’s heeled over? Can you pull that sail up on your own? Can you crawl underneath the main traveler? You know, these are all things that are just checking that you’re going to be safe on that boat.

I remember we had a 75-year-old lady. And everyone said, oh, she’s far too old. I said, have you met her? You wait till you see her. We had an American lady who was a pole dancer. And she was in her 70s. She was brilliant, one of the best crew we ever had. She was such a character. But it all varies between people. You know, the other older lady, I warned the skipper, I said, watch it. He said, why? I said, that one takes charge. She’s an alpha female. She may seem like a nice old lady, but she’s tough as hell inside. You’ll have no trouble with her.

DOUGLAS KARR: Sir John, of course this is a podcast about technology and digital transformation. Can you tell us what the onboard communication technology was like when you circumnavigated the globe in 1994?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, Douglas, in fact, the first time I went around the world was 1968, ’69. And that was non-stop. And of course, one very simple thing you’ll recognize immediately, no satellites. So there was no GPS. There was no satellite communication. We used single-side band radios, very low-powered. If you could get through, it was a miracle. But after two and a half months, mine broke down anyway. So for the next eight months, I had no communication.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: So yeah, that was quite funny, because when I got back after passing New Zealand, where I saw some fishermen, no one heard anything of me for four and a half months, until I ran into some ships off the Azores. I remember a lady coming up to me and saying, weren’t you worried when you were missing? I said, madam, I knew exactly where I was.


MARK SCHAEFER: Oh, but your family must have been frantic.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Yes, I think they covered up their worries pretty well. But I mean, the four and a half month thing was I met up with all these ships on Easter Saturday. And all I had to signal them with was a signal light. Well, being merchant marine, of course, I’m good at Morse. And I called up 18 ships, and eventually got a British one, which responded to me. And so now I’m sending a message saying, please report me to [INAUDIBLE]. And it came back and said, yep, what’s your ETA. I said about two weeks.

That would be about 20 past seven on Easter Saturday. Well, my receiver still worked, and I listened to the BBC the next day. Nothing on the news. So I thought, he didn’t report me. In fact, he did. My brother picked up the phone at home to be told I’d been sighted after four and a half months. But the funny story was delightful Welsh pastor in Falmouth, he was the Missions to Seamen padre, who I’d got to know before I left, he was giving a sermon on Easter Sunday. And he leapt up into the pulpit and said, have you heard the news? Robin’s been sighted. Most appropriate on the day of the Resurrection.


MARK SCHAEFER: So talk about the technology today, because it’s quite different. And you have this partnership with Dell, and this Rugged computer system that they’re providing to you. So talk a little bit about the importance of technology today. And you know, you’ve talked quite a bit about the training and the safety. And it seems like technology plays a big role in all of that for the sailors of today.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, you’re absolutely right. I mean, we have to move with the times. We have to accept what’s available to us. Our boats typically have three different satellite systems on them now. So I can be anywhere in the world and call them up wherever they are. It doesn’t matter. Middle of the Pacific, middle of the Atlantic, I can get straight through to them on my mobile phone.

This is a big safety thing, of course, but it’s a bit more than that, because we’ve got GPS, we’ve got satellite systems, we’ve got plotters. We’ve got our computers, which are fundamental to making these systems work. So if you don’t have a good computer, you can’t work them. And then, of course, the next thing is you had a boat that’s rolling around, being smashed about a bit, water everywhere. You’ve got to have a tough computer, because otherwise they just don’t last.

I mean, there were times in the past when we’ve probably renewed all the computers during the course of a race because they’ve just collapsed. And glad to say that’s no longer the case. But it was the case in the past.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s just amazing. And when you really think about it, it’s amazing how this technology has advanced. I mean, just to look at in just a few short years, in a couple of decades, how we’ve come to rely on this technology, and how it’s all integrated through satellites. And Doug– or Dell has this Rugged computer system that can probably– I guess it can withstand saltwater and everything you can throw at it.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, we’ve found these Dell computers really saved us an awful lot of time and effort. What’s more important, they’ve kept the systems operating. And that’s absolutely fundamental. But you know, there are bonuses, as well, that we get out of it. For instance, we can send film straight back from the boats. So friends and family can actually see film that was, say, recorded a few hours before, because we can put it up on a screen and they can see it. Now, this keeps the families fully in contact with the people on board.

