Roger Cook is a busy New Zealand Doctor with a passion for sailing. He has felt the need to go sailing from an early age. In this podcast interview, Roger tells us how he got started and continues with his passion, through club sailing, even when he was living in Canada and didn’t have a boat of his own.
Rogers not the type of skipper who yells orders for the sake of it, but chooses to sail for pure pleasure, forming close friends and often winning club races as a result, the icing on the cake.
LINDSAY: Today I’m interviewing my cousin Roger Cook. Roger’s a highly respected and extremely busy doctor who, from time to time manages to follow his passion for racing sailboats.
I’m Lindsay Turvey. This is part of what I do to help others enjoy life on boats through my website toseethesea.com.
Now I feel like I hardly know Roger, even though we’re first cousins. We grew up at opposite ends of New Zealand so I’m really looking forward to catching up and listening to his story. Most of us live busy lives dedicated to our work and try to fit in other passions around our work commitments, so I’m hoping this interview will help people reflect and learn something useful they can blend into their own lives to maintain a healthy balance.
Welcome to the interview Roger.
ROGER: Thanks Lindsay. It’s great to be on board. I was just thinking it probably is 40 years ago at the earliest since we last saw each other.
LINDSAY: Yeah that’s ridiculous isn’t it, in this day and age. We should try and fix that at some stage.
ROGER: Yeah. We certainly will.
LINDSAY: I’d like to start by catching up and filling in some of the gaps there were between the scraps of information that filtered through from our family and relatives.
I’m going to ask you if you’d go back to when you were young and tell us a bit about what it was like growing up in the southern part of New Zealand. That’s the coldest part. When you answer that if you could include in your answer when you first started to become interested in boats or sailing.
ROGER: Okay. Despite what the Aucklanders in New Zealand think, Bluff – which is where I grew up, which is as you say right at the bottom end of the South Island. In fact, it’s the bottom end of State Highway 1, and the Bluff yacht club is the southernmost yacht club in the world. There used to be one on Stuart Island which was another 21 miles further south across Foveaux strait. The Aucklanders think we raced around icebergs and polar bears, and all sorts of things like that. It was never like that. We had a beautiful westerly – our normal breeze was westerly which came off the Southern Ocean and it was nice and warm, where warm currents coming through Foveaux Strait. Bluff harbour itself was sheltered from the southerly’s which can be a bit bitter by Stuart Island itself behind us and then Bluff hill. The harbour was on the northern side of that. It was quite a pleasant place to sail. Not that much different to Wellington, which is where I’m now based – which is half way up the length of New Zealand. Not too bad. Great friendly yacht club. Family yacht club. Nothing flash, but nice good open water with a bit of tidal current and a bit of breeze to sail on. Not too bad at all. That’s a bit about Bluff.
Where I actually got interested in sailing – my father, Andy and of course your uncle – when he was I suppose it must have been 10 or 11, our grandfather built dad a one metre long model yacht – a J-Class. Modelled off a J-Class, and gave dad that which they used to sail on the estuary in Invercargill and that used to sit in our hallway in Bluff. I always loved looking at that yacht. We’d take it to the Bluff water reservoir and sail it there. Then when I was old enough, I suppose I was 11, I joined cubs then at 11, dad put me into sea scouts. Te Ara O Kiwa sea scouts in Bluff and dad had been in Jellicoe sea scouts in Invercargill and so there was some interest in scouting activities – although dad himself wasn’t really interested in sailing. He had the model yacht, but not sailing. I joined…Got into sea scouts and within a year I was sailing their 17’ cutters – big open whalers. Back then they didn’t sail very well, but now they sail quite good. That’s where I realised this was something I really loved doing.
Then I just grew up racing through the yacht club. We raced Saturdays and Sundays, through the week if we could. Sailed through winter. Yes, the Aucklanders would be shocked with that – and sailed over several years I suppose until I was 18, sailing classes called Starlings, up through Sunbursts which were sort of a father and son type boat, Cherubs which they have in Australia, two-man trapeze boats and then Javelin’s which were really go fast 14 footers. We loved it. We travelled all way around the South Island up to regattas in Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, Wanaka and just lived for it. Went to school to get through the week to be able to sail on the weekend.
LINDSAY: Yeah, so you’ve definitely had the bug there and from quite an early age and that’s quite a good variety of boats that you sailed while you were growing up.
ROGER: That was the crux. It was to actually sail. As soon as you sailed the boat and you got good at it, and you started winning. What we did is we then thought “What will we sail the next season?” Our grandad was a carpenter and dad inherited all his tools and inherited all the skills. We didn’t build the starling but we built the sunburst, we built the Cherub and that was fun. Actually, just sitting down with dad, going out to the garage and at nights building these boats through winter to be able to race them the next season was something very, very special. In fact, that’s something that we don’t have now. Virtually all the racing classes in New Zealand now you get on and buy them off the shelf. The Starlings we used to build those – you now go and buy a carbon Starling from a boat builder. You don’t build them anymore, you buy 470’s off the shelf or you buy 49’ers off the shelf. It’s something that’s actually a little bit missing in sailing right around the world though.
