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He Cannot Garden

by John Curnow on 14 Oct 2016
Jon Sanders with his S&S39, Perie Banou II © John Curnow
I was not really intimidated, but certainly awestruck, and definitely very delighted. For there I was, sitting in the Bond Room of the Royal Perth Yacht Club with the great Jon Sanders AO, OBE, no less. As an Australian it does not get much bigger than that, and as a sailor it is almost akin to being a teenage girl at The Biebs purpose world tour with a back stage pass. Wow!

So it was a really, really distinct pleasure to meet with Jon on the eve of embarking on his tenth circumnavigation. In there is the triple, and double solo and non-stop records for a total of five, the haul around Antarctica, Cape Town to Rio, and oh my God, it all just adds up. See an earlier piece for a sample of the man’s sailing CV.

So what was the one guiding light that made him go for a historic lap to get to double digits? “Something to do. Sounds a bit simple, but it is something to do. Otherwise what else do you do? Sit at home? Go to the yacht club and sit on the barstool? No. I don’t want to do that. Besides, I live in an apartment, so I can’t garden.”

Seems Jon is also not the best fisherman, either. “Yes. I do enjoy it, but I’m not so good at it. One of our life members, John Readhead, has made up small, compact and sensible fishing kit to troll with. John does the archives for Royal Perth. He’s the best in the country at it, and actually visits other clubs and other places to advise them on their archives.”

So is there anything that Jon expects to have changed for him when he returns in just under a year’s time, when he’ll be closer to 80 than 70 years of age? After all, he knows a bit about doing a circumnavigation. “Yes. This one is not non-stop or unassisted. I’ll have company to Shark Bay North of here and then the commemoration of Dirk Hartog finding Australia’s West Coast 400 years ago. I may have company join me off and on, as it has happened before, say in French Polynesia, otherwise it is solo.”

One event Jon is familiar with won’t see him this time. He will not be joining the fleet for Cape Town to Rio race. “I’d like to, but this boat was built in 1971 and is a bit slow. Ideally I would go two-handed with a big reaching genoa, just poled out, but Perie Banou II is too slow for that. By too slow I mean we would be lucky to finish on time. With a racing rig we came in eighth overall last time, were second in Division Two, and even then we only got in by a day.”

“You have Comanche going this time, so I could lasso them… You generally cannot cross the South Atlantic High by going through the middle, where you’ll run out of wind. I remember back in 1976 one tried to cut the corner and ended up motoring in.” Note that some super-lightweight trimarans do just that, but with almost non-existent displacement they hover through, pick up the breeze again the other side and blast off.

So it seems a lovely segue into the light blue Sparkman and Stephens 39 that will carry Jon and crew across the globe. “Perie Banou II has had a lovely paint job, which was done by a lot of supporters - yacht club workers, and also those who frequent the club, mostly shipwrights, electrical engineers and so on. It has also been terrific to get some sponsors on board, so thank you to Brookes & Gatehouse for the electronics and Seashells, which is a West Australian resort company, close to the beaches. There are many others too, so thank you all!”

“My preferred set up is a small headsail and there is always a reef in the main. So I’m going slower nowadays, and if you want to go faster, there’s the Jumbo Jet”, said Sanders showing his wry sense of humour. Back in the day it would have been Boeing 707 or even Lockheed Constellations, to which Jon says, “Never went in one of those (Connies). Did go to the UK in a Bristol Britannia. That was wonderful, in fact I deliberately changed planes in Singapore so I could fly in that particular plane.”

Clearly Jon is not about trying to set a blinding pace, for he is most happy out on the water. Of aviation in general and once more showing his powers of observation, Jon says, “Funny you know, you can catch the flu or a cold on a plane. Sailing on the yacht I catch nothing.”

Now as highlighted earlier, Jon’s yachting CV is exceptional. There is Sydney to Hobart, Antarctica, the only man to do the triple and the list just goes on and on. Of this, Jon smiles and says, “Normally if someone wants some information, I try really minimise it. Otherwise it gets confusing. Then I read it later and think to myself, I didn’t know I did that.”

So what could the highlights in the life of a very unassuming, reserved and ostensibly quiet man? “This just something I’ve enjoyed. Yet after three times around non-stop and unassisted, I guess it would have been a great thing to simply arrive anyway, without the kind of reception that I got. I really didn’t expect and it is something I could never forget.”

Given the many thousands of nautical miles around the entire surface of the planet he has completed, an obvious question would be what remains in your mind as a standout moment because of weather, boat repairs, or knockdowns? Sanders considers this, and then states clearly, “Not really. It’s a bit like you are often asked where is the best place? I think the answer might be wherever you had the best time somewhere. Doing various yachting adventures can be a lot of fun anywhere.”

“I enjoyed the challenge of going further than anyone else, yet I still think the first trophy I ever won in the ocean as a youngster in semi decked open boat remains as one of my major accomplishments.” It is some statement for a man who has the Order of Australia and an Order of the British Empire. “Royal Perth YC is a beautiful club, has been my lifeblood and obviously they’ve been very supportive throughout my 62 year membership, so I thank them and all the members for their support.”

In terms of getting to right here and now, Sanders has a special spot for a distinct group of people. “Over the years, the different decades, I’ve had very, very loyal crew. Younger guys, well I was younger too then. Anyway, I remember them all. I had an operation a year ago, and one flew all the way from Spain, just to say hello, and then fly back again. There are all of those young people that helped me over the decades, along with so many others and I acknowledge, appreciate and thank them all.”

It is the peace and tranquillity at sea that has probably inspired Jon as much as anything else, and they are things he is looking forward to. “Yes. When I get on the boat, I go to sleep. Sounds odd doesn’t it? Actually, I sleep really well on the boat - better there than at home. Of course with the latest technology, any ships and things like that you get notice well in advance, and I sail courses away from the shipping lanes”, said Sanders of the lure of the sea.

History also plays a role in driving Jon on. He holds the great Captain James Cook in very high esteem. The boat Jon used for the record breaking triple-circumnavigation was indeed named after Cook’s sturdy little Whitby Cat, and also Jon’s principal sponsor, the late Kevin Parry. “Cook was the master navigator and we still have some of his cartography amongst our charts. How they did it all back then amazes me. If I get in a jam I can start the motor. I have been up the Endeavour River and out to Lizard Island to see Cook’s Passage. It is pretty amazing stuff and how he found his way through has got me beat.”

“Glad it wasn’t me. All those reefs of the Coral Sea, so I just don’t know how he found his way. I guess going along at three knots had the ability to have a bit of extra time and maybe stop at night.”

Other great navigators to inspire Jon are the remarkable Matthew Flinders and Nicolas Baudin. “Baudin was pretty good, and the Frenchmen also mapped a lot of Australia. Napoleon didn’t think much of him at all, simply because of one of his colleagues on the boat, but I reckon he was amazing, especially given it was the 18th century.”

In then end, all I can say is thank you Jon. You are an inspiration to many. Bon voyage! We will all look forward to your tales coming through as you make this historic passage.

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