The Express Rules the Waves

steemers

BY MIKE STEEMSON

THIS Daily Express scoop from 1969 not only beat everyone hollow, but wiped the floor with the Daily Mirror who’d bought the story and thought they had it sewn up.  It was such a steal that the UK Press Gazette front-paged the story a week later.

Yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston was first home in the 1968-69 round-the-world yacht race, the Sunday Times Golden Globe, in his ketch, Suhaili.  He had been sponsored by the Daily Mirror who’d been having a hard time keeping in touch with him.  His  radio hadn’t worked throughout most of the 300-day-plus voyage.  

As the sailor crossed the South Atlantic, Beaverbrook Newspapers signed up his parents from under the Mirror noses.  The sailor’s father, David Knox-Johnston had taken a dislike to the Daily Mirror for some reason that I forget, now.  The Express chartered a big Scilly Isles ferry, the Queen of the Isles, to get out to meet the mariner on the home stretch.  The Knox-Johnston family and the Express team, DX West Country district man Mike Charleston, DX photographers Harry Dempster and Stan Meagher, SX Reporter Mike Dove, Evening Standard picture man Jim Jackson, and me, assembled in St Mary’s, Scilly Isles, and sailed in the Queen of the Isles in the second week of April 1969. 

The Spring weather was atrocious, furious Westerlies that brought Knox-Johnston home swiftly but gave the family and Express team very uncomfortable nights bouncing about as we swept the Western Approaches looking for the ketch.  The Mirror Group vessel, a much smaller ex-naval inshore defence motor launch, took shelter under the Queen’s lee overnight one night to protect her from the worst of the seas.  We eavesdropped on the Mirror men’s radio-telephone messages to Holborn Circus and they were not happy bunnies, poor guys. Bugging “mobile phones” wasn’t invented by the News of the World. 

By Friday, April 19, the seas had moderated and the Mirror vessel had been back to St Mary’s for a respite.  After dark that evening, we knew we weren’t far from Suhaili but could see nothing but “wave clutter” on the ship’s radar.

robin-KJ-photo

Mike Charleston, in his youth a Royal Navy radar operator, spotted something on the radarscope that he was sure wasn’t a wave.  He reckoned it could be an echo from the little metal radar reflector Knox-Johnston had at Suhaili’s mast head.   No-one else could see anything except the clutter, but the Queen’s master, Captain Albert Evans, altered course at Mike’s suggestion. 

So exact was Mike’s heading that, if we hadn’t been keeping keen watch ahead and seen pin-pricks of navigation lights around midnight, we’d have run down Suhaili, pictured right with Knox-Johnston at the helm, in the rain-swept pitch dark.  Our exultant radio alert to the Black Lubianka must have horrified the monitoring Mirror team but they had no idea where we were in the dark. 

We wrote our story on photopaper and filed it through the radio picture transmitter so the Mirror boys couldn’t overhear and lift it; quite an innovative idea at that time. It caused no end of sniffing among the DX copytakers, we learned later. The story made a “2am: Robin ‘in fine shape’” splash and carried Harry Dempster’s ghostly night-picture of Suhaili in the final edition.

We reached Falmouth, the finishing line for the sailor, three days later to find Daily Mirror staff swarming, desperate and determined to grab back some of its lost glory. Father David K-J suggested we go aboard Suhaili once she’d got the finishing gun. The Mirror crew swiftly closed up, too and told the family (and the Express, of course) to “Get back!”  The Daily Express mischievously reported the patriarch's furious "I am bloody annoyed” comment at the foot of the home-coming story under a crosshead “Banned”.  All good stuff!

Daily Express News Editor Keith Howard memoed his team: “This, I think, is the first time where we have completely outmanoeuvred both the people who sponsored the race and the paper who sponsored the winner.   You must have endured much physical hardship.  I hope it is some comfort  to know that there was great jubilation at this end when you brought off this coup.”

Much physical hardship?  No, not really!  The search days were uncomfortable, certainly, but none of the DX team was seasick and the only time the photographers got snarly was when they thought Captain Evans wouldn’t heave to long enough to give them time and stability to process their films.  We did not want to lose sight of Suhaili again after all that trouble.

 

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