LINDSAY: That’s quite interesting. So that must make it a bit more expensive for some people too, to have to go and buy these high-tech sailing dinghies rather than spend a winter building a boat.
ROGER: If you build a boat it can cost you up to around about NZ$5000 to build a boat – a wooden boat now. Most of that is in sails and rig. If you want to go and buy a 49’er that’s going to cost you somewhere between NZ$25,000 and NZ$29,000. You can buy a good keel boat for that, so it actually stops people from racing or they get trapped into sailing boats they don’t particularly want to race. They’re slower boats and are certainly one of the problems we’ve got with our youths now is actually finding a class that is genuinely affordable to them. That’s a difficulty we’ve got right across New Zealand, in fact we’ve got right across the world.
Then I went to university. The first year I took the cherub to university and then the next two years I took my Javelin which was the 14-footer to university. Didn’t really sail them much. Sailed them on the holidays when I went home, but was a bit stuck into bookwork and didn’t have a crew. I had to pick up crew when I wanted to sail. Then in my forth to my eighth year – because I did the PHD, I had a Laser for a couple of years which was just after Russell Coutts was there and then so we had his group of people that he was racing against. That was fantastic racing as a university student. The Laser’s easy – you could just go down, rig it up, out you went, come in, put it away, no maintenance (or virtually no maintenance). Then for the last three years I was a varsity I actually raced Javelin’s. I crewed for another chap. I couldn’t actually afford to race the Laser at that stage, but I could afford to race this Javelin as crew – trapeze crew, and we actually did very well and represented Otago which is one of the provinces at the Sanders Cup. The Sanders Cup is the last remaining adult interprovincial contest. Similar if you like in stature to the JJ Giltinan trophy which is 18-footer trophy in Australia. Managed to fit that in – or fitted my PHD in around my sailing. How’s that?
LINDSAY: Yeah that’s very clever. That’s a pretty full on degree I can imagine at university was that?
ROGER: Yeah. Eight years.
LINDSAY: You were doing that at Otago university in Dunedin, is that correct?
ROGER: Yep. That’s right.
LINDSAY: Okay so Dunedin harbour’s a long narrow harbour with a lot of sand banks and a narrow channel. What was that like sailing?
ROGER: Well it was very easy sailing because you didn’t have big waves. You didn’t really have to think much about wind shifts. Just the odd little two degrees, five degree wind shifts. You just picked them, you could Tack on them. You didn’t really have to think about too much.
We went out to the 1984 Sanders Cup at Muritia yacht club up here in Wellington harbour which is right out on the open harbour as such. There were a metre to a metre and a half waves, 25 – 30 knot winds, big wind shifts coming down around the islands and down through valleys, and tidal currents. We got absolutely hammered. We didn’t have a clue how to sail in that stuff. I suppose that’s one of the issues we had that Bluff harbour was so easy to sail in, Otago harbour was so easy to sail in, and we never really got to sail out in open water which teaches you something completely different. You need completely different skills to be able to sail well in that. It was still fun.
LINDSAY: A lot of water has passed under the keel since those days, I don’t imagine that you stopped sailing between then and now by the sounds of things. You’re quite passionate about it. Tell us a bit about where you’ve raced yachts.
ROGER: When the PHD was finished I picked up a post-doctoral fellowship in Toronto in Canada, and my fiancé and I Jo headed over to Canada. We arrived in mid-winter in -25 degrees and a metre of snow outside. We weren’t even thinking about yachting. I got invited to a work dinner at one stage and ended up sitting beside one of the head neurologists in Toronto and it turned out they had a CS 33’ yacht that they raced out of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. It was just coming into summer and they invited us out for a race on the following Sunday…Or invited me should I say. Off I trotted. Jo sent me out the door and said, “Yes, go and have a go,” and it was fantastic sailing out of this magnificent yacht club. I had to put a jacket and tie on to get out to it, which was something rather strange for a Kiwi. We sailed that race and at the end of that day I had a crewing position on an international 14 which is really a New Zealand Javelin with an extra wire. Very similar to the Australian 14’s. Ended up sailing that whole season on the international 14 and we made it into the Canadian team for the world team racing champs which were in Toronto later that year. That was racing against the McLauchlan brothers – Terry and Frank, and all of Canada’s top Olympic sailors. To be quite honest I was in awe of them, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and had a ball of a time. Learnt so much, it was tremendous. Just to get the opportunity to sail with these guys and the people I was working with at Toronto General Hospital, they were extremely happy for me to knock off early and go out and go sailing, practice and they thought it was fantastic. It was good to be able to have that opportunity.
