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boat-builders, sailors, stories of the roaring 40’s

Suhaili – skippered by Robin Knox-Johnston – in the 40’s

He looks at me with the unerring vision of an archer behind his bow, like his target is through and beyond my eyes – which he stares through. This steady vision that does not waver and he does not blink.

Tom B. He is a sailor, a yachtsman, and has only just returned from the last Volvo Ocean Race.

Tom B is sometimes hired between his races by the yacht-building company as a Project Manager and today we are sat in the company’s canteen amongst the hubble and tumult of twenty boat-builders and their apprentices and the marine plumbers and electricians and all the artisans that build fast sea-boats. Some of the older men sit around their table in ragged armchairs, the walls are covered with pictures of boats and women. This place is rarely visited by anyone from the office.

Tom has no hair, anywhere – and when he is not sailing he’s biking around the Pittwater in his lycra shorts or running the roads – he’s foolish that way.

The Volvo race skims the lower latitudes, that part of this earth that allows sea swells to travel unimpeded around its girth – here be raceways of speed where sometimes the rocketing momentum of a fast yacht on a massive swell can overcome the wind, and where sails sometimes limp up despite that the boat is clocking over 30 knots.


They stow all their sails as ballast on the weather side and Tom B. sits up there on the canvas mound on iceberg watch with a wholly black night hiding everything until it is only yards away.

He tells of nights when the boat is running into the sea and it rises and falls ten times a minute for hour after hour and how the echoing bangs and compressions as the bow smashes back into the sea denies them any rest. They eat reconstituted food and drink calorie water, below decks is awash with sea water – nobody is dry.

He tells of sighting a ‘berg, a tombstone, and how the only alarm he was able to give was a frightened ‘FUCK!! ..’ as the grey black ice island loomed up just yards away from the side of the boat. That silent waiting cold bastard, just sliding away.

He is building his own boat right now and he invited me aboard to admire the skill of the build and the lightness of the carbon-fibre construction – and he talked of oceans and winds and worlds of travel – how men get along in the dark and wet and close confines of a racing yacht where gales blow for days and the seas never relent.

They are unlike surfers though these men, they never talk about loving the sea.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Firstly I love the picture – then all the little gems that pop out at you throughout this.

    May 20, 2011
    • Hiya Jo

      He was a funny man was Tom, he used to call me half-day harry because I always knocked of at about 2pm.

      I’d walk over to him on my way out of the shed and put my arm over his shoulder and tell him how tragic it was to see such envy in a man so young –

      May 20, 2011
  2. Thank you for this, Pete. Having just returned after three weeks at sea in an open pulling boat, I fell in love with the craftsmanship and perspective that sailing encourage. I hope to pursue the passion for the rest of my life.

    June 27, 2011
    • heya sharky – apparently that’s what happens to winch wakers – if I may use the term – and they talk in strange tongues about thwarts and scuppers and gibs and mainsheets and the like – walk about sniffing the wind – drink black Jamaica rum – wear funny hats

      June 28, 2011
      • I’m going to try and avoid the hats, but I will gladly learn another language and drink proper rum! Are you a sailor, Pete?

        June 29, 2011
  3. Not me sharko, spent 10 years doing the numbers for an ocean racing yacht builder in sydney and listening to blokes talking about it, sailed and rowed a whaler from brooklyn to richmond (nsw) in another younger day – riding waves was better.

    June 29, 2011
  4. I was going to learn to sail, go up to North Queensland. I scored a job painting batteries enclosures in NSW, this is my ticket North. I lasted a week before I was pissed off and had pissed off the workers, generally. The boss, I told him the truth and he was cool. Which I was a bit conflicted as he had pictures of Howard and him. The secretary had doubts about me from the start, I could see it. So anyway, I am not oceangoing, good thing, it would interrupt my writing.

    August 7, 2017

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