But the other thing I’ve noticed– and you’re probably seeing it more than I am– is that, these days, technology is moving so fast that this system we have on the boats one race is probably out of date two years later when we start the second race. And we have to replace it with new kit.

DOUGLAS KARR: Sir Robin, the first leg of the race is from UK to South America, and starts in mid August. How can people, how can our listeners go online and keep track of the race and keep up with it?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Right, well we have our own website. And people can log in on that. We have a race going on at the same time, so people can play against our boats and see if they can beat them. We give them the same information we give the boats, the same weather information. So it enables people to play the game, if you like, as well, see if they can beat the guys actually out there. That’s all on the website. And that always operates every race. People can just log into it. Just log in to Clipper-Ventures.com, and you’ll pick it all up.

MARK SCHAEFER: I’ve looked at the site. And by the way, I want to compliment you, it’s a beautiful site. It’s a very engaging site, and you just sort of dive into the stories. And I wanted to learn about each of the skippers. And I encourage all of our listeners to check out the site. It’s really a beautiful, beautiful site. There’s lots of great stories there. I just sort of went down the rabbit hole and started to read about all the skippers and all the places that they stop.

And one of the things I was thinking about– this is sort of changing up the conversation a little bit– I was trying to compare this event to other global sporting events. And it seems to me that I couldn’t think of another event, Sir Robin, that really brings unity and peace to the world like this one. And I’ll tell you what I mean.

So let’s say the Olympics. Well, to be an Olympian, you’ve got– I mean, you’ve got to train for years and years and years. You’ve got to be a freakishly talented person. Even something like, let’s say, the Tour de France. You’ve got to train so hard. And it’s sort of contained to France. But this is an event that travels around the world, and many different types of people from many different walks of life can get together. And I think I’ve read you’ve had– how many countries are represented so far?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, the last race we had 44 different nationalities.

MARK SCHAEFER: Yeah. So you’ve got 44 nationalities. They’re on these boats for months at a time. They’re learning to get along, and learning about each other. And it’s not elitist. I mean, you’ve got to have some money, obviously, to do it, but it’s not like I couldn’t do it or, you know, someone from some other country couldn’t do it. So I’d just like to have you talk a little bit about this idea of peace and unity that is coming from this race.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, that’s a very interesting point, actually. I put it to you this way. When you’re in a small capsule, probably no bigger than the space station, and you’ve got 20 odd of you in there, you’ve got to get along. You don’t have a choice. And you know, normally, if someone’s got the character which doesn’t mix in, we’ve probably weeded them out before it starts. You just say, look, you’re not right for this, it’s not going to work, there’s your money back, go away. You know, you’re going to ruin it for everyone else.

So we try and do that. And we get a lot of feedback from our skippers, too, as they train people up. And we are watching this all the time. We get people to write feedback forms, and we also write our own forms on them. So we’re building up a picture of the 700 odd people we’re going to be sending off on the next race, for instance. We’re building up quite a lot of information on them. And we have to do that to make sure that they are going to get the most out of it.

Do you know, when we call in all these countries with our mixed crews, you know, you’ve got Australia, China, United States, what’s the message we’re saying? We’re saying, hey, anyone can do this if you want it. You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to have the enthusiasm to do it. But if you really want to do this, it is within the possibility for you to do.

MARK SCHAEFER: And I just think, I mean, it’s just a wonderful message that really comes across when you look through your site, that this is really a world event. It’s a global world event. And the thing that I just loved about it is the accessibility of the event. It’s not that you have to be a premier athlete or you have to be a PhD scientist or you have to be able to even withstand the high altitudes of Mount Everest or something like that. But it’s like you said, if you have the will and the desire, you bring people together in really an exceptional and unique way. And so I just congratulate you for that.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, do you know, Mark, one of the most interesting things we’ve done recently is we managed to get sponsorship for some kids from the townships in South Africa. Now, some of these kids have been in gangs, been shot, knifed, and all the rest of it. And we put these kids on the boat, one at a time on a boat on their own with all the other guys in the race. And they had to do the same training. So we made them safe, and just put them on the boat.