We did a little bit of keel boat sailing, keelboat racing amongst that as well. I’ve never raced keelboats before so this was something new to me and that was a lot of fun. In the middle of this one of our neighbours in the apartment building that we lived in turned out that she was “yachty” and she sailed from another yacht club next door to the Royal Canadian Yacht Club out on the Taronga Islands. She raced on a 28’ Viking keel boat and Jo – my fiancé, now my wife, she said, “Well I’m not going to get stuck staying here.” She went and joined their crew and started racing out of that yacht club. When I was home she wasn’t, when she was home I wasn’t. I ended up racing both with them and on the international 14. We had a ball of a time. It was just fantastic.
LINDSAY: So, you’re talking about racing on the Great Lakes and freshwater. Did you notice the difference between freshwater racing and normal sea water?
ROGER: There are two differences. One is that the main sheet tastes horrible. You need to take a salt and pepper shaker with you because it has a taste I suppose like an oil product that it is. The other thing is that you don’t have to wash anything and that’s fantastic. You get in, you just put the boat away. You know you don’t have to get the house out. If you’re dinghy sailing then you’ve got to wash all your gear out and it’s uncomfortable. It was easy – you just come in, you take your gear home and you hang it on the line and it dries. The big difference was that on one day – we raced on a Saturday and what we used to do is we’d race and we’d come back and we’d go for a swim in the yacht club swimming pool – and I went to go for a swim and there wasn’t any water in. You know, it was still 30 degrees and they said, “You’ll see…” and overnight there was a metre of snow fell. They said, “It just happens like that.” Then they get the boats – they pull the boats out of the water and up onto land and the bits of the lake around the yacht club all freeze for winter. You’re forced to take that break. You can’t sail for winter. You go skiing or do other things, but the boats come out of the water and that’s it. That’s actually quite refreshing.
LINDSAY: Yeah very seasonal and recharge your batteries over winter and get back into it as soon as the ice thaws I guess.
ROGER: Yep exactly. You’re dead right. It recharges the batteries.
So that was two years in Toronto and then we went across to Detroit to the US and spent three years in Detroit. There within a couple of weeks of being there, we went around the yacht clubs with a classic New Zealand (I don’t know whether they do this in Australia) but a classic piece of paper advertisement with your telephone written on little tear tabs that you tear off the bottom. If somebody wants to get in touch with you they can tear off your telephone number, go home…this is before the days of cell phones – go home and call you on the telephone and see if you want to sail. We went around all the yacht clubs in Detroit which is still on the great lakes, it’s on the sixth great lake, the Lake St. Clair which most people have never heard of between Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and low and behold within two days we had a chap who rang up who had a J-35 and said, “Look we’re looking for a crew.” I said, “You wouldn’t be looking for two crew would you because I really do need to get on a boat where I can sail with Jo – so the two of us can race.” He said, “Oh I don’t know about that. Look, come along on Saturday and we’re going to go out and race and we’ll just see how it pans out.” Three years later we got off that boat. It turned out the four-deep person on that boat was about 150kgs and Jo got put on bow and he got pulled back to mast and Jo became an extremely competent bow lady and I was on main.
We had a fantastic crew. The crew never changed. Family guys, fun guys, no rock stars and we went out there and on the third year we were the top boat on the Detroit river racing association which is what it was called, and that’s 300 keel boats on a Saturday. Long distance races. The Port Huron to Mack yacht race which then there’s the Chicago to Mack is run the weekend after. We did that three years on keel boats. Never sailed a dinghy at all while I was in the States. That was an introduction to keelboat sailing and a J-35 is a wonderful cruiser racer. We had a good handicap under the IMS so we could race it hard, have a laugh and the boat would still do well. We’d just have a lot of fun. We’d actually play as a team on shore, we’d go to people’s places for dinner, we were given the boat to take it out cruising with our friends and it became one big happy family.
I was thinking about this racing – what attracts me to racing – it’s you need to have a group of people, a crew, that are actually really good friends. You don’t need the “guns” because some of them are arrogant. They’re extremely good at what they do but they don’t fit in as a team. They’ll finish a race and they’ll disappear. They don’t want to have anything to do with you socially, and we chose to have a social team. That’s been what I’ve had all the time – this social team, which makes it a lot of fun. It’s like cruising except two boats going the same way turns into a race.
LINDSAY: That’s very interesting that you say that because with the team getting on so well as friends at that level, and then going on, on the third year to winning the series against 300 other boats, that shows the power of friendship and that model of racing. That comradeship that you get through a good race team.
ROGER: It’s actually just knowing what each other is like. Getting on with them, you get to the stage where you can predict what they’re going to do and that makes the racing so much more fun. Now we couldn’t go and take that to the Sydney – Hobart…Well I suppose we could take it to the Sydney – Hobart but most of the boats that do well, they’ve bought in guns, they’ve put together a team of the best in the world if you like and they get on together for the four days it takes to get down to Hobart, and then they break up and disappear off. That’s not what we want to do. We actually would rather just have our normal race team and have a lot of fun week-on, week-off, week after week, after week and not get sick of each other. Which we don’t.
