Even people who couldn’t give two hoots about sailboat racing have heard about the brutal beatdown that is the Rolex Sydney Hobart race. Every year, on the day after Christmas, a hundred or so boats thrash their way down the Australian coast and enter the Bass Strait separating Tasmania from the mainland. There, they almost inevitably receive the kind of spanking that breaks boats and spirits and occasionally kills people.
It’s the kind of sailing that landlubbers just cannot get their heads around. Nor can many sailors, come to that. It’s one thing to deal with whatever weather comes your way; it’s quite another to stick your head in the lion’s mouth. Yet there’s a certain breed of sailor that loves to do just that, time and again, proving as they do so that no one is tougher than an old seadog. There were two shining examples in the most recent Hobart race. Sydneysider Tony Cable completed his 50th Hobart race, his sixth on the TP52 Duende. There’s no room for passengers on TP52s, so Cable must be one good sailor. He sailed his first Hobart race back in 1961 at the age of 19, and by the looks of him he’s good for a few more.
I have even more respect for Syd Fischer, owner of Ragamuffin 100, which finished second across the line. At 88 years old and sailing in his 47th Hobart race, Fischer makes Cable look like a youngster. Even on a 100-footer, the kind of seas that forced a third of the fleet to retire must have been horrendously uncomfortable, if not downright dangerous, yet Fischer hopped onto the dock at Hobart, spry as they come, a walking advertisement for the benefits of sailing.
Thinking back, since I started sailing I’ve known no end of tough old fellows who kept afloat into their 70s and beyond. It seems to me that regular sailing is good for the body and mind in all sorts of ways. Even on those light-wind, flat-water days your muscles are always working, even if it’s just isometrically as you subconsciously adjust to the motion. When it’s blowing harder and you have to put more effort into handling the sheets, you’re getting a pretty good workout. The very act of moving around a boat increases flexibility and agility, two things that suffer as you age. And you cannot discount the value of sailing as a de-stressor; you won’t be fretting about the stock market while you’re tying in the second reef (or for some time afterward, come to that). You’re constantly planning, problem-solving and evaluating options, so your mind gets exercised too.
No doubt about it, sailing is a gift to geezers. You only have to look at author Don Street, who’s well into his 80s and still sailing more than most of us. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Jeanne Socrates, who at 70 had just become the oldest woman to circumnavigate alone. She had the energy and demeanor of someone a decade younger. Back in 2011, Minoru Saito finished his eighth singlehanded circumnavigation at the ripe old age of 77.
I once spent a day with a well-known British sailor called Errol Bruce, who was then in his mid-80s and still sailed his boat solo every day of the year. He once fell overboard at the dock on a February morning, clung to a piling for an hour before a passerby hauled him out, and was right as rain after a hot bath.
You can look at such people as outliers or anomalies, but I find them inspirational. There’s no reason why any of us, given basic good health, couldn’t be out there doing what we love best for as long as we possibly can. I think I’ll leave the Sydney-Hobart to the Aussies, though.