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Bob Fisher - the America's Cup loses its greatest chronicler

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 7 Feb 18:01 PST 8 February 2021
Bob Fisher - Phoenix Cottage - Lymington - June 2019 © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

With Bob Fisher's passing on January 25, at home in Lymington, the America's Cup lost its greatest advocate and chronicler, and the sport one of its great and enduring characters.

He was aged 85yrs and had been, amongst many other media roles, yachting and America's Cup correspondent for the Guardian for 55 years from 1958 to 2013.

I sat at the same desk as Bob, or certainly within easy earshot, for two Olympics (2008 and 2012) and the last three three America's Cups, plus another couple of Cups in Auckland and several significant events where Bob was part of the sailing press corps. Only a higher calling would have kept him from being here in Auckland or absent from any America's Cup.

He was born and raised in the sailing and fishing town of Brightlingsea where many of the early sailors in the America's Cup doubled as fishermen and professional racing sailors.

According to the introduction to "An Absorbing Interest" which Bob researched and wrote over 15 years, they "wore guernseys with the names of Shamrock and Endeavour emblazoned across their chests. It was from them that he first learned about the Cup - their experiences in various campaigns, going back to that of Shamrock III in 1903".

His two volume publication is regarded as the definitive work on the America's Cup. A third volume is to be completed by Bob and friends and will cover the period 2007- 2017.

As any yachting journalist knows, living through bygone eras, or talking with people who had, provides a completely different context to the written history of those times. The dedication to "An Absorbing Interest" is to Captain Edward Sycamore, who skippered Valkyrie III, the challenger in the 1895 Cup, through to the Shamrock II in 1901 and who was a professional skipper through to 1929.

Bob covered his first America's Cup in 1967, after winning a trip to Newport RI following the win in what was known, and still should be, as the Little America's Cup, sailed in Int C Class 26ft catamarans. Sailing with skipper Peter Along with skipper Peter Schneidau, the loss came after Lady Helmsman ("Helmsman" was a prominent marine paint brand), broke a centreboard, shattered the case and damaged a hull sailing in winds of 18-20kts.

The final race was notable for its huge winning margin of 11mins and 35 sec. Schneidau was hit on the head by the boom and was knocked out after rounding the leeward mark for the first time and collapsed on the trampoline. Bob took over the helm and sailed single-handed for several minutes before his skipper regained consciousness. Another three minutes passed until Schneidau could take over the helm again.

Despite the onboard drama, Lady Helmsman increased her lead all the way around the course, giving Great Britain their seventh win in the trophy for what were then the fastest and most exciting sailing machines in the world.

His sailing career followed many forms including being a navigator during a Trans-Atlantic record; crewing a Tornado catamaran during an IYRU multihull selection trial; sailing a two-handed Round Great Britain race and winning their division; and being a member of several IYRU committees. These experiences, plus his continued boat ownership and racing, gave him the ability to write authoritatively on most aspects of sailing, without resorting to the regurgitation of an interview. Bob only worked with first hand sources, and his diverse sailing background gave him the ability to be able to assess the information he had, and provide his readers with an incisive and immediate view of an issue as it unfolded - providing a depth and accuracy that was not available elsewhere.

Last meeting

I met up with Bob about 18 months ago in Lymington for lunch at the yacht club. We went back to home, Phoenix Cottage, and the detached study where he did his writing. After digging around in a corner, he proudly produced a miniature of the Little America's Cup awarded as a memento in 1967.

A couple of years previously, at what proved to be Bob's last America's Cup in Bermuda, there were just three of us in the SINs corner, Bob, Rob Mundle and myself. Others were scattered throughout the photographer's zone.

When Bob arrived at his place in the media centre each morning, it was a familiar routine. He'd open up his laptop, and once hooked up into his online world (never a simple process), he would go through the daily ritual of reading aloud extracts from his emails - some got a chuckle and a laugh - at other times he'd erupt - usually over some piece of bureaucracy gone mad - sailing or otherwise.

Bob had a life-long abhorrence of civil servants, self-entitled sailing bureaucracy, and general incompetence - forgetting, of course, that they all provided him with a rich seam of storylines.

His usual routine was to read the offending parts of the email aloud, engaging those nearby to listen and agree totally with him, or if you felt like an argument, you could push back. After 10 minutes or so, the tempest would pass and he'd quieten down to usually write a great piece about a totally unrelated subject. You learned that reading and arguing the offending emails was just part of his daily warm-up routine.