LINDSAY: That sounds fantastic.
ROGER: Then we came back to New Zealand. There were two places I didn’t want to live in New Zealand – one was Hamilton and one was Palmerston North. The main reason is they don’t have yacht clubs and they’re miles away from the sea. So, I ended up in Hamilton. That was the only place I could get a job. It was have a job, be able to eat, or sail. It had to be Hamilton. However, it turned out that my technician – and I didn’t find this out for a few months, and her husband actually had race boats based in Auckland, and it’s about an hour and a half drive to Auckland. I ended up doing some two-handed sailing on the equivalent of a J-35 – a Ross 35 in Auckland called Gasoline Alley and then he started building another 35’ Ross called REVS. Beautiful, slick, wide, back end dinghy on steroids.
LINDSAY: I’ve actually sailed that out of Gulf Harbour.
ROGER: Now the question is did you sail REVS 1 or REVS 2? Because then Murray sold REVS 1 and built REVS 2 which is the 40-footer which was based at Gulf Harbour.
LINDSAY: Yeah, the 40-footer. Very Beamy boat.
ROGER: There you go. So, Karen and Murray De Lacy owned it and then they sold it, it came down to Picton, then it went up to the Bay of Islands and now it’s back in Wellington as one of our main competition when we sail Wedgetail – the bigger – the 40-footer. The problem I had was that when we finished building REVS 1 somebody by the name of Michael Cook – son number one came along and that was the end of my sailing for seven years.
LINDSAY: How old were you?
ROGER: Michael was born when I was 35. Born on the same day in fact.
So, we came down here and with bringing up the two boys, even though we lived the Parramatta Boating Club which is where a huge number of New Zealand’s top America’s Cup sailors actually came out of Parramatta Boating Club it’s another little estuary with a whole lot of sand banks and horrible place to sail, but good for kids. That was just around the corner from us, but I didn’t sail. We were just bringing up the kids.
Then one day I came back from a conference in the States, opened up the garage, and there sitting in the middle of the garage was a Moth. Not one of the foiling Moths that we’ve got now, but it’s an international Moth. A skiff. Fibreglass with a clinker, wooden mast, 1965 it was built and somebody from Jo’s church was leaving the city and they donated it to me. What I did was I booked Michael into the learn to sail classes at 7, booked him into learn to sail at Parramatta Boating Club, went down there on the Saturday, he went out sailing the first day and on the Sunday, I took the Moth out and raced with the club. I don’t think I’ve missed a weekend since now. He’s now 23.
LINDSAY: Incredible dedication to your passion – 16 years every weekend. That’s awesome.
ROGER: Yeah. It’s been fantastic.
So that was all sailing dinghies again in a boat called a Z Class. I was given three old, broken down Z Classes and rebuilt them into one. Took all the best bits off them and built into one, which because it was a Z Class it was sailed by a whole lot of old fellas at the club, I named it Zimmer Frame Racing Team. I found a crew…Thinking of one of your other questions, I found a crew that we’d actually met at post-natal classes up in Hamilton and he went and learned to sail with another yacht club and said, “Do you know where I could get a crewing job?” I said, “Well how about you come and sail with me in this boat?” We raced that for five years. I don’t think he ever learned how to sail properly but we raced and had a lot of fun. Again – more fun.
LINDSAY: Did you ever have trouble getting crews? Any problems?
ROGER: No. In fact, to be quite honest I always had more crew than I knew what to do with. A whole lot of people wanted to sail. If you’re racing a dinghy you can’t afford to have somebody that doesn’t know what they’re doing. It can become quite disastrous. You can do one or two races, but you really want to have somebody that knows what you’re doing. I always had a lot of people that wanted to go for a sail and if Michael was away I’d take one of them out, or I’d take Michael or Josh out and we’d go and race the dinghy.
Now that I’ve got the keel boat which I’ve only had for just over a year, and again thanks to mum and dad I suppose for that – unfortunately they both passed away a couple of years ago and I was able to buy the keel boat, but dad would’ve been wrapped. Now the boys are sailing with me, my old Zimmy crew are sailing with me, and other guys that we actually raced out here at Parramatta – we race on Friday night in the Rum racing and then I’ve got a more experienced crew racing on Saturday races. Including my two boys who have both been right through the hoops and been in the Wellington match racing squad. Michael has raced in the States. Both of them have raced around Australia and with match racing you get is around Australia. They’re both competent sailors as well and we’ve just added people on. For the MRX we can race with five, we tend to race it with six to eight and I’ve got fifteen people on the books that I can just call and say, “Hey do you want to come racing?”
LINDSAY: Good to be popular isn’t it!
