Living Legends: Mick York
David Salter celebrates the life-in-progress of a remarkable Australian yachtsman.
WE’VE ALL met them. Some of us have been lucky enough to sail with them.
They’re that special breed of yachtie who seem to embody all the wisdom, knowledge and experience that a life of seafaring can bring. They carry the history and traditions of our sport with them wherever they go ‘ in their heads and hands. They are the true ‘old salts’.
Turning 82 this year, Michael de Dutton York is among the finest of that breed. Mick has done it all ‘ hundreds of ocean races, thousands of cruising miles, the America’s Cup, Admiral’s Cup, world championships and Olympics.
He’s taught scores of keen young sailors the skills of offshore racing and devoted more than a quarter century of his life to volunteer work for the Sydney Maritime Museum and Heritage Fleet. Yarning with Mick is like opening a living encyclopaedia of Australian yachting.
Born in 1926, York grew up in the Sydney harbourside suburb of Vaucluse.
‘During my school years I was mainly interested in boats, and spent most of my weekends on the water around Parsley Bay with my mates. We had an old 16ft rowing boat in the shed with two sets of oars. During the war, to make pocket money, we’d take the liberty men ashore from the mine sweepers for two shillings a head.
‘Sometimes, when a strong westerly was blowing, we’d row out into the middle of the harbour and hitch a ride with the muck barges for the five miles up to Goat Island. Then we’d rig masts and old canvas and sail home.’
Like so many notable Sydney sailors, York began his racing career in VJ dinghies, then graduated to the unforgiving, over-canvassed 12-foot skiffs.
In 1942 Mick left school at the age of 16 to begin a five-year apprenticeship at Cockatoo Docks. His working day was 0730 to 1630, then straight off to technical college classes three nights a week, often not getting home until 2200. Those years at Cockatoo provided Mick with an extraordinary breadth of experience in marine engineering ‘ knowledge that would underpin his sporting activities, a long professional career and the restoration projects he undertook later in life.
As a teenager, York spent his weekends harbour racing aboard 12ft skiffs and the Pfeiffer family’s yacht Caprice, but was soon invited to join the 64ft schooner Mistral. In those days, the Cruising Yacht Club held ocean races to Bird Island, Jervis Bay and Broken Bay, and had just founded the annual Sydney to Hobart event. The other significant offshore race during that period was the RPAYC round trip to Montague Island. The Mistral boys trained for all these events and made their own blue-water fun.
‘We’d go out on a Saturday night and head straight out to sea. We’d spend all night sailing up and down the coast for training before returning to the harbour for breakfast. Then we’d go back out to sea all day Sunday. There were no winches on board so everything was done with block and tackle.’
It’s not surprising that this level of practice made Mistral one of the best-performed offshore yachts in Australia. By 1960, with the event just 15 years old, Mick had already done 10 Sydney-Hobarts ‘ four in Mistral, three in Catriona, two in Nimbus and one in Joanne Brodie.
Crewing in a Sydney-Hobart 50 years ago required levels of physical commitment and a willingness to improvise rarely found in today’s racers. They were days when nobody considered retiring from an ocean race unless their boat was close to sinking.
Mick remembers a particularly tough trip south on the 33ft canoe-sterned Nimbus. ‘We had the big spinnaker up. It was blowing 40 knots and the boat was completely out of control ‘ rolling and broaching.
‘I went forward to drop the spinnaker and at that moment we rolled. The pole dipped into the water, the kite filled with a wave and pulled the top off the mast.
‘The rest of the night was spent tidying up the mess. I went aloft and lashed two blocks to the stump of the mast to make it stable. There was just enough mast left to hoist a small mainsail before daybreak. Then we tied a few knots in the head of the spinnaker to shorten it and were back racing before breakfast.
‘Half-way up the Derwent, we’d run out of sails so we anchored in a bay and spent the morning sewing. We finished the race that afternoon.’
In 1952, dissatisfied with working for others, Mick bought the old Peddel’s Boatshed at Rushcutters Bay (now the site of the CYCA car park). That business ‘ promptly re-named York’s Marine Service ‘ had 32 moorings, two slipways, nine hire boats and a busy shipwright and engineering workshop. Three years later he married Jeannette Davey, daughter of the legendary Sydney yachtsman Mervyn Davey, a founder and early Commodore of the CYC.
