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Top skipper and Olympic Team Manager remembered - Updated

by Selwyn Parker, NZ Yachting/Richard Gladwell SWNZ 18 Jul 2018 03:23 PDT 18 July 2018
Exador crosses the finish line off the Royal Yacht Squadron, Cowes - 1985 Admirals Cup © Margherita Bottini

The sport of sailing lost one of its great characters and contributors, when Mike Clark passed away at the age of 80, last weekend.

He had a unique attitude and management style - having fun and often winning. He was the owner everyone wanted to sail with.

His friend Neville Crichton drew Clark back to sailing. Crichton was a marque car-dealer like Clark. Crichton was one of the drivers to get New Zealand into the Admirals Cup, taking the "big-boat" Shockwave to Cowes for the 1983 Admirals Cup along with two charter boats, skippered by Ian Gibbs and Peter Blake.

Clark was attracted to the top end sailing scene, and initially did what he could see needed to be done without getting permission - like making sure there was a slab of cold beer waiting on the marina for the crews when they docked after a day of racing, having a good-humoured chat with the crew and then heading for another boat.

It was at one of these sessions that the conversation drifted to what Mike was going to do next? Mike for once was a little lost for words. Peter Walker piped up and told him straight: "A lot of people think you would make an excellent owner." Again Clark didn't respond directly - making a self-deprecating response. But the message to him was clear.

Then Tom McCall decided to step up to a bigger race yacht, and put his red-hulled 40ft Farr design on the market. Graeme Woodroffe called Peter Montgomery as to who could buy her. Montgomery suggested Mike Clark - who snapped her up for a reported $280,000 ahead of a keen buyer from the USA.

New Zealand Yachting magazine's Selwyn Parker interviewed Mike Clark the newcomer to offshore racing for its July 1985 edition:

When Michael Clark bought Exador, he had a message for the crew which went something like this: "If we're not going to have fun, we're not going to do it. I don't want any bitchiness or aggravation. My part is keeping you all happy. And if we don't win, we'll still be happy."

That pep talk took place, of course, before the Admiral's Cup trials after Clarkie, the rela­tive landlubber whom Metro magazine's columnist Felicity Ferret has dubbed "car­ dealer to the stars" snatched the yacht from the jaws of an American chequebook.

The rest is history. Exador swept the trials and will contest the Admiral's Cup after winning, says Clark, the One Ton Cup.

[At that time the Admiral's Cup occupied a position as the unofficial world championship of ocean racing - contested at Cowes, Isle of Wight every other year each nation entered a team of three boats - usually two at the lower end of the IOR rating band, and one 'big boat' 42.5ft - 50ft). For several editions the Admirals Cup attracted fleets of 19 teams or 57 boats. It was last held in its original form in 2001.]

It was an odd sort of message to give the boys. Most owners would probably have put it the other way - win and be happy if you can, but win first. But winning isn't Clark's top priority. At 47, after a lot of hard work in a tough trade, he likes to enjoy himself.

If you can't win with pleasure, better not to win.

Michael Clark's yard is an enclave of opu­lence in Auckland's Khyber Pass Rd. The display of Mercedes, Rolls Royces and Porsches runs the full gamut from the merely impressive to the lustrously exotic. There are so many burgundy Meres and silver Porsches and white Rollers and other wonderful pieces of machinery that they can't fit into the yard and spill into the back lot.

A lot of stock to carry? "Over $3 million worth," notes Clark. If you 're in the exotic car business, he explains, you 've got to have the stock on display and foot the bill.

Michael Clark clearly isn't short of a few bob, and the transition from car-dealing to yacht ownership was achieved, one guesses, with relative financial ease. Still, Exador has cost her owner a lot more dollars, albeit un­grudged than he had anticipated.