ROGER: Yeah. I think why we’ve got them is that people just actually like sailing with us because we don’t yell and scream, demand and what-have-you. You know, somebody makes a mistake you just say, “You’re buying the rum at the end of the day.” That’s it. That’s how they’re told off, because everybody makes mistakes. The blokes that learn actually when they make mistakes they actually get out of them quicker and that’s what we do. It’s no good yelling at people and for that reason people like sailing with us.
LINDSAY: That sort of leads me into my next question. If our listeners wanted to learn sailing by crewing on other people’s yachts how would they go about doing that?
ROGER: Well if I have a look at the yacht club that we race from now which is the Royal Port Nicholson yacht club in Wellington – it’s a royal yacht club but it’s only got about 300 members and we don’t have to wear jackets and ties – it’s just like a normal, everyday yacht club – people can actually put notices on the notice board or just come down. There are two types, there are those that come down and say, “Look I’ve got some experience in sailing. I’d like to join a crew,” and so we hunt around and find a boat that’s looking for crew. It tends to go div three, then div two, then up into div one. The div three boats all have lots of learners on board. They start slower but there’s a lot less that can go wrong and we take people on occasion that want to just get out and see whether they like it. That’s one way of doing it.
The other way is if some of the yacht clubs, and especially our yacht club actually runs a learn to sail courses for people who want to sail. To learn, want to race and they go out and they do two or three months of learn to race sailing – learn to sail, then learn to race sailing. Some of them have actually gone and bought their own boats but others then just fit in with race crews. They obviously if they’ve got these skills they fit in a little bit higher up the hierarchy if you like. We’ll give anybody a go that wants to just come and give racing or sailing and racing a go.
LINDSAY: It’s a great way to accelerate your learning isn’t it, to get out every weekend through a winter series or something like that. You can learn so much about sailing to windward, the different points at sail, and even just crew work – communication and that sort of thing.
ROGER: That’s the most important thing. What you’ve got to have is you hope that you’re with a skipper and a crew that talk about it. I tend to talk a lot when I’m sailing. If I’m helming I’ll be asking the questions for wind, I’ll be talking about what the boat is doing, what I feel, and I try and make sure that the crew can hear that, because that’s how they learn. I’ve sailed with skippers – they don’t say a thing. You actually don’t know what’s going on and you don’t learn. I’d rather actually talk too much, which as you know is a Cook family trait, but then people learn, they start to understand the jargon. They start to understand the thinking. When you’re noticing wind shifts, talk about the wind shift – what it’s doing and you see the pattern to it, where it’s coming from and people start learning that stuff. They actually understand what this yacht racing is all about. It’s not about watching two yachts on an America’s Cup course going very, very slow and the grass is growing faster and the paint is drying faster. They actually understand what the tactics are and those sorts of processes.
LINDSAY: I totally agree with the talking about what’s happening and helping people understand. I tend to do the same thing a little bit, and people pick up what the signs are – what the wind…Little tell-tale signs about the waves on the water and the ripples that the wind is creating, where it’s coming from, and if there’s going to be a wind shift with it to the left or to the right, or whether it’s backing or varying. It’s a great way to learn not just for sailing purposes but later on. A lot of those skills are transferable into other boats. It’s very good to be able to read the water and see the tell-tale signs.
ROGER: That teamwork is important too. I’m on the board of trustees for the youth match racing squad here in Wellington and we obviously had to go and try and get lots of grant money and we don’t say this is a match racing squad, we say this is a squad to teach life skills and business skills through sailing. It’s all about teamwork, planning, organisational skills and sailing and match racing just happens to be the medium that we’re using to get those skills across.
LINDSAY: It’s a hard concept to sell sometimes. I remember when I was with the sail training craft, the accountants were going through and trying to work out which assets could be sold off at one stage and they were looking at the sail training craft as being something that was hard to quantify. They couldn’t measure the benefits so they started looking closely at us. I had to defend us by trying to paint the picture of things that weren’t actually easy to measure. The benefits that we were teaching people – the seamanship and the real-life situation, tying knots – you don’t see the benefits until later on in life. They might surface maybe three or four years later and they’re very hard to measure. We did lose one boat and we managed to keep the other three. I totally understand what you’re saying there.
ROGER: Well the interesting thing – you could turn around and say in the Navy, you take 100 guys on a Frigate and you put them out to sea in rough weather, nothing much goes wrong. But you take five, six, eight guys on a 40’ racer or a cruiser racer such as your training boats were and you put them out into 30 knots of breeze and if you don’t do it right, and if the team doesn’t operate correctly you can get into a heck of a lot of a trouble. You can break gear, you can break people, you can lose people overboard. The boat just doesn’t sit there and take the waves. You’ve actually got to fight with it. You’ve got to beat it and then you’ve got to work with your whole team. That’s how you learn to trust people.
