Tony Cable closes on his 50th Sydney-Hobart race

Tony Cable just keeps going on. Last year he finished his 48th Sydney Hobart, setting a record for the number of races by an individual – this year it is number 49 – 49 not out, just one off the half ton! 

But you know what? While everyone else is excited, and already speculating about next year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart, Cable himself is not all that fussed. “I don’t get too overwhelmed about that. Guys mention it, but its froth and bubble. I never really set out to do it.”

Cable has notched up all these years for one very simple reason. He loves the sport and the mates he sails with. He likes doing it, so why wouldn’t he keep doing it for as long as he can?  Records are about ego. Ocean racing is about teamwork, and that is where Tony Cable fits in.

“One thing I reflect on is that when I started in 1961, I was one of the youngest and now I’ve outlived them all. It’s curious,” he says of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s annual 628 nautical mile race.

He is chuffed, though, that all this time he has been crew. Every time he has raced it is because an owner, who is spending a lot of money trying to win this race and has no room for passengers, has tapped him on the shoulder.

Cable will be back at it in the cockpit of Damien Parkes’ Judel/Vrolijk 52 Duende this year; grinding away, trimming, repacking sails and even manning the galley at times. A bit of everything really, including inspiring some of the newer younger crew and regaling them with his fund of Hobart stories.

Parkes describes Cable, or ‘Glark’ as he is known (think Clark Gable) as one of the unsung heroes of the Rolex Sydney Hobart. “He can out-grind, out-trim, out-steer any of the young blokes I’ve got on board and then happily put the kettle on when you want a cup of tea.

“He is a fantastic motivator of the crew, a good teacher, and he loves the tradition of the Hobart.”

Cable says: “Quite a few of the older guys are owners, and can sit and let younger guys do the work. I’m different, because I was always a hand – and there aren’t too many old hands around,” Cable says. “Being a hand, I’ll be sent to the knackery before I get as old as the owners, but it proves you can keep at it. I’m pleased I can still do it.”

In a nutshell, what Parkes is talking about when he speaks of Cable, is old fashioned seamanship.

“In the beginning we used to do the 300 nautical mile Montague Island race every year, a few 180 milers and 90 milers every couple of weeks. And if your boat wasn’t racing that day, you’d jump on another one, and riding on different boats you would see how they did things and that would add to your knowledge.”

Seamanship is the stuff you pick up about boats, weather, sails and people when you’re bouncing around the ocean mile after mile, week after week, year after year, so that it all becomes instinctive when the proverbial excrement hits the fan. It comes when you make every mistake it is possible to make and then invent a few more.

“This could happen: Oh s..t, it did” Cable laughs.

A good sailor and a good seaman are not necessarily the same thing, either, he insists.  “The boats now are going faster, bouncing around more, and more technique and knowledge are needed. With all these sailing academies, kids learn quicker now.

“When I was starting out, the older guys didn’t go out of their way to teach you things. They taught you by yelling at you. You had to do your apprenticeship on the foredeck and around the boat before they would let go of the helm.

“These young guns are learning to be very good sailors. If one of them took me out in one of those little harbour racing boats, they’d be all over me, but in a hard blow to windward in 50 knots…

“They have the skills, but not the seamanship. For example, we were doing man-overboard and I said ‘what about the garbage bags. Chuck them over to help find your way back to the man.’  They were stepping over the garbage bags looking for lights. They don’t get as much time at sea as we used to.”

Because times have changed, everyone works harder and longer now. Gone are the days when the little woman would sit at home while hubby sailed off with his mates on Saturday morning and finally wobble home Sunday night. We’ve all grown up a bit since then, though when you mention those raunchier times, a little gleam still creeps into Cable’s eyes.

Like, what’s this thing about Graeme ‘Frizzle’ Freeman and the Garrow light?

“I can only recall one short fat bald man that resembled a well-lit port hand mark,” Frizzle recently observed. “There were some nights one would think it was occulting, others it was quick flashing, and at times a quick flash with a five second break, just long enough to empty a middy glass.

“I’m all for changing the name Garrow to ‘Glarks shoal light’, and putting an empty middy glass on the top. As the Sydney Hobart yachts pass Glarks shoal, they should rip the lid off one, and salute the bloke that’s mad enough to do 49 Sydney Hobarts,” the former ocean racing yachtsman says.

“The Garrow Light flashes red near the Hobart finish line,” Cable laughs. “In the old days, I’d come up to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia bar after a long lunch and Frizzle would say I was lit up like the John Garrow light.”

He remembers fondly the tough, hard playing hard drinking skippers of half a century ago.  “A lot were ex-servicemen and tradesmen who’d built their own boats. On Sylph, for instance, four of the crew were plumbers. They were all practical, do-it-yourself men who could fix anything.

“There was greater fraternity in the crews then; crews stayed together for years. We were all rascals together.”

Damien Parkes has sailed alongside Cable for many years. This is their twelfth Hobart together. He has a million Cable stories, one or two printable.  “He always has a score of those little bottles of rum you get on aircraft hidden in the boat. I can never find them. He drinks one every time we pass a lighthouse, to remember old friends. 

“Last year after we passed the Macquarie lighthouse, on South Head, I saw he had three empties. I said Macquarie was our first lighthouse, but he said no, we’d passed the Wedding Cakes in Sydney Harbour. He can mix rum with anything. I think he must be worried about scurvy.

“And he doesn’t own a pair of sea-boots. The young guys have got every bit of gear – sea boots, mountain-boots – all Tony has is a pair of old boat shoes and no socks. Even when we had snow on the deck one year.”

Over all those years, Cable has seen just about everything that the race can throw at you. Howling gales, giant waves, skating across sunlit seas under spinnaker, bobbing aimlessly on the Derwent River in sight of the finish line. He’s rather pleased that the early forecasts suggest this will be an easy one, the first day’s 25 knot southerly notwithstanding.

“Twenty five knots isn’t that bad.  It’s not 35 or 45. It won’t be pleasant, but it is not hard. After that, we should get down to Hobart quickly. It’s about time. The last three races we’ve had a bashing,” Cable says.

Given that so often the back half of the fleet has copped a hiding after the big boats have safely arrived in Hobart, he is a little pleased that this time the southerly is on day one and the little guys will get the exclusive benefit of the later northerlies. “That’s good,” he says. “For years we’ve tried to redress the imbalance.”

So what advice would this soon to be 49-race veteran offer the youngsters (there are at least eleven 18 year-olds contesting their first Hobart) starting out today?

“Control your sea-sickness, keep warm and dry as long as you can,” he says, “and keep up your enthusiasm and stamina. You’ve got to have the drive, even when it’s wet and cold at 4.00am in the morning and you really just want to find a warm corner to lie in,” Cable says.

“Look after yourself, your mates and the boat, and don’t let up.” Sounds like traditional Sydney Hobart seamanship.

The start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race will be broadcast live on the Seven Network throughout Australia and webcast live to a global audience on Yahoo!7.

A Parade of Sail will take place from 10.30am to 11.30am, before A fleet of 117 will set sail from three start lines in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race on December 26 at 1.00pm AEDT.

By Jim Gale, RSHYR media 

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