Vale Syd Fischer AM OBE

By Di Pearson.

Yachting legend Syd Fischer passed away on Thursday evening, he was 95.

Born 4 March, 1927, Fischer stood head and shoulders above the rest. His work life revolved around the building industry, property development and the marine industry, including Sydney City Marine, these days managed by grandson Brenton Fischer. He was hands-on in every aspect of his businesses and in sport.

“Tough as nails”, was how business and sailing associates described Fischer “tough, but fair”, Fischer would respond. The ‘Fischer school of hard knocks’, was another expression he enjoyed hearing. This comes from his life lessons – ‘get a good deal,’ was among them. A polarising figure, you could not help but respect and admire him.

Since turning 80 in 2007, he constantly proclaimed with a big grin, “I’ve mellowed,” and indeed he had. He was a very different Syd to the one I worked for at four America’s Cups, starting in 1986. However, the tough side still appeared on occasions…

Awarded an OBE in 1971 for multiple sporting achievements in first grade football, surf lifesaving (boat captain) and sailing, Fischer was inducted into the NSW Sports Hall of Fame in 2002-03 for these achievements.

In the 2017 Queens Birthday honours list, was made Member (AM) in the General Division for significant service to sailing as a yachtsman and international competitor and as a mentor to young sailors. They weren’t the only ones to benefit, others employed by him, me included, were given incredible opportunities we would not have had otherwise.

More recognition came when he was named Australian Yachtsman of the year 1971/72 and again in 1992/93; Ocean Racer of the Year 1993, 1996, 2002, 2008 and Veteran Ocean Racer of the Year in 2007, 2012; Award for Services to Yachting 2003/03; Lifetime Achievement award at Australian Yachting Awards 2013. He was proud to receive the President’s Award at the 2014 Australian Yachting Awards from Matt Allen.

Fischer’s most cherished though, came with the announcement in March 2017 that he was to be inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, the ceremony finally held at the Royal Yachting Squadron in Cowes, UK, on the evening of 31 August, 2018. It was collected by his grandson Brenton, as doctors advised Fischer not to travel (he was 91).

Seven weeks later, on the evening of 19 October, 2018, he was inducted into the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame.

Syd Fischer in relax mode
Syd Fischer in relax mode

Without doubt Australia’s most successful yachtsman, Fischer self-funded five America’s Cup campaigns, equalling the record of the Late Sir Thomas Lipton. Fischer represented the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron and Cruising Yacht Club of Australia at the multitude of sailing events contested throughout his life.

His first America’s Cup campaign was in 1983, then followed by Steak ‘N Kidney (name later changed to Sydney) in 1986-87. It was a special boat designed by another great, Peter Cole, which other syndicates (Australian and international), tried to charter and buy without luck.

After those came Challenge Australia in 1992, Sydney 95 in 1995 and Young Australia in 2000. It was the only and final Australian syndicate to contest for the ‘Auld Mug’.

Fischer managed each of the syndicates. He built the compound, office and sail loft from the ground up for the 1986-87 campaign in Fremantle, helped by some of the crew. He also sailed races in both the 1983 and 1986 Cups (and let me go aboard during trials in Freo), all this while dashing back and forwards to Sydney and overseas to attend to business.

The Sydney yachtsman represented and captained Australia internationally more times than any other person: Admiral’s Cup (represented a record eight times, captained Australia a record seven times and won or placed in four Cups); Clipper/Kenwood Cup (represented six times, captaining four winning teams). With a chartered boat, won the 1971 World One Ton Cup in Auckland.

He launched the America’s Cup and offshore yachting careers of numerous young sailors, starting with Iain Murray. At just 25 years of age, Murray’s first America’s Cup gig was as skipper of Advance in 1983. And of course, there was James ‘Jimmy’ Spithill.

The majority of those crews have gone on to great success in America’s Cups, Olympics, Sydney Hobarts, Volvo Ocean Races, international one-design, match racing, world championships and in business. Sailing has a hell of a lot to thank him for.

His appointment as skipper of the Young Australia team catapulted James Spithill into the America’s Cup arena at the age of 19. He turned 20 during his participation and was the youngest skipper in the history of the event. Fischer first introduced him to the offshore racing scene via Ragamuffin and the Sydney Hobart.

In 2010, at 30, Spithill went on to become the youngest skipper to win the America’s Cup. He has not looked back. For that campaign, Fischer launched an Australia-wide search to find the best young sailors.

Up to and including the 2015 Sydney Hobart, Fischer competed in 47 Sydney/Hobart races (taking line honours in two and winning one). Only three other yachtsmen contested more, including his friend and longtime crew, Tony Ellis, who holds the current record of 54 races, set in 2022 (the two did 41 Hobarts together).

From 2011-2015 (84-88 years of age), he became and remains the oldest skipper and competitor in the race.

During those 47 Hobarts, Fischer captained Australian and NSW Southern Cross teams in: 1975, 1993, 1995 1997 and 2004 – more times than any other person – and won a record nine Blue Water Point Scores, the CYCA’s annual offshore point score series. In all, more than 250 people have sailed with Fischer in Sydney Hobart Yacht Races alone.

Syd Fischer at his Ragamuffin 100 christening - Andrea Francolini, Ragamuffin pic
Syd Fischer at his Ragamuffin 100 christening – Andrea Francolini, Ragamuffin pic

In July 2013, Syd took monohull line honours in the Transpac Race with Ragamuffin 100, originally Maximus, launched in 1989. In October that year, he took line honours in the Hong Kong Vietnam Race with Ragamuffin 90, the Dubois 90, and broke the race.

In April 2014, he took line honours in the Rolex China Sea Race with Ragamuffin 90 in the biggest international fleet since the 20th century. In May that year, Fischer followed up with line honours and broke the race record in the Okinawa Tokai Race.

September 26, 2014: A new 100 foot hull was created to go under the deck of Ragamuffin/Loyal with spare keel from Wild Oats XI. It left Nowra factory and was delivered the following morning at 4.00am under the cover of darkness to Fischer’s Sydney City Marine.

In July 2015, with a new 100 foot hull, Ragamuffin 100 finished second on line to Wild Oats XI in the Transpac Race. In September, she took line honours in the 672nm Hong Kong Vietnam Race, breaking the race record Fischer had set in 2013 with his Ragamuffin 90.

Fischer was also a philanthropist, doing it in his own quiet way, but many in sailing benefitted. He also helped some from among his crews who were having the odd struggle.

At 91, ‘The Silver Barracuda’, a nickname given to Fischer that goes back more than 50 years, was still going strong. His physicality was somewhat diminished through his nineties, as he pushed himself in first grade rugby league, boxing, surf lifesaving and elite sailing, necessitating daily sessions at the gym. These things took their toll.

However, Fischer was still mentally sharp. While the harsh side of his personality had evaporated, the cheek and humour remained; evidenced at functions, birthdays and dinners I shared with him, Tony Ellis, Bruce Gould and others.

The sayings he practiced in everyday business and life were legendary. My favourites, learned from him during the 1986-1987 Steak ‘N Kidney America’s Cup days, continue to hold me in good stead today: ‘Trust is good, checking is better’ and ‘Delegation is not abdication’.

A remarkable man by any standards, a great many owe a debt of gratitude to him. Fischer lived life to the full, packing more into a day than most do in a week, never wasting a minute. He will not be forgotten.

Fischer is survived by his four children: Penelope, Clayton, Annabelle and Dominique and seven grandchildren: Rebecca, Brenton, Emily, Jackson, Thomas, Petra and Peri.

Di Pearson

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