LINDSAY: You build very strong mate ship, comradeship is one of the highest values that the Navy has and that was a big part of what we did, is develop strong bonds between people through working in potentially dangerous situations, but controlling the risk at the same time.
ROGER: I suppose you want to know that when things go horribly wrong in a war situation, that everybody around you – you trust them implicitly that they’ll do the right thing for you, and they trust that you’ll do the right thing for them. You don’t want to go into a situation like that not knowing that the guys around you have your back. It’s the same on a race boat – you want to know that the people around you, the core people around you, have your back. If anything goes wrong they know exactly what to do to get you out of trouble. If you do that then you can take learners along because if you know that if it goes wrong, the learners don’t have to do anything because your core team are there to actually get them out of trouble.
LINDSAY: That’s why in peacetime venture training in the military is held on such a high pedestal because that’s how you get people out in the real-life situations and take them out of their comfort zones, and teach them the real, genuine skills.
Very interesting. We’ve sort of diverted a little bit off our question list here. We’re having a good old chat aren’t we.
ROGER: I think it’s still following the general trend of what do we get out of yacht racing. I get a lot out of yacht racing. I don’t do that much cruising. When I do…Some cruising there in the Whitsundays back in October, my best man who was my best friend growing up in Bluff and was my crew on Cherub and so he, and then three of us that actually flatted together when we were at university for the first couple of years, and then one other person, and all of our wives, all ended up…We did an eight-day cruise around the Whitsundays in a 45’ cat and that was just absolutely fantastic cruising. It’s the most cruising I’ve done. Most of the cruising I’ve done is actually delivering boats back after yacht races. This was just purely cruising and it was fantastic. When there was another boat out there and it was going the same way, it turned into a race. The other boat didn’t know, but we were all yacht races and we all sort of just tried that little bit harder. You know, the jib cars were getting moved centimetre by centimetre just trying to get that extra bit of boat speed out of the boat.
LINDSAY: It’s human nature isn’t it.
Okay, so we better crack on. I want to ask you what is the worst thing that ever happened to you or made you feel bad when you’ve been sailing in the past?
ROGER: I’ve only ever had one situation where for an instant I thought, “I don’t like this.” That was in 1984 up in Wellington. Big seas, big winds. We capsized and the boat came over on top of us. I was on the trapeze – had trapeze wires still attached and the waves were so big that every time the skipper who got over on the centreboard tried to bring the boat up, my wire was underneath the boat and I was being dragged down. That whole thought of drowning came into it. It was probably two seconds worth of time and I managed to get the hook off and I was fine, but just that two seconds I thought, “Gosh that was horrible.” Any other time, I don’t think I’ve ever had a worse time.
We’ve had situations and time when you think, “Gosh this is crazy. I’m a little bit scared here,” but not anything that’s been bad. On the 42’ we lost the rig in Cook Strait just over the flat – we lost the whole rig and that cost $217,000 for the owner to get a new rig and repair the boat, but because we were a team, we just cut away the rig, we were all safe. You could say it was a worse situation because we lost an expensive rig on an expensive race boat but actually we were all cool, calm, collected, we weren’t scared, we weren’t in danger, we didn’t look at it and say, “We never want to race,” or “We never want to go on a boat again.”
LINDSAY: That’s interesting that you lost the rig in Cook Strait. It’s a very nasty piece of water.
Now some of the people listening to this might be thinking, “Why did you just cut it away? Why didn’t you try and save it? It’s a very expensive piece of equipment on the boat.”
ROGER: Because it would have been impossible. What happened is the rig fell to leeward, we were on the wind. What happened was a turn buckle broke, in fact it was in my hand at the time and it broke on the lower Stay and the carbon fibre mast just cracked and broke into three pieces and dropped over to lured. The bow swung around so we were actually side on to the waves and they were about a metre and a half waves. The boat was actually pushing onto the mast and the main, and the jib, and so there was no way that we could actually drag it up. If it had gone the other way and it was just lying beside the boat and the boat was sort of trying to sail away from it we would’ve been fine. The boat was actually trying to push over the top of it all the time. There was just no way that we could lift it. It’s a 60’ mast. It actually takes three of us to lift the main itself so when you’re tossing around in those seas there’s no way you can get it back.
We got as much off it as we could, but actually it was too dangerous to try and get too much back on it. We were better just to get rid of it and hope like heck that the insurance company would see it our way, which they did. Not initially, but they did. The safety of the crew was the most important bit. The safety of the crew and the boat. The risk to the boat. We were still floating. The hull wasn’t damaged.
LINDSAY: There is a risk when you lose a mast over the side and it still holds by rigging and all the rest of it, that it actually punctures a hole in the hulls – not so sure about carbon fibre but definitely aluminium masts have been known to do that and fibreglass hulls.