"In a business, you work to a budget, and you stick to it," Clark explains. " In yacht­ing you can't foresee costs. If you stick to a budget, you will end up cutting corners. "

It was part of Clark's irrepressible boots-n 'all approach that he wouldn't stint on the spondulicks. That's why he fixed up Exador with a new mast, new rigging, new sails, all the time relying on skipper Graeme Wood­roffe's chandlery skills. And he pays a hand­ some tribute to Woodie - "Quite simply, I couldn't have done it without his help ."

Not that this shrewd businessman doesn't know the value of a yachting dollar. " You've got to qualify the accounts, " he points out. " I remind them that I' m not Car­negie and you can't send me any old bill. "

Clarkie doesn't mind talking about money. After all, he's the chief money-raiser for the Lion New Zealand challenge, and he knows how much of the stuff Admiral's Cup chal­lenges can eat up.

"I remember thinking when I bought Exador: ' I can only lose money.' As an investment, it's hopeless. But money can 't buy that sort of fun. My wife loves it; the kids are excited about it, my friends have got in­volved too. "

Clark is quite unrepentantly not much of a yachtie. He gets bored after more than a day at sea, he dislikes light weather ("the boys concentrate so hard I'm too scared to say a thing"), he prefers engine power to the poetry of sail when you come right down to it ("launches are gin palaces, yachts are hard yakka"), and the races he likes most are what he calls the "1Oam to 4 pm ones."

His idea of heaven afloat is a good blow and a screaming reach under spinnaker.

What Clark gets out of Exador is the good company, the association with a crew he ad­mires. He is in awe of their expertise. He applauds their competitiveness. And he is surprised by their nerve. "They are frightened of nothing. If the Fastnet blows as hard as it did in 1979, I will have no qualms about going to sea with them. "

On the debit side, Clark notes after his first close acquaintance with the yacht-racing fraternity that they are "great rubbishers."

Though Exador marks Clark's first intense exposure to big-boat racing, he's not new to the sport. Growing up in Parua Bay near Whangarei, his parents provided him with the regulation P-Class. They ran a hotel there, and the young Clark used to meet the dreaded Mullet-boat boys.

"Those guys were really hard citizens, tough guys," he recalls. Occasionally he crewed with them. Later he moved up to a 32-footer, crewing again, before marriage at age 20 forced him to concentrate on feeding mouths.

A measure of affluence later bought ski­-boats and launches. Even now Clark sounds as though he still hankers for a fizz boat. "For the money that's tied up in yachts, they just aren't as practical as launches. You hop in a launch, press the button and go. No crew, no sails. "

But right now it's all yachting. Clark isn't a man to do things by halves, and he's sincere about pitching everything into the Admiral's Cup and One Ton Cup challenges. "It's my express desire to help New Zealand win the cup," he says.

So far, he's made all the right moves. The car dealer's arrival in the middle of the Ad­miral's Cup fraternity is fascinating to out­siders. Here's a bloke who says he doesn't know a cap shroud from whatsit ("but I'm learning fast"), who hadn't even muscled a winch before Exador.

Despite that, he's got together a winning campaign when others with infinitely more knowledge have failed. Certainly, he's got a good skipper in Woodroffe, a marvellous crew and a top boat. But Clark, notwithstanding his failure to distinguish a cap shroud, is THE man behind the challenge. There's no mistake about that. He doesn't just write the cheques. Exador's owner is nobody's fool.

So maybe there's something in the notion of the owner as manager. The man who is wil­ling to run the campaign and not the ship, to leave the cap shrouds and the rest of the numbingly complex nautical detail to the yachties, to keep the boys happy.

Keep 'em happy. Is that the winning formula?

S-W: As well as being the top boat in the third placed New Zealand team in the 1985 Mike Clark went on to manage the 1988 and 1992 Olympic teams winning seven medals in seven events across the two Olympics. New Zealand placed fourth in another four events in the 1992 Olympics - an outstanding result. All ten crews finished in the top eight in their respective fleets in the 1992 Olympics - a remarkable achievement. The standing joke among the team was that Russell Coutts who finished eighth in the Soling keelboat had let the team down!

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