A lifetime's involvement in sailing boats still wasn't enough excitement for some, as Helen Hopcroft found out.
People dream of the perfect sea change: a new life of sipping cool drinks on a shady veranda in the tro
We spoke to Mike and Kate Rider, a couple with a lifetime of experience in and around boats, about their move from fast-paced Sydney careers to the tranquil surrounds of Airlie Beach. Although they both agree that life in North Queensland is a more relaxed affair, it hasn’t proved to be the cocktail-sipping Shangri-La they had envisaged. They have just opened a Vicsail yacht dealership, recently returned from a trip to the UK and are in the process of fitting out their new office premises themselves. As Mike modestly puts it, “Both of us have always been very hands-on people.”
Mike is ex-British Merchant Navy, a Master Class One and Four ‘so I can drive anything anywhere’ and he’s been sailing since he was nine years old. His father introduced him to sailing at their waterside home in Devon, southern England, and by age 10 he owned his first boat. It was the start of a lifelong passion for sailing. As a teenager, his family moved to Australia and after finishing school he decided to work on cargo carriers.
Kate met Mike when they were at college training for their respective occupations: she was a school teacher, he was a navigation officer. He was at the all-male sailors college about half a kilometre away from an all-female teachers college. She jokes that the proximity of the two colleges meant that ‘there was a lot of social interaction”.
In the early years of their marriage, Kate travelled with Mike when he went to sea and she estimates that they circumnavigated the world at least three times together. During this time she discovered that she had a couple of assets which would prove to be very useful to a life at sea: she doesn’t get seasick and doesn’t ‘scare easily’.
‘Because he was with the British Merchant Navy he was allowed to take me, as his wife, on board ships,’ she says. ‘So I went with him and we did three lots of six months on merchant ships: he as deck officer and I as a freeloader.’
Partly as an antidote to the tedium of long sea passages and partly to avoid falling into bad habits (‘the bar was always open’), she learned to use a sextant and Mike taught her celestial navigation.
Mike worked on cargo carriers for about 13 years and during this time Kate and he always owned their own cruising yacht. Initially based in Melbourne, they built a 34ft monohull and in their spare time used it to explore the local waters. Kate said that her most frightening experience at sea had occurred in these waters: ‘We’ve had some very unnerving experiences, as you do on boats, out on Bass Strait at midnight when there’s no moon and the seas are absolutely horrendous.’
Building their first boat
In the early 1980s, Mike left the cargo carriers behind, they sailed their 34 footer from Melbourne up to Sydney and liked it so much that they decided to stay. Mike started a boat-building business and the first boat out of his yard was a 56ft Crowther-designed catamaran which was launched on Sydney Harbour. ‘We knew Lock Crowther very well and tended to think that he was God as far as catamarans were concerned.’
It wasn’t until people kept asking to charter the boat that Mike realised that he had a fledgling charter operation on his hands. The business that was to become the Elite Cruise Company, still active on Sydney Harbour today, started with this first Crowther catamaran.
At its height, the Elite Cruise Company was operating four large vessels and catering for a couple of thousand customers per day. Mike built another two boats for their fleet: a 72ft sailing catamaran and an 86ft power catamaran. Kate jokes that whenever he said, ‘I want to build another boat!’, she always replied, ‘OK, let’s do it.’
Kate worked as a PE teacher until 1988 when two things became apparent: she loved teaching but decided it was time for a new career, and the charter business had grown to the point where it was consuming all Mike’s working hours and a fair number of hers: ‘I used to wag school more than the kids.’ She began working full-time for the charter business and qualified as a Master Five.
Selling up and moving
In 2002, they decided it was time for a change. The charter business was still thriving but there was a feeling that they had achieved all they could with it. They sold up and moved north to a house they had previously brought on the Sunshine Coast. Mike resumed boat building and designed and built a couple of 65ft vessels from scratch: one is a powerboat charter vessel called Tinola that operates on Sydney Harbour and the other is a sailing vessel named Jalun based in Hervey Bay.
Then a Sydney client asked him to build a 56ft catamaran. By this stage, building boats in Australia had become an increasingly tough business so Mike offered to help him find a suitable production boat instead. He contacted Vicsail’s Brendan Hunt and ended up securing his client a Lagoon L500 (he refers to Lagoons as ‘probably the best of the production boats around’), and himself a Whitsunday Vicsail dealership.
Both Mike and Kate say that one of the things they like about running a dealership from a laidback place like Airlie Beach is that they have much more time to spend with their clients. They tell people ‘we’d be happy to spend as much time as you need or you want to make sure that you are comfortable with the boat that you’ve brought’.
Kate used to work in a Sydney Harbour brokerage and said that she was amazed by the number of clients who had become nervous about boating after a bad experience on the water. She sees her role as being to support people until they feel confident handling their new boat. ‘We’ve got the time now to help people get over their fear of sailing.’
Mike is setting up a ‘try-before-you-buy’ scheme in conjunction with local bare-boat charter operators. If a client books a charter through his dealership and then returns to buy a new boat from him within six months, he will credit all or part of the cost of the charter towards the purchase. He says it’s a good way of spending a week cruising the Whitsundays islands in a Beneteau or Lagoon which is the same or similar to one you may be thinking of purchasing: you get to know the boat and have a holiday all at the same time.