ROGER: What happened is that the carbon mast – it’s keel stepped, comes through the coach-roof and it actually broke off about a metre and a half up from the keel, and the broken end was flailing around inside the boat. It was actually in the head – where the head would be if we had a head, we have a bucket – and it actually smashed all the bulkheads inside. If you’d been downstairs rigging the magazine at the time you would’ve been dead. We had to get that out of the boat. We had to get it out, off and gone. We had a six-millimetre tough, stainless steel rigging and you can’t cut that with a hacksaw, you can’t cut it with a pair of bolt cutters. We had a battery electric angle grinder with a cutter blade on it and it just went, “Zing!” straight through. We were able to jettison it as fast as we could.
LINDSAY: That’s quite an event. Something that we all worry about a little bit when we go sailing is losing the mast.
ROGER: You asked the question, “What was the worst?” I don’t put it in the worst. It was the worst event if you like but it wasn’t scary, it wasn’t dangerous, it didn’t put us off at all. it was one of those things that happened.
LINDSAY: Okay. Let’s turn that around now and ask you what was the best thing that happened to you when you were out on the water?
ROGER: I’d have to say actually sailing the keelboat I’ve got now – the Farr MRX the 34-footer. Actually, sailing that for the first time, sailing out onto the racecourse and dedicating that first race to mum and dad, and sailing with Jo, and Michael, and Josh – the family plus the other friends, and actually going on and winning the race with sails that were 20 years old. Winning the race and coming back, sitting at the dock, having a beer, having a rum, having some food, having some laughter and thinking, “This is what it’s all about.” That was just a really special day. Every day I sail is special. They’re all different, they’re all fun. Not one of them is comparable which is special. We won the Rum racing series for the season – 20 weeks, 20 races and we won that. It was just great to be able to hug the team and realise that we’d done it. Just a normal pack of sailors. None of us are rock stars. Obviously I’ve done quite a bit of sailing but I don’t classify myself as a Rockstar. Just an extended family having fun.
LINDSAY: Absolutely fantastic. I can just picture that.
Now I always ask this question – do you get seasick and tell us a bit about how you deal with it if you do, or how you deal with seasick crews.
ROGER: The answer is I’ve been seasick three times. I don’t get motion sick and I’m not 100% sure if you’d call these seasick. I can describe them quickly.
The first was – I don’t like coffee. I’ve never drunk coffee. Don’t like the smell of it. In Toronto, we’d gone out for the last race of the season. There had been a storm for three days. There were big rollers coming down Lake Ontario and it snowed overnight so it was cold. We actually had to sail an hour and a half out to the lake to where they were running the race course. We were all frozen so somebody said, “Who wants tea, who wants coffee?” and then they said they’d forgotten the tea bags. I thought, I need something because one: I need to hold on to something warm because my hands are freezing. I had the coffee and yep I was seasick. I now know why I don’t drink coffee – because it made me sick.
The second time was actually in the J-35 delivering it back from Mackinac Island down the length of Lake Huron – back to Detroit. Jo and I had been given the charge with this with two friends from Toronto who were sailors but not sailors, to bring the boat back. We had to go across and refuel the boat. Another boat had run out of fuel and we had to raft up this boat and bring it into the marina. It was 39 degrees Celsius. Really hot. When we left the marina, and started sailing down I was sick, and I was sick for two days. It was probably more sunstroke than seasick. All I could do was try and keep some dried bread down. Once you start – you really can’t stop it. You’ve just got to go with the flow. Ginger Ale and dried bread is about the only thing you can have.
The third time was here in Cook Strait – 6 o’clock in the morning start. Really cold, raining, through the Karori Rip, it was like a sock in the washing machine. I was wet through and shaking and we hit the south west corner of the North Island. Then we sailed downwind with the kite up doing 25 knots – absolutely fantastic. Never stopped shaking the whole way down. Came around the end of an island and back up to Cook Strait and I was seasick. Again, it was the cold.
My recommendation is to anybody if you get motion sick – get the strongest anti-seasick pills you can get. We’ve got ones in New Zealand called Paihia Bombs they come from Paihia. It’s in the Bay of Islands. They work brilliantly. They last 24 hours. They’re a double dose of Diazepam and then the second pill is caffeine. The first one drives you to sleep and the second one wakes you back up again. In the middle of that the anti-seasick part worked. The other thing is, the way you stop it is you just have to be warm. After the race in the Cook Strait I bought a dry suit. A relatively cheap one. Actually, now what I do is when we go offshore I’ll just put this dry suit on, I have polyprops underneath and I put my foul weather gear and I get nice and cuddly warm. I don’t feel seasick because the body temperature is right. Everything else is the same. There we go. I haven’t been seasick since.
LINDSAY: It’s good to hear that the Paihia Bombs are still working. That’s the one that had the best effect for my wife. It’s very important that you take that second pill though because the first one will make you fall asleep.
ROGER: Staying dry and warm, and just looking out on the horizon is the best way. You don’t try and fight it. You look at the horizon. If you’re dry and warm, then the chances of getting seasick are a lot reduced.
