Phuket Obituary: Rolly Tasker, Master of the World's Seas
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Rolly Tasker: no man knew the sea better, no man loved it more
PHUKET: Sailing legend Rolly Tasker, who died at 2am on June 22, will be remembered as one of the greatest competitive yachtsmen of Australia, if not the world.
And as every local yachtie knows, he also leaves behind a peerless imprint on the Phuket sailing scene. Founding the Rolly Tasker Sails loft in Phuket nearly 20 years ago, he was a key figure in boosting the Thai island's appeal as a world-class sailing destination.
Rolly built his first boat, a canoe, at the age of six, and at 10 he built a 10-foot skiff, which he sailed on the Swan River in Perth. He spent the rest of his life applying his instincts and passion to the art of making boats better, faster and more efficient.
In his 60 years of competitive racing Rolly was Australian Dinghy Champion 10 times and won more than 2000 races, including Australia's first Olympic sailing medal at the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, where he earned a silver medal. Aboard a Flying Dutchman, he won his first World Sailing Championship Medal in 1958. In Australia's debut in the America's Cup Challenge in 1962, Rolly designed the sails and joined the team onboard the challenger, Gretel.
His move into ocean racing with his five Siska yachts that he built himself took him to new heights in elite sailing. Rolly won numerous ocean racing events in the 1970s and 80s, including first place in the Queen Victoria Cup. He took part in the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race, where fierce storms took the lives of 19 crew members and only 86 of the 303 entries completed the race. Rolly's team not only survived and completed the race, they took first place in A division. That same year he won the Parmela Yacht Race from Plymouth, England to Fremantle, Australia.
One of Rolly's most famous races was one where he earned no official recognition. In the 1978 Sydney to Hobart race, his newly-built Maxi Siska IV was denied official starter status on a technicality. Officially out of the race but keen to prove his sailing and design prowess regardless, Rolly took his yacht through to the start line and sailed off five minutes ahead of the fleet. Siska IV finished 20 hours and 320 kilometres ahead of official line honors winner Apollo.
He was never one to back down from a battle, whether it be against fellow sailors on the water or race officials before and after the race. The Roland Perry biography on Rolly, 'Sailing to the Moon,' describes his entry in the 1962 Florida World Championships. An epic series of mishaps meant that his Falcon IX barely made it in time to register for the race, and upon arrival:
''Three international experts let loose their tapes and slide rules. They came up with another two shocks for Tasker, who was just about at the end of his tether:
'The deck-line from stern transom is 1/4 inch (.635 cm) too high,' the chief measurer told them with the thinly-disguised glee only such officials can muster, 'and the yacht is 3/4 inch (1.905 cm) too long.'
''Tasker was churning inside, but he remained outwardly his laconic, calm self. He smiled and asked: 'Can you wait 10 minutes?'
'Yes, but no longer.'
''Tasker ran to his kit, retrieved a hacksaw blade and a long piece of wire, and returned to the yacht. First, he cut 3/8 inch (.9525 cm) off the planing boards of the transom. Next, he looped a piece of wire from the deck beam to keelson. Then he twisted a screw driver to pull the deck line straight.
''The measurers watched in awe. The chief official ran his tape over the problem areas, stepped away and said:
'You're fine, you can sail.''
Rolly calculated that his total ocean racing distance was 340,000 nautical miles, and he would boast that in all his years of sailing he and his crew were never forced to retire because of sail, spar or deck gear failure.
He continued to earn accolades after retiring from the sport. Rolly was inducted into Australia's Sports Hall of Fame and named as Western Australia's Best Ever Yachtsman. In 2006 he was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia, ''for service to sailing as a sail maker, yacht designer and builder, as a competitive yachtsman, and to maritime related cultural institutions.''
In business, as in sailing, he was known for his resourcefulness. He built his first sail loft in 1954 in an abandoned war-time shed in Claremont, Western Australia. Forty years later he arrived to Phuket, where he set up his operation on the eighth floor of Phuket Shopping Centre in downtown Phuket City. His team had a lot of heavy lifting to do, given that the car park only went up to the fifth floor.
From this humble start, the business grew and is now operating in a purpose-built, 100,000 square-foot loft where up to 80 sails a day are made and delivered to some 60 countries around the world.
To walk around the factory floor with Rolly was to see his razor-sharp, active mind at work. He had many stories to tell and conversation would veer abruptly from a boastful demonstration of the handiwork on a sail in progress to incredulity at the incompetence of someone, somewhere.
He didn't always have nice things to say about people, a trait common to relentless perfectionists such as Rolly. Just as Apple's legendary founder Steve Jobs attracted equal doses of admiration and anger, Rolly was proof that visionary and driven people are not always well liked. But there are few who would have had nothing short of awe for Rolly's accomplishments.
It was with his band of close friends and associates that Rolly's generosity and charm were revealed, and he earned a great deal of loyalty in return.
Rolly told Phuketwan in a 2008 interview that he was ''ruthless'' with his staff and crew, but they stuck by him anyway. ''I had the same crew most of my life,'' he said. ''At one stage I think 11 of my crew got divorced because it was either the family or me, and they always chose me.''
He was proud to have financed all his sailing exploits himself. Of today's racing yachts festooned with corporate sponsor logos, Rolly held a dim view. He told Phuketwan, ''All these boats look ridiculous. The Sydney-Hobart boats are covered in them - they look like they're going to the moon.
''We used to take off for anywhere in the world, and I paid all expenses. I never had a sponsor in my life.''
But his persistent drive had its costs. He was diagnosed with skin cancer at the age of 40, a result of having refused to cover up when sailing his yachts, so he could hear the wind. The keen sportsman wanted to feel the elements in full to help him assess conditions and stay in the lead, exposing him to the sun's harmful rays. After battling cancer for more than half his life it was this disease that finally conquered him.
And as described in the Roland Perry's 'Sailing to the Moon,' Rolly's first two marriages and time with his three children Barry, Lee-Anne and Sophie were sacrificed by his travels and focus on winning. Lee-Anne suffered from anorexia and died at the age of 49 on June 22, 2002, exactly 10 years to the day before Rolly's death.
His third marriage was the charm, having found a kindred spirit in Kerry in the mid-1980s. Her first husband was lost in a yacht race tragedy. Kerry has lived with Rolly on Phuket and helped him establish the sail-making business here. After years living in a modest apartment south of Phuket City, they moved into a teak wood Thai-style home, out front of the sail-making factory on Chaofa West Road. They built a second stylish home in Mandurah, West Australia. Together with Kerry, he leaves behind four children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Though Rolly kept a fairly low profile on Phuket, the life of the self-made millionaire had its glamorous moments. He met many famous figures throughout his life including Rupert Murdoch, Bridget Bardot, John Wayne and Prince Charles, who Rolly recalled telling some racy jokes while steering his yacht, Siska IV.
He was an avid collector of sailing memorabilia, and his vast collection including America's Cup yacht models is now displayed in the Australian Sailing Museum in Mandurah, which he financed and built himself.
Rolly's passing will certainly stir up memories within the sailing community in Phuket, and tributes have already been coming in. Phuket publishing house Image Asia, which just completed an interview with Rolly via email earlier this month for its Shop Window on Lifestyle magazine, has been collecting comments from sailors and sail industry players. Among them:
Kevin Quilty, Managing Director of Sunsail (Thailand): ''Rolly's passion and enthusiasm for everything he done has been a great inspiration to me and I have spent many happy hours being shown around his loft and have always been drawn in by his commitment to sailing and his great stories. We will all certainly miss him and condolences to his lovely wife Kerry.''
Geoffrey Burt, Director of Operations, Charter Yachts Phuket: ''On the first occasion of meeting Rolly Tasker he extended me a warm welcome and took pride in showing me in detail his world class facility, he had a great passion for everything he undertook. He was a kindly man who one always felt would do all he could to help his fellow man. I will miss his presence and of course he will leave a void not easily filled in the world of yachting.''
Matt McGrath, sailor and friend: ''He loved to share tales and was always thoughtful and thorough when asked a question about his favorite sport and passion. His contributions to sailing, the Australian Sailing Museum and his history as a sailor and sail-maker leave a venerable legacy for those to remember him by. He was a legendary man and will be greatly missed . . . I think when I go to the yacht club tonight there will be some stories of Rolly shared around the bar.''
Among those who knew Rolly, the usual sentiment to the dearly departed is not likely to be uttered. Rest in Peace is something that Rolly would have never wanted to do. He never rested, and with so much work to be done, so many things to build, so much to achieve, he was never content to be at peace either. As Rolly said back in 2008, ''I've never considered stopping. I never once pulled out of a race.''
To Rolly, the man who travelled further and faster than most anyone in yachting and in life, a more fitting epitaph would be: Sail on, sail on.
A memorial gathering is likely to be organised on Phuket. A Viking funeral would be appropriate, but Rolly would be likely to douse the flames, hoist the sail, and point the boat towards the horizon.
Vale : Rolly Tasker
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