Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Long live Aunt Aileen’s fruitcake
There’s no doubting the incredible feat of sailing 32-foot wooden ketch non-stop around world and Robin Knox-Johnston’s 313-day solo circumnavigation of 1968/69 marks a pinnacle of endurance and resourcefulness. From an armchair world it is nigh impossible to imagine how appallingly lonely and frightening that sort of sailing must have been.
In his book ‘A World of my Own’ something of Knox-Johnston’s remarkable character comes through. It is a rare breed of person that has the will to keep the emotions at bay in extreme situations. RKJ had (and probably still has) an ability to establish order and dominance over situations through the single-minded completion of tasks. This particular pragmatism, often found amongst great yachtsmen, combined with his fierce patriotism and conviction that a Briton should be the first to complete a solo non-stop circumnavigation led to his success.
My favourite part of the book comes as he passes Cape Horn. After a gruelling 146 days in the Southern Ocean (nearly twice as long as it took Michel Desjoyeaux to complete an entire circumnavigation in the last Vendee Globe), after gales, knockdowns and continual repairs Suhaili reached the Horn on Jan 17th 1969.
In the log Knox-Johnston wrote, ‘YIPPEE!!!’ and in his diary, “We’ve passed it!!! Spliced the mainbrace and broke out Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake. I carefully removed the foil wrapping and the aroma hit me. The flavour and the taste are even better than the smell. I’ve cut a reasonable slice as I’ll make it last a bit if I can. It has withstood over seven months in its tin magnificently. To add to my pleasure there is a piece of The Times in the tin so I have something new to read as well.”
What a powerful and poignant evocation of home Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake is when contrasted with 219 days at sea in solitude. I imagine the battered tin, worn down to bare metal from constant movement inside the lockers. (One tin even wore so thin as to leak, emptying its contents of potent disinfectant into the bilges.) And inside the tin the smell of old newspaper, a page of The Times with the odd grease stain from where the suet had leaked through the foil.
On the most feared body of water in the world RKJ takes a double tot of whisky and settles down to read The Times while tucking into Aunt Aileen’s fruit cake. This should be the cake to celebrate all sailing achievements. Does anybody have the recipe?