by Jim Gale
The Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race 2012 will be another memorable journey for sailing veteran Tony Cable, who has been a witness of rich tradition and festivity of the Boxing Day race extravaganza since 1961.
Duende - Rolex Sydney Hobart Race
On the eve of his record-setting 47th Rolex Sydney Hobart, Tony Cable is blunt: 'You wouldn’t do multiple Hobarts if Hobart wasn’t at the end – just as you wouldn’t do multiple Gold Coast’s or Mooloolabas, would you?'
Make no mistake - Cable loves the challenge of Bass Strait - the piercing stars and fluorescent sea on a quiet night off Eden; the downhill rush and the up-wind slog. 'People focus on the storms,' he says, 'and I’ve been in every storm since ’61, but really sailing is one of the nicest, most pleasant things you can do.'
However, it’s the laughter when all goes awry; the friendship over decades, the stories over a quiet little drink around Constitution Dock that keep him coming back.
When his ride last year, Duende, was forced to retire in Eden with engine trouble, a bitterly disappointed Cable flew down to Hobart, just in case it turned out to be his last time.
At the Customs House and the Shipwrights Arms, his name is legend.
And at the starter’s end of the racetrack is the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, Tony’s ‘local’. 'I started racing when I was 18, but couldn’t join the club until I was 21 and it was legal to go into a bar. I’ve spent an entire life of drinking at the CYCA.'
If ocean racing is Tony’s religion, the CYCA is the temple for his lay priest.
'It’s 50 years since I first started serving on CYCA committees, and I've never not been involved since then. I’ve served on the board - I’m a life member - it’s a whole of life thing,' he says.
He is as proud of his time on the Publications Committee, the former publisher of the club’s glossy ‘Offshore’ magazine, as he is of the hours spent toiling on the foredeck of some of Australia’s greatest yachts.
One of his jobs has been to find the people who will fire the starting cannon on Boxing Day. For the past few years, the honour has gone to someone who sailed in and won the race half a century ago. It came as a bit of a shock when he realised that, these days, one of the candidates is him.
He marvels that, 50 years on, he is still able to share a beer with men he sailed with on Southerly, on his very first long ocean race to Montague Island. Cable, Southerly’s owner Don Mickleborough, David Reid, Bruce Jackson and Richard Hammond hold court every Thursday night in the CYCA bar.
'Ocean racing throws up great characters; nice blokes you can get along with. I’ve always sailed with boatloads of good sailors and seamen,' Cable says.
Tony Cable is about to undertake his 47th Rolex Sydney Hobart
‘It’s the people, stupid’, would be his campaign bumper sticker if he were ever to run for high office in the sport that has given him so much over the years.
Back in 1961, when Tony did his first Hobart, serious ocean racing was still in its infancy. The CYCA was then a bit of a shed, the timber boats heavy, wet and, let’s face it, slow. By the time the boats reached Constitution Dock, everything below was saturated.
'There were no sea-boots in those days; you sailed bare foot. I have never owned a pair of sea-boots. Woollen jumpers, oilskins. I couldn’t stand wearing an oilskin jacket, but I had to get my oilskin pants re-oiled regularly, just to get the stink back.
'The boats had cotton sails; we had to wash them regularly so they wouldn’t rot. The ropes were natural fibre, the rigging galvanized steel; even the halyards. The first time I saw Spectra halyards, I said they were nice, but were they as strong as steel?
'’Mate’, I was told, ‘they’re eight times stronger than steel’. Now they’re 30 times stronger.'
It took a long time to get to Hobart, and for most of the way, it was wet and cold. No wonder the sport attracted rugged, hard men, who knew how to party while they waited for everything to dry out.
Cable considers himself lucky to have started out in those tough times. 'We youngsters had to work hard to get a place on a boat, and then you found yourself with blokes who were real hard-core seamen.
'These were men who had fought during the war; real heroes. Stan Darling had three DSCs, Jim McCloy won the Military Cross at Kokoda; and ex RAN veterans like Russ Williams. I was a teenager meeting legends.
'And young guys now don’t get the relentless racing we got in those days. There was a big race almost monthly. People don’t have the time for that now. I was young, free. You’d end up sailing on 15 different boats, and you’d see something different every time. '
It was seat-of-the-pants sailing. No instruments, no dials with wind speed and direction, no GPS or iPad chart apps, no dedicated navigator for that matter, just a Walker Log trailing from the stern and a sextant.
'In ’62 we were racing in heavy fog, relying completely on dead reckoning. We got the shock of our lives when we realised we had sailed into Fortescue Bay, a rocky box, when we should have been out at sea.'
Cable, or ‘Glark’, as sailing mates call him, in a play on famous actor Clark Gable, does not yearn for the old ways though. Duende is a grand-prix Judel/Vrolijk 52. Most definitely a racer, not a racer/cruiser.
With age has come wisdom. It’s the cockpit now, not the foredeck. He is indelibly the product of a tough, no-nonsense, no frills, head-down-bum-up era who will never understand the young guys who jump on a plane for home within hours of arriving in Hobart.
After 46 races, there are endless stories: 80 knot gales and 360’s, windless hours on the same glassy sea that was pounding you senseless a few miles back, intimate moments with Hobart’s finest. You wouldn’t be dead for quids.
'I don’t get seasick; that’s important. I don’t know why guys do it when they get seasick. Last year we discovered the whole front end of Duende was full of water. Sails floating about. I spent the whole night passing up buckets of water through the hatch - they tell me I was down there for five hours.
'There were only three of us bailing out; the others were back in the cockpit, seasick. I was soaked, the water coming through the hatch, but at least I wasn’t getting hit by the waves.'
Tony looks, and is, very fit for his age. He is no gym tragic, fighting the years, but he walks a lot - and messing around in boats is more physically demanding than chess. 'I am fitter now than I was three years ago,' he declares.
As long as he can get a berth you figure he will keep at it. 'When I got married, people would ask my wife where I was on Boxing Day; why wasn’t I at home. She’d say ‘he’s gone to Hobart, it’s part of the marriage contract’. I felt a bit guilty at first, but when I missed a couple, she clearly resented not getting a week to herself.'