Soon with a young family to care for, Mick tired of the 365-days-a-year grind that goes with running a waterfront business. He returned to his engineering background and established the mechanical seals division of Borg-Warner, opening export markets in South East Asia, notably Singapore, Indonesia and Malaya. But he somehow still managed to squeeze in a busy sailing calendar.
During that time, York also became one of the original three directors of Barlow Winches. He’d immediately seen that Malcolm Barlow’s new yacht winch designs were far superior to any of the established imported brands, but the Australian market was then too small to support the fledgling enterprise much above subsistence level.
The opportunity for Barlow to capture the world’s attention came in 1962 when the company’s winches were used on Gretel, Australia’s first challenger for the America’s Cup. Mick had been recruited to Sir Frank Packer’s campaign early in 1960 and quickly established himself in the ‘No.1’ position, running the new 12-metre’s foredeck and contributing to crew selection and training.
That campaign consumed nearly three years of York’s life, but it’s the dramatic second race of the series that is still freshest in his memory.
‘It was blowing about 20-25 knots with large seas ‘ foul weather for 12-metres in anyone’s language. We got the better of the start, but Weatherly headed us at the first mark. At the last mark we were about three boat lengths’ behind.
‘The seas were rolling in from astern as we hoisted our spinnaker. It filled beautifully while still about 30 feet from the masthead. While we were struggling with it a wave lifted our stern and the bow went about two feet under with Yours Truly fighting to close the forward hatch before half the Atlantic could pour in.
‘The wave carried us alongside Weatherly as they were still wrestling to run up their kite. We caught another wave like the first and Australian spirits were let loose as we surged down this shoot with the water flooding a foot deep back at the grinders.
‘We all let out a ‘Yahoo!’ which put the Yanks off guard as they turned to see what was happening. We were flying past them. One of our blokes was whipping the deck with a rope’s end like a jockey bringing home a winner at Randwick.’
In their shock and confusion, Weatherly neglected their brace trim and fractured the spinnaker pole. Gretel surged on to win by 47 seconds ‘ the first America’s Cup race the defenders had lost for 28 years.
Back home, York had been so impressed with the seaworthiness of Alan Payne’s 37ft Tasman Seabird design Joanne Brodie that he commissioned a Seabird in steel from Tasmanian builder Bob Brinkman.
Never bashful about asking a favour, Mick talked the owner of the Sydney-Hobart radio relay ship Lauriana into taking a load of Tui’s gear down to the Brinkman yard at Glenorchy. It’s doubtful whether the Race Committee ever knew they were carrying a secret cargo of light fittings, cleats, portholes,
Mick sailed Tui Manu from Hobart to his waterfront home in Sydney as a jury-rigged empty steel shell with engine, then completed the fit-out himself. He raced and cruised the yacht for many years, including an impressive win in the marathon Sydney-Noumea race of 1974. (On a personal note, Tui Manu has a special place in my affections as the first boat in which I raced offshore. Mick took me to sea as a 17-year-old novice foredeck hand.)
Another opportunity to promote Barlow winches to the international yachting fraternity came in 1965 when York was invited to join the crew of Caprice of Huon for Australia’s first tilt at the Admiral’s Cup. All three yachts in the Australian team carried Barlow machinery, and Mick wasn’t slow to sell his product to the many European entrants who struck winch problems during the heavy-weather series.
Despite being written off by the English dockside pundits as ‘too old’, Caprice was the standout yacht of that 1965 Admiral’s Cup [see box]. As with the America’s Cup three years earlier, Mick York had again played a major role in putting Australia on the world sailing map.
After crewing aboard Kialoa III on her record-breaking Sydney-Hobart line honours win in 1975, he retired from serious competitive ocean racing. Mick and his wife Jeannette then cruised and raced their sturdy Salar 40 steel yawl Rockhopper while Mick became deeply involved in the preservation work of the Sydney Maritime Museum and Heritage Fleet.
Vessels that have benefited from his engineering expertise and fundraising energy include the mighty schooner Boomerang, the 1902 steam tug Waratah and our most elegant steam yacht, Lady Hopetoun. York headed the 20 years of extraordinary volunteer effort behind the recovery and restoration of the 1874 square-rigged barque James Craig. As a Life Governor of the museum, he still contributes his knowledge and labour to its projects, including the current restoration of the 500-ton steamer John Oxley.