Occasionally these sessions would come to an abrupt end when some long-time friend, who he hadn't seen for ages, would pop their head around the corner of the media centre, and Bob would immediately transform into his usual very gregarious self.

To describe Bob as being larger than life, is a major understatement. He certainly knew plenty of people, no matter where he happened to be. He was very well connected - maybe not surprising, given that he had been sailing, or writing about sailing all his life. He seemed to have a very special relationship with those in the British Olympic team, particularly when the team began its international ascendency and dominance in 1996. The friendship extended beyond their Olympic campaigns, and into what usually became stellar professional sailing careers.

Like any good commentator, Bob had an opinion on everything and could strongly defend his viewpoint. Maybe the Little America's Cup and catamaran experience made it a little easier for him to argue strongly in favour of any new development in sailing, rather than taking the curmudgeonly view of returning sailing to some bygone touchstone.

Multi-Media Man

Bob was very particular about not cheating his readers. Being blessed with a unique voice, and the ability to make the best use of it, Bob could turn his hand to virtually any form of media. But whatever the story, he had an accurate grasp of the information he had verified, and could always relate his comments to the understanding of his audience - whether it be a mainstream radio news interview, or an expert and entertaining piece of sailing commentary. In this regard was to sailing what David Attenborough is to the planet and environment. Bob's message was always loud and clear.

As a writer, Bob is best remembered for the 30 sailing books he researched and wrote. The most magnificent of these was his two-volume "An Absorbing Interest" covering the America's Cup from its inception to the 2003 Match in Auckland. A third volume was being completed at the time of his passing. It is the definitive work on the America's Cup - not because of its presence or presentation, although that is outstanding - but because of the research that Bob put into it.

He might appear to be in a sailing venue for a regatta, but would often have a side arrangement to spend a day or three to access a club's archives and read for himself the original copy of a letter or document relevant to the Cup. In this process, Bob would often find an angle or context that had previously been overlooked, and which changed the interpretation of the history and context on that point.

When you read Bob, you knew that you were dining on over 80 years of first hand sailing experience. He didn't have to name his sources, and with many of his off-the- water exploits it was probably a good idea that he didn't - leaving the reader entertained but intrigued.

Bermuda - end of an era

Bob's last Cup in Bermuda was not an easy one. Once again, he stayed with long-time friends, and we'd often meet on the morning ferry for the trip to the AC venue at the Royal Dockyard on the other side of the Great Sound. Once there, we always had the issue of getting to the media centre - about a 1.5km walk which was very painful given the state of his knees, on which he'd had multiple operations.

We'd usually spend 20 minutes or so, with Bob getting more tetchy with each passing minute, trying to get some form of transport be it a people-train, taxi, or bus, rather than walk - which when a cruise ship was at the Royal Dockyard was often the only option. After the walk, Bob would arrive in the media centre in agony.

But almost regardless of the pain, he would drag himself there because it was the Cup - and he had to be there. Once inside the media centre, the pain would quickly subside, and Bob would once again be part of the event he loved, and one of the lead actors in the theatre that accompanied it.

He saw Emirates Team New Zealand win the 2017 America's Cup from a hospital bed in Bermuda, after having a fall at a SINs lunch. A short email asking if he had a TV in hospital drew the typical terse Bob response: "Yes, I do have a Tv, otherwise I WOULD GO MAD" - it was obvious he was in recovery.

A couple of years later, in late June 2019, I visited him in Lymington. He seemed to be in good shape, back to his usual self, wanted to know everything about Auckland, and would be here in 2021 for his 17th America's Cup.

Sadly it was not to be.

No-one would be more thrilled than Fish, with the INEOS Team UK performance in the Prada Cup.

He leaves his wife Dee and daughters Alice and Carolyne, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren, and a sport that was very much the better for his many lifelong contributions.

With Bob's passing the panjandrums of the sport will be sleeping a little more easily.

For the celebration of Bob Fisher's life via Zoom broadcast on Facebook by Sailing Illustrated click here

On the occasion of his 76th birthday in 2011 and the contributions and images from his fellow SINers www.sail-world.com/NZ/Bob-Fisher-celebrates-his-21st-birthday-again-and-again-/-82733

And for the full story and images on Bob's competitive sailing and media life compiled by Dougal Henshall and published in Sail-World 10 days before Bob's passing click here

To read long-time friend and publisher Barry Pickthall's tribute to Bob Fisher click here

Bob was a contributor to Sail-World from around 2005 to 2015. We have a database of his contributions - all great pieces of writing and commentary on what is now sailing history. Hopefully, we can republish these in some way, once the current workload eases.

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