LINDSAY: It’s very interesting you say, “Look at the horizon,” because I interviewed Dr Stoffregen from America who is an expert on motion sickness and started going down that track because he was interested in astronauts and the problems they have with motion sickness. That’s in another podcast that I did earlier on if you want to listen to that very good podcast with Dr Stoffregen.
You’ve got two kids and they’ve gone down the path of sailing, what sort of things are they doing now with their lives? Are they professional sailors or are they still just doing club racing? It sounds like you’ve definitely given them the bug.
ROGER: They’ve both been through the youth match racing which is Australasian and US. The circuit that they do. Michael has been across and done Goves Cup in the States and they’ve both done Warren Jones regatta in Perth, and at three Sydney regattas. One at Pittwater and the other two out at CYC, and Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. We’ve got other regattas in Auckland and here in Wellington. So they’ve all done that. Now they’ve aged out of that, so now they’re racing with me. Michael was first racing on Wedgetail and I actually came and raced with him on that. They were short of crew in winter and Michael said, “Well I’ll get my dad to come along.” Which was very strange. When a son actually says, “I’ll get my old fart dad to come along,” and I haven’t got off the boat ever since then. That’s the bigger boat.
That’s what they’re doing. Not professional sailors. They could quite easily do so. Michael when he first was doing the match racing was a sailor called Josh Jr, and Josh Jr was the New Zealand Finn rep at the last Olympics and got fourth. He’s now on team New Zealand as one of the Cyclors. What they’ve both done is that they’ve got friends that are right up at the top of all the major racing sectors around the world. That will open up to them again in the future.
LINDSAY: That’s very interesting and we’re recording this not more than a week out from when the America’s Cup racing is about to start, so I’ll bet your kids will be glued to any media that they can get hold of to see how things go.
ROGER: One of the good things about the internet and windows is if you have this little window in the side of your computer, watching live yacht racing, while still looking like you’re working.
LINDSAY: Oh okay. Yeah.
ROGER: The person that’s missing out of this is Jo. She still sails with us on occasion. She doesn’t really like to race that much now. She likes coming out on the boat for a little putt around the harbour. She raced with us in the last race of the season a couple of weeks ago, along with her sister and brother-in-law who had never sailed before in their lives. They had a ball of a time. Even with them on board we had nine on board that day, so it was quite crowded, we got second on handicap and that was a good indication of what the racing is like. You can take people out that don’t know what they’re doing and still do well. They don’t hinder and they absolutely loved it.
LINDSAY: That’s good to hear. The more people getting into it the better. It certainly adds to your life when you’ve got that sort of adventure happening. Breaks up the normal work week. If you can’t make it your lifestyle then I guess that’s the next best thing, is to get out on weekends and race.
ROGER: You need to have something that takes you away completely from work. As you know at the start, I worked very hard and I got a lot of international stuff and what-have-you, but actually on the weekends I can just turn it off and go out for a day sailing – Friday night now as well – and that makes it all worthwhile.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I do realise that you do work very hard and it’s been quite hard to pin you down to do this interview. That’s good that you’ve given us your time. I’ve only got one more question and that is, if there anything more that you can offer our listeners to help them get started, gain momentum, get out on the water and enjoy the thrills and spills of yacht racing?
ROGER: If you want to do it – set your heart in it and go and pester somebody. Go and put a notice on the noticeboard that says, “Hi we want to go for a sail.” Get some peel off telephone numbers and just go and hang around. Somewhere along the line you’ll get a ride on a race boat, you’ll go for a sail on a cruising boat, maybe do a course at the yacht club if that’s what it would take, and just remember to stay warm and have fun. It’s all about having fun. If you really enjoy it then just keep going for it. Just keep going. It does get into your blood. No matter where you are in the world you can go and do it. To sail a yacht here is the same as sailing in Australia, it’s the same as sailing in the Mediterranean, it’s the same as sailing Vladivostok. Wherever you want to sail. It’s a transferable skill and people all love being parts of a team and enjoying themselves. That’s what sailing is all about.
LINDSAY: That’s good, and I think we’ve really created something useful here for others and I hope it gets shared around the internet through Facebook, social media, anything like that. Thank you very much Roger for your time. We better call it quits here with great content. Thank you very much once again.
ROGER: And to all the listeners out there – just go for it and really enjoy it. It’s a fantastic, fantastic sport, and if you need something to do in winter – skiing is exactly the same. It’s like sailing on snow. Just the wind, just the snow, no motor, no additional help. Just the sound of the wind rushing past your ears. That’s the nice part.
LINDSAY: Okay. Well we’ll call it quits here and thanks again.
ROGER: Okay. Thanks Lindsay. We’ll have to get out and go sailing ourselves at some stage.
LINDSAY: Definitely. Yeah, I can’t wait for that day.
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