Robin Knox Johnston’s stolen compass returned after 50 years

A compass used by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston has been handed into a museum after it was stolen from his 32ft Bermudan ketch, Suhaili in 1969

A stolen compass, which belongs to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and was used to navigate his 32ft Bermudan ketch, Suhaili around the world solo and nonstop, has been handed into a museum, 53 years after it was taken.

The Merchant Navy lifeboat compass was pinched from Suhaili in 1969 while she was at a fete in Rochdale, just months after Sir Robin finished the 1968-69 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race and made history as the first person to sail solo non-stop around the world.

The stolen compass which belongs to Sir robin Knox-Johnston

The stolen compass is in relatively good condition and will remain on display at the museum on the short term. Credit: Holyhead Maritime Museum

Recalling the incident for Yachting Monthly, Sir Robin said: ‘I came down one morning and found the compass missing. I reported it to the police, but there were no clues for them to follow up, so I just eventually thought, well some day someone has stolen that and will put it on their boat and will wonder why this white haired, white bearded bloke comes over and kicks their bloody head in!’

Despite a police investigation, the instrument was never found.

Last week, the stolen compass was handed into the Holyhead Maritime Museum in North Wales, much to the surprise of museum staff, who contacted Sir Robin with the good news.

The museum manager, Eric Anthony said the archivist sent photos of the compass, which is small enough to be carried, to Sir Robin, who had identified it and confirmed that Suhaili had indeed been in Rochdale.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in Falmouth after finishing the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race - the first person to sail solo around the world nonstop. Credit: Getty

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in Falmouth after finishing the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race – the first person to sail solo around the world nonstop. Credit: Getty

The woman, who delivered the artefact to the museum, told staff that her husband’s late friend had taken the compass from Suhaili.

‘I don’t know how it came into their possession,’ added Anthony.

Stolen compass was missed

Speaking to Yachting Monthly, Sir Robin said he was ‘very grateful’ that his stolen compass had now been recovered.

‘I built the compass when I was building Suhaili in Bombay. It is a standard Merchant Navy Lifeboat compass I bought at the shipbreakers in Darukhaner in Bombay. I made the wooden part from teak. It got Suhaili back from India via Cape Horn and around the world a year later so it survived a great amount of abuse and I was very fond of it. It has a bit of slight damage which can be dealt with like the glass of the window is missing and the brass window cover, but that can be put right,’ he added.

Sir Robin said the stolen compass will not be reunited with his beloved Suhaili. He is fearful it will be pinched again. Credit: Getty

Sir Robin said the stolen compass will not be reunited with his beloved Suhaili. He is fearful it will be pinched again. Credit: Getty

He said during the 1968-69 Golden Globe Race, there were no satellite so ‘we were totally dependent on the compass for the direction we were going, otherwise we were just dependent on the sextant and chronometer. There wasn’t anything else, so that compass was absolutely vital.’

Sir Robin said he was happy for the stolen compass to remain on display at the Holyhead Maritime Museum in the short term.

‘I thought it would be nice for the museum if they could get a bit of publicity and maybe a bit more money. They took the trouble to contact me to tell me that it had been returned so I think they need something in return,’ he explained.

Sir Robin said he won’t be reinstalling the compass on Suhaili as after ‘this publicity there is bound to be someone who would steal it again, but it’s lovely that it has been found.’

Who is Sir Robin Knox-Johnston?

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is a British sailor who in 1969 became the first person to sail solo and nonstop around the world, after being the only finisher in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race.

The then 29-year-old Merchant Navy officer was one of nine entrants who took part in the race.

His 32ft Bermudian ketch Suhaili was built of teak at Bombay Docks, India, having been designed by William Atkins. Her design is based on Colin Archer’s Norwegian lifeboat designs.

Sir Robin sailed the yacht back to England with his brother, Chris and friend Heinz.

Along with New Zealand sailor Sir Peter Blake, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the 1994 Jules Verne trophy. Credit: Getty

Along with New Zealand sailor Sir Peter Blake, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the 1994 Jules Verne trophy. Credit: Getty

Reading about the success of French sailor, Eric Tabarly in the 1964 Observer Single-handed Transatlantic (OSTAR) and then the announcement that Tabarly was building a a trimaran, Pen Duick IV (which later became Manureva skippered by Alain Colas, who won the 1972 OSTAR aboard her)  inspired Sir Robin to consider sailing singlehanded solo and non stop around the world.

When the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race came up, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

With a tiny budget, Sir Robin prepared his boat, spending his last £16 on a coil of 2 inch polypropylene rope which he used as a trailing warp to control Suhaili through the monstrous waves of the Southern Ocean.

