Brindabella in the 98 Sydney to Hobart
Syd Fischer is not the only 83-year-old with a stake in a yacht in the Rolex Sydney Hobart race this year.
Bob Oatley, the wealthy octogenarian winemaker, remains owner of Wild Oats XI, the maxi that has won line honors four times.
But Fischer is certainly the only 83-year-old who will be sailing on his (or any) yacht during the potentially wild ride to Hobart starting Sunday.
Although he is not the oldest man to sail in the race — John Walker was 86 when he took part in 2008 — this will be Fischer’s 42nd appearance in one of the world’s premier ocean races, and, through the decades and the occasional disaster, he has become a symbol of Australian sailing and perseverance.
“As I always say, it’s something to do between Christmas and New Year,” Fischer said by telephone this week from Sydney.
“What else do you do? Sit around and watch television?”
For Fischer, this is a rhetorical question.
For others his age, it is — quite reasonably — not.
“He just never stops,” said his close friend Tony Ellis, who will be sailing in his 38th Sydney Hobart with Fischer this week. (see Sydney-Hobart website)
“He’s always saying, ‘Try this or try that. Have you had a think about this?’ He’s really just a big motivator, just making sure he keeps blokes on their toes all the time. And the big problem we have with him is to get him to go down and have a sleep every now and again, because he is getting on a bit. He can tend to overdo it a bit.”
Fischer, a Sydney property developer, has been pushing himself and his crews in the race the Australians call “the Hobart” for nearly 50 years.
Asked to recall his first one, he could not remember whether it was in 1962 or 1963. (It was 1962.) But he could certainly recall what happened one morning in that race as they were sailing down the Tasmanian coast through the fog in the yacht Malohi after the previous owner, who was on board, had tried unsuccessfully to convince the navigator that they were sailing into a dangerous area called the Hippolyte Rocks.
“He finally said, ‘Look I’m going to go and lie on the bow, because I reckon we’re heading for them,”’ Fischer said. “And blow me down, about 20 minutes later, he yelled out, ‘Rocks ahead! Rocks ahead!’
And out of the mist came the bloody great rocks sticking out of the water.
We had a spinnaker on, so we just shoved the boat around and got out of there, and we had seagulls flying in and out of the rigging and everything.”
Fischer is chuckling, but he knows too well that not all Sydney-Hobart stories have happy endings.
In 1998, a severe storm caused the death of six sailors, among them Jim Lawler, a friend of Fischer.
Fischer, Ellis and their crew — which included a future America’s Cup helmsman, James Spithill — escaped harm.
“A lot of the people who got into real strife were the ones who turned around and tried to come back,” Fischer said. “It was coming from the south, and they were going north and so they stayed in the storm. We sailed straight through it and out to the other side, thank God, and we got knocked around a bit but at least we got into calm water.”
Fischer’s yacht finished third that year and he says now that he never considered calling it a career.
“We knew what went wrong, or at least we thought we did,” he said. “So I saw no reason to stop.”
Fischer fell for sailing when he discovered that it put him in contact with the same big waves and tough-minded, team-minded competitors that were part of the Australian surf-lifesaving events in which he excelled as a Sydney teenager.
After racing in Malohi, Fischer had his own yacht built in the 1960s.
He settled on the name Ragamuffin, in honor of some Australian women who formed a hospital-volunteer committee called Ragamuffin that sometimes used one of Fischer’s penthouses for meetings and other functions.
He still calls his yachts Ragamuffin even though his current carbon-fiber TP-52 bears little resemblance to the timber original.
Fischer won Sydney-Hobart line honors in 1988 and 1990 and won the overall handicap in 1992. He also won the 1971 Fastnet race, has sailed in eight Admiral’s Cups and mounted five America’s Cup challenger campaigns, most recently in 2000.
“In Australia you can’t raise money for the America’s Cup, because when Alan Bond won and then went broke and a lot of small people lost their money in his company, I think it turned sponsors off,” Fischer said, referring to the Australian businessman who won the Cup in 1983.
Fischer said he sold off his existing Sydney hotels and most other property in 2008, because he had sensed trouble: “When you see more and more cranes on the horizon in the city, get out.”
He has not retired, however, and continues to go to the office in Sydney on weekday mornings, awaiting a better business climate and maintaining his physical condition with the help of a personal trainer.
“I just keep at it,” he said. “I think as you get older, it’s the edict, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.”’
But Fischer has no illusions about his longevity as he heads back out to sea on a slippery deck while others in his peer group, like Oatley, watch from shore or the spectator fleet.
“It’s the old story,” he said. “You’re a rooster one day and a feather duster the next. That’s it. You never know.”