On the sailing front, Bill Solomons and Mick were the driving force behind the recent restoration of the classic Luders 5.5-metre Barranjoey (in which they qualified for the 1968 Olym
Even today, the appeal of competitive sailing endures for Mick. He still races his elderly Etchell Rob Roy in the weekly twilight series run by the Greenwich Flying Squadron on the Parramatta River, usually with wife Jeannette as crew.
But after more than 60 years of passionate involvement with the sport of sailing, many of the moments York remembers with most fondness reflect the knockabout spirit of the old Australian offshore racing fleets.
‘During the Hobart races in Mistral one of my flying mates, Lloyd Jones, would come out in a Tiger Moth with a cockpit full of paper bags filled with flour. He’d fly low and try to bomb us with the flour bags, but we were never hit.’
It could never happen today. Ocean racing has become far too serious and professional for such larrikin displays. But at least we have people such as Mick York to remind us what it once was like.
Our first Admiral’s Cup ‘ The untold story
The extraordinary success of the veteran sloop Caprice of Huon in Australia’s first challenge for the Admiral’s Cup back in 1965 very nearly didn’t happen.
The selection trials held by the Cruising Yacht Club produced some very close competition. Freya and Camille secured the first two places in the team, but the third slot was hotly contested between the then 13-year-old Clark design Caprice and the brand new S&S Salacia.
The final race in the selection series was from Sydney to Bird Island and return. Sailing on Caprice, Mick York knew they would have to perform well to win selection.
‘The start was at 8pm. It was blowing a strong south-easter about 30 knots. We cleared the heads and set a spinnaker. Just before Long Reef the foreguy broke and the pole skied. The spinnaker wrapped around the forestay. All that night, until daybreak, we ran under mainsail only as the spinnaker had now wrapped itself so tightly around the forestay that there was not a piece flapping.
‘The only way to remove this was to start at the top with a knife and cut it all the way down. Graham Newland and myself had this task and were hauled up the mast in the bosun’s chair. Nylon in a tight knot is the greatest thing for blunting knives. We had a relay of freshly sharpened knives being hoisted up to us continually.
‘We swung about the stay like a mad thing. There was nothing to hang on to and we could only endure about 10 minutes, cutting away about 18 inches at a time. This operation took ages in the night, but it had to be finished before we reached Bird Island because otherwise we couldn’t hoist a headsail.
‘By now we were the last boat in the fleet and our hopes of making the Admiral’s Cup team were fading.
‘The spinnaker was finally cleared just before the Island. It was still blowing 20-25 knots. We hoisted our new Hood headsail and worked our way through the fleet all that day, finishing in a good position. We eventually beat Salacia for that last spot in the team by just one point.’
Caprice of Huon went on to win three of the four Admiral’s Cup races and earned the highest points total of any yacht in the series.
Sydney-Hobart 1950 ‘ Log extracts from Mistral
‘1645. Bunnerong bearing 248°. Jib blew out. A great deal of water is getting below. This wet the control panel. We will be without lights. There is an ominous leak somewhere aft. Pump will not work. This is bad. Bucket brigade instituted. Miserable night. Ship kept on proper course with difficulty. Helmsman steering with aid of hand torches to light compass’
‘0430. Jib topsail blew out. Water everywhere. Mr Evans [the owner] was flooded out of his bunk by a sea which crashed onto the cabin top. He spent the night sitting on the floor. Everything he has is wet through. All his cigars and clothes are ruined. He is a brick. Not a murmur out of him and no suggestion of turning it in’
‘1645. Discovered that port cap shroud turnbuckle had broken. Put about and carried out repairs. Looks as though mainsail is pulling away from headboard. Set about repairs. Lowered jib topsail and hoisted balloon jib. At 1845 re-hoisted mainsail. Very good job made of repairs. Mick York has also done a good job of the port shroud and it will take any strain we put on it’
‘1710. Cape Raoul abeam. Had hoped wind would last so we could finish before midnight but it is light again. Hailed by a rowing boat. It’s Doug Nicholls and a friend who handed us a dozen Cascade. Good old Doug. Had to be quiet so the watch off duty would not be wakened and consume our beer. Launch came alongside and handed us Hobart papers and wished us Happy New Year. Three more tacks within 100 yards of the line and eventually made it.’