He left Falmouth on 14 June 1968 and returned to 312 days later on 22 April 1969, a national hero, inspiring thousands to sail offshore.

Since then he has raced in numerous events around the world, broken records and shaped the direction of sailing.

Sir Robin set up the Clipper Race so amateur sailors could experience a round the world yacht race. Credit: Getty

Sir Robin set up the Clipper Race so amateur sailors could experience a round the world yacht race. Credit: Getty

Between 1970-2002, he competed in numerous Two Handed Round Britain races, organised by the Royal Western Yacht Club.

In 1993-94, Sir Robin partnered with New Zealand sailing ace, Sir Peter Blake aboard Enza New Zealand for the Jules Verne, successfully circumnavigating the world in 74 days 22 hours 18 minutes to claim the Jules Verne Trophy.

At the age of 68, he circumnavigated the world again in the 2006 Velux 5 Oceans race aboard his Open 60, Grey Power. He also went on to race her from St Malo, France to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in the 10th Route de Rhum in 2014.

Sir Robin conceived the Clipper Round the World Race in 1995, aimed at giving amateur sailors the chance to race around the globe, led by professional skippers

The first race left Plymouth in October 1996. It is now in its 12th edition.

What is the Golden Globe Race?

The Sunday Time Golden Globe Race in 1968-69 was the first solo round the world yacht race.

Nine skippers crossed the start line but only one, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston finished the race. The others either sank their boats, retired or, in the tragic case of Donald Crowhurst, died.

In 2018, 50 years after the first race, the Golden Globe Race was run again, with boats leaving from Les Sables d’Olonne in France to race around the world using only the equipment available to Sir Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968.

This meant no GPS, weather routing, satellite phones and autopilots, and only pre-1988 production long-keeled boats between 32ft and 36ft

Sir Robin and Jean-Luc Van Den Heede after the French skipper won the 2018 Golden Globe Race, becoming the oldest person to finish a round the world yacht race. The previous holder of the title was Sir Robin. Credit: Getty

Sir Robin and Jean-Luc Van Den Heede after the French skipper won the 2018 Golden Globe Race, becoming the oldest person to finish a round the world yacht race. The previous holder of the title was Sir Robin. Credit: Getty

18 skippers crossed the start line and five made it to the finish.  Three of the entrants needed rescuing from the Southern Ocean and five boats were dismasted. The winner was Jean-Luc Van Den Heede who crossed the line in 211 days, 102 days faster than Sir Robin.

On 4 September 2022, a third edition of the Golden Globe Race will start, again from Les Sables d’Olonne.

23 skippers are expected to cross the start line, including 2018 race entrants, Mark Sinclair, Tapio Lehtinen, Abhilash Tomy and Ertan Beskardes.

British offshore adventurer David Cowper has also signed up for the race.

At 80, he is the oldest skipper in the event and was the first person to sail solo around the world in both directions and to circumnavigate, solo, via the Northwest Passage.

What is a binnacle compass?

The binnacle compass on Suhaili was standard equipment on small vessels of the time, and was much like larger binnacle compass on ships, writes Theo Stocker.

Sir Robin purchased the compass and brass parts from the shipbreakers in Darukhaner in Bombay, now Mumbai.

The main part of the compass is the compass card, beneath the glass.

Unlike modern compasses, it is not housed in oil to damp the card’s motion, but otherwise the technology has changed little in hundreds of years.

Magnets on the underside of the card align it to the earth’s magnetic field, giving a consistent measure of direction when out of sight of land.

The compass was mounted at deck level, just aft of the mizzen mast, so Sir Robin could see it easily while hand steering Suhaili. Credit: Getty

The compass was mounted at deck level, just aft of the mizzen mast, so Sir Robin could see it easily while hand steering Suhaili. Credit: Getty

The brass housing would have had a hatch, now missing, to cover the compass partly from the elements, but also to protect the night vision of the helmsman at night when the lamp was lit.

The housing could be rotated towards the helmsman to make it easier for him to see the card and heading needle.

On the right hand side of the compass is a brass box in which an oil lamp could be lit to illuminate the compass card during the hours of darkness.

The wooden box on which the compass sits was made by Sir Robin out of teak, and was used to mount the compass on the boat.

It also houses the compass the correctors – small magnets which could be arranged to counteract naturally occurring compass variation, and deviation caused by metal on the vessel near the compass – in order to make the compass more accurate.

The compass was originally mounted at deck level in the cockpit of Suhaili, just aft of the mizzen mast and just forward of the helm so as to be easily visible to Sir Robin while hand steering the yacht.


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Source: Yachting Monthly

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