The results have been quite phenomenal. We’ve now got the first black South African to get his yacht master’s certificate, one of ours. A young lady who was on the race, again from a township, I think Soweto, currently at university doing a law degree. In every single case, they’ve realized that working alongside successful people being able to pay to do this, and they look at it and say, hey, I’m as good as him on this deck. Why can’t I be as good at something else?

One of them– I think he was a gang leader– came back and said, that’s it, I’m going off to learn to read and write. I realized I could do more with my life. You know, we’ve turned a drain on society into a contributor to society. And if I’m proud of anything we’ve done with Clipper, I think I’m probably most proud of that.

DOUGLAS KARR: That is just simply awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing that. You know, Sir Robin, you have spent 50 years of your life on the sea. And much of that you did alone. I am really curious about the scariest moment that you ever faced.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s the question every listener wants to hear, Sir Robin. What was the time that was just dauntingly scary?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, I’ll start off, I’ll preempt that by saying, look, the person who says they’re never terrified at sea is either a bloody liar or inhuman, because there are times– when you see one of those big waves in the north Pacific or the southern ocean coming towards you– and we’re talking about waves that could be almost 30 meters high– and when they’re breaking at the top like you see waves coming in on the beach, they’re very, very dangerous. And they can smash your boat, roll it, dismast it, sink it. So anyone who says they’re not a little concerned when they see that wave coming towards them is just not being honest.

I had a couple of occasions. Before I really learned to handle my boat properly in the southern ocean, I thought she was going to get smashed by the waves hitting her. And then I came on an idea, and tried it and it worked. And from then on, my boat was comfortable. But another occasion, I was on deck. It was blowing very hard.

I’d just been trimming some sails down even more. And I got a huge length of rope out the back to steady the boat. And I looked in the direction from which the waves were coming, and realized this one was going to break over the boat, and I was on deck. And that means, when that hits, I’m going. I mean, there’s no way a human can hold on against that force.

So I went straight up the rigging. I went up the mast. I mean, it was too late to go down below where I was protected. I went straight up the mast to get out of the way of it. And the wave broke over the boat, and for– it seemed like an hour, but it was probably only about 10 seconds.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: It was just me and two masts in sight, and nothing else in sight for about 1,500 miles in any direction. And then the boat bobbed up and everything was fine again. And I went down on deck and went down below, because that was the safe place to be.

MARK SCHAEFER: Wow. Wow. Well, look, we could just go on and on. I’ve just been captivated. And have you written a book?

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Yeah, I wrote a book about that first voyage, oh, many years ago, called A World Of My Own.


ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: That was published in the States, as well. That’s now in 12 languages. And I’ve recently written my autobiography, just called Running Free, which has only just come out over here, just sort of talking about the other things I’ve done in my life, like spying on Iraq and the other things I did in the navy.

MARK SCHAEFER: Well, we’ll save that for our next episode.


Well, thank you so much. And before we go, why don’t you remind everybody where they can find out more about you and your ocean adventures online.

ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON: Well, the best place to look actually would be at the Clipper Ventures website. Clipper Ventures, hyphen in between. Or just put it in. It’ll come up. You go on Clipper-Ventures.com, you’ll read up all about what we do as a company. And that will lead you on to me, as well. So a good place to start is Clipper Ventures.

MARK SCHAEFER: And we’ll include that, obviously, in the show notes, which will be available on the Luminaries site at Dell. So thank you so much for this wonderful adventure, this audio adventure today. It’s been really amazing and inspiring. And we encourage everyone to learn more about Sir Robin and his Clipper adventures at his site. So this is Mark Schaefer and Doug Karr signing off for now. And we’ll see you next time on Luminaries, where we speak to the brightest minds in tech.


NARRATOR: Luminaries, talking to the brightest minds in tech, a podcast series from Dell Technologies.