|SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA-(17-12-2005) John Bennetto, a “legend in Australian yachting”, has died in Hobart after a brief illness.
Bennetto, 79, passed away in hospital late yesterday, only nine days before the start of the 61st Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race in which he had hoped to compete for the 45th time.
The ‘Sydney Race’, as Tasmanian yachtsmen refer to the blue water classic, was the love of his life. He first sailed in 1947 aboard Kintail and the following year crewed on the winning Tasmania boat Westward.
His current yacht, Quest, will be sailed in his memory by longtime members of his crew, many of whom have sailed with him for the past 20 years and longer.
It is understood that John has asked that his ashes be scattered on the Derwent River as Quest crosses the finish line off Hobart’s Castray Esplanade at Battery Point.
His record of 44 races, mostly as skipper of his own yacht including 17 straight races without a retirement with his Frers 47 Mirrabooka, stands as a record for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and is probably unprecedented in world ocean racing.
The Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Geoff Lavis today described John Bennetto as a “legend of yachting in Australia”, a yachtsman who had made a magnificent contribution to ocean racing over the past 60 years.
“His record of sailing in 44 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races is probably a world ranking achievement for any long ocean race,” Commodore Lavis added.
“He had a huge commitment to the sport and had his health not deteriorated so rapidly in the last few months I am sure he would have been on the starting line on Boxing Day this year.
“He did enter Quest for the race and I know his crew will sail the boat in his memory.
“Over the past 60 years John, firstly as a crewman and then as a yacht owner, passed on his great skills of seamanship to many up-and-coming sailors, introducing them to ocean racing.
“Many of them who have, and still are, sailing on his yachts, are on the path to logging as many races as ‘JB’, as he was is known to his sailing mates and colleagues.”
Commodore Lavis said the burgee of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia had been lowered to half-mast in memory of John Bennetto and his contribution to the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race over so many years.
‘JB’ was closely involved with the Quiet Little Drink, the famous post-race get-together of sailors in Hobart, which also raised money for young sailors to gain international experience.
“We ran the Quiet Little Drink for 30 years and the accumulated funds ran into many thousands of dollars,” Q.L.D. co-ordinator Tony Cable, himself a veteran of 41 races to Hobart. “John acted as trustee for these moneys which we gave to young sailors, including three Tasmanians to enable them to sail in the Fastnet Race in England and many other international events that gave them a great impetus to their sailing careers.”
Yachting journalist Peter Campbell, who had known ‘JB’ for more than 50 years, described him as “a wonderful raconteur…a bit of a sailing larrikin with a vast range of stories about fellow yachties (and himself). Over the years he extolled his wisdom and seamanship skills to hundreds of younger sailors. He once told me he would never ask one of his crew to do something he would not do himself.”
John Bennetto sailed his first Sydney Hobart Race in 1947 on Kintail after serving as a young officer with the Navy in World War II. He was aboard HMAS Australia when attacked by Japanese Kamikaze aircraft off the Philippines in 1944/45
He was a strong and remarkably agile foredeck hand on Kintail and even in his 70s could still be seen at the top of the mast of his yacht at the CYCA, checking the rigging before the start of the race back to Hobart.
He sailed four subsequent races on Kintail although in 1948 he was on board another Tasmanian yacht, Westward, which won the race on corrected time. Over the next few years ‘JB’ sailed on a number of different boats, including a couple of races with his long-time friend Don Mickleborough on Southerly before buying Norla, the first of his own ocean yachts.
‘JB’ raced his first Mirrabooka (aboriginal for Southern Cross) for several years before buying his much-loved Frers 47, Mirrabooka II. He skippered this boat in 17 consecutive Rolex Sydney Hobarts between 1987 and 2003 without once retiring, including the stormswept race of 1998.
He refurbished Mirrabooka II for the 1994 50th anniversary Rolex Sydney Hobart Race “to ensure she becomes a relatively fast IMS cruiser/racer of the future…the crew has gone into training…but roast dinners will not, however, be abandoned!”
Those dinners were not abandoned, at least until he bought the champion grand prix racer Quest, with its limited creature comforts below deck.
Quest was to have been John Bennetto’s real chance of winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with his own boat, but sadly he cannot now achieve that in person. But no doubt he will have a close contact with “Hughie” the sailor’s wind god and keeping a weather eye on Quest as she sails south on Boxing Day. – Peter Campbell