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Bob Fisher - The second Wise and Witty Man

by Dougal Henshall 14 Jan 2021 16:00 GMT
Bob Fisher with Larry Keating (background) © Guy Gurney /

Key influencers in the world of UK dinghy sailing, like London buses, can often come in twos, with the best example of this being how the development of the sport here was driven by the shared presence of not just Jack Holt, but Ian Proctor. In the same way, the stories that made the era of the 1950s to the 1970s so golden (albeit at times tarnished) would be brought to us by a pair of incredible sailing journalists, who like Holt and Proctor seemed to occupy the same time and space. The descriptive title is important, for first and foremost they were sailors; that they then became our two most well-read journalists can now be seen in hindsight as almost an afterthought.

Jack Knights, whose retrospective we recently featured was one half of this dynamic duo who together were the wicked but witty 'terrible twins' of the sailing media world, with the other half being another product of the East Coast, the one and only Bob Fisher. Whereas Jack had been raised at Ipswich, Bob is very much a son of the east coast talent and innovation rich sailing mecca at Brightlingsea. Growing up there, Bob fondly recalled the old fishermen sat out along the sea wall and the variety of dinghies that were sailed there. However, the fisherman were not the only people watching out over the boats, as Brightlingsea had long enjoyed an enviable reputation for providing the crews for the British challenges for the America's Cup, with many of the 'old hands', some still wearing the jerseys bearing the famous names of the great yachts, amongst those sat on 'The Hard' with a grandstand viewpoint.

Bob, who was already keen on sailing would talk with these true giants from the glory days of 'The Cup', getting a golden opportunity to hear first-hand their incredible stories. Little wonder then that like so many young dreamers Bob would be inspired to create his own history. His early sailing career at Brightlingsea would see him sailing in the famous 'BODs', the Brightlingsea One Designs and it would be here that his famous capacity for having what his daughter Alice would describe as a 'mind like a sponge' would become apparent, for Bob would mentally take on board the smallest of details of not only the boat that he was sailing on, but the other boats in the fleet. Having noted these details, he is still able to recall them with clarity, even many decades later. This incredible memory would become an important part of Bob's later life.

He clearly had a plentiful supply of the 'grey matter' to start with, as he was certainly no slouch either as a scholar at Culford School in Suffolk nor in the organised sports, where he played both hockey and rugby (incidentally developing a lifelong interest in the game). It would be wrong though to think of Bob as just a hard playing and partying student, a role he played to the full, for there is another, more thoughtful side of his character, which saw him developing a lifelong interest in the arts and on poetry in particular.

Although not one to hold regrets, in hindsight Bob may have considered his decision not to go on to university as a mistake, as instead he chose to continue his studies with the intention of becoming a dentist. The mental picture of Bob looming over you with a syringe, drill - or worse, saying "this won't hurt a bit" is one that is best avoided, nevertheless this was the path he would initially take. However, by then other activities were putting demands on his time, with one in particular accounting for some of Bob's best (and worst) moments as a young man. The East Coast in the 1950s was a hