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Ralph Roberts (87) MBE, Olympic sailor, manager, judge and administrator passes away

by Richard Gladwell 18 Mar 19:12 PDT
Geoff Smale and Ralph Roberts on trapeze sailing their Flying Dutchman, Takapuna ahead of the 1968 Olympic Regatta © John Mallitte

Double Olympic representative Ralph Roberts passed away this morning, March 19, 2023. He was aged 87yrs

As well as representing New Zealand in the Finn class at the 1960 Olympics in Rome (aged 25yrs, finishing 6th) he, along with helmsman Geoff Smale represented New Zealand again in the Flying Dutchman class in 1968 (8th).

At the age of 23yrs, he and Smale first put New Zealand Yachting in the international map in 1958, with a win in the prestigious Prince of Wales Trophy sailed in the International 14ft skiffs. The event was held in Cowes, Isle of Wight.

Roberts was selected as a reserve for the 1964 Olympics, for the Flying Dutchman class and was instrumental in Helmer Pedersen and Earle Wells winning New Zealand's second yachting Gold medal.

He was a multiple National Champion in the Finn, Flying Dutchman and Soling classes, winning five national titles in the Finn and Flying Dutchman and two in the Soling class. He won his first national title in 1954, for U-19yrs) in the Cornwell Cup for Z-class and was NZ champion in the keenly contested class in 1957. Going on to win his first National Finn class title in 1958.

As a sailor he was renowned for his strength, toughness of character, excellent long eyesight, and an ability to read natural weather signs which enabled him to sense changes in the breeze. He combined these with good sailing intuition, and a feel for boatspeed, to be a formidable competitor particularly in a fresh breeze. Ralph was an excellent analyst of sailing, particularly when he moved across into mentoring younger sailors, and possessed strong, but simple communication skills.

In 1984 he was appointed manager of the NZ Olympic Yachting Team, which ended a dry run for New Zealand at the Olympics, winning two Gold medals (Finn and Tornado) and a Bronze (Mens Windsurfer).

Following the clothing weigh-in incident with Russell Coutts clothing (Finn class) at the 1984 Olympics, Roberts was invited to become an international judge by the Chairman Olympic Jury on recommendation to World Sailing (then IYRU). He was the first New Zealander to be appointed to an Olympic Jury for the 1988 Olympic Sailing Regatta in Pusan, Korea.

Roberts later became an International Umpire and had a strong association with the Congressional Cup at Long Beach Yacht Club, and the International Youth Match Racing at Balboa Yacht Club.

In 1990, he was appointed as Chef de Mission for the New Zealand Olympic team at the 1992 Olympiad in Barcelona, where the NZ Yachting team had most numerous medal win, and with no competitor finishing below 5th place.

He was President for the New Zealand Yachting Federation from 1986 to 1989. He served a second term on the Yachting New Zealand Board from 2006-2012, and in 2010 was made a Life member of Yachting New Zealand. He was awarded the New Zealand Olympic Order in 2011, by Dr Jacques Rogge, then President of the International Olympic Committee.

As a long-standing member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, Roberts was involved in several international yachting campaigns including the 1989 NZ Admirals Cup team and in an advisory capacity for the setup and recruitment for the NZ Challenge for the 1987 America's Cup.

He died peacefully in his sleep, just before dawn.

A service for Ralph will be held at St Mary's Cathedral, Parnell on Friday March 24, at 1100hrs.

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