Olympian Blair Tuke graduates to bigger boats

CHRIS BARCLAY
Last updated 05:00 23/12/2012
Blair Tuke
Getty Images
GAMES MEDAL: Blair Tuke celebrates winning silver in the men's 49er sailing at the London Olympics.

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It might not be recommended reading for a 12 year-old on a boat but Blair Tuke learned all about the perils of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race as dad steered the family home across the South Pacific from Suva to Kerikeri.

And Robert Mundle's harrowing account of the tragic 1998 edition of the blue ocean classic clearly didn't make him queasy, let alone sick of the sea.

As he sat on deck Tuke was engrossed by The Fatal Storm - 272 taut pages describing the treacherous 628 nautical mile journey where six sailors perished and 57 others were plucked from mountainous seas.

"It was obviously a little bit scary but I'm pretty comfortable," said Tuke as he provides a guided tour of "Rikki", the vehicle for his first offshore expedition since those family cruises to and from Fiji.

Below deck Tuke, now 23, explains how the safety harnesses and life vests operate, emphasises how every member of Ray Haslar's crew is equipped with a locator beacon should they be swept off the custom-built 12.9-metre Reichel/Pugh 42 in or around Bass Strait.

"The boats are a lot safer now. I guess it was just a really bad one," he says, harking back to the notorious 54th version of the journey from the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia's marina at Rushcutters Bay to Constitution Dock on Hobart's waterfront.

Tuke, of course, also has happier memories of life on the not-so-high seas - he spent his teenage years in a dinghy, an investment that paid off in August when he shared New Zealand's 100th Olympic Games medal with Peter Burling.

The duo won silver off Weymouth in the 49er class and although they plan to set sail for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, for now bigger boats are the priority.

Tuke has aspirations to join a crew in the Volvo Ocean Race but Haslar, a stalwart of the Kerikeri Cruising Club, suggested he pare back his ambitions and test the waters over three of four days before aiming to go round the world.

"I told him offshore racing isn't everybody's cup of tea. You can't go home at five o'clock at night. I said do a couple of races with me and see how you like it," said Haslar as he prepares for his 15th Sydney-Hobart.

Tuke heeded the 69 year-old's advice and joined Haslar on the trans-Tasman crossing, an encouraging foray though one he fears could be deceptive.

"It was a little bit of a false sense of security because it was a really nice trip. I know the Hobart can get a lot worse, I know it's going to be tough and it's going to push me to my limits.

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"This will be a good insight about what ocean racing's about. Hopefully there's an exciting future for me in it."

The journey from Opua on the Northland coast to Sydney Harbour's North Head was a little rough to begin with but it was also a soothing experience for Tuke, who was locked into a busy schedule of public appearances once he returned from London.

"It was really full-on sharing the medal with a lot of people around the country, there were lots of functions.

"The first night on the delivery trip to Sydney I was on watch, just me and the sound of the waves, I could relax."

Haslar and his navigator Andrew Shields are the only members of Rikki's nine-member crew with previous Sydney-Hobart experience - Tuke will alternate between trimming the mainsail and taking the wheel, a job that he has some background in.

"When I was getting into sailing I drove the boat and I'd get up and do watches with dad. Sometimes I'd fall asleep," he recalled of those formative days as a yachtie.

Naturally he won't have the luxury of nodding off on duty once the Sydney-Hobart gets under way on Boxing Day - the apprentice electrician has to be switched on throughout.

For Tuke, time management is a key distinction between 49ers and the Sydney-Hobart.

"We do two or three races a day that are half an hour long. With ocean racing you're pushing yourself 24 hours a day. You go off your watch but you've got be prepared to get up and do a sail change to get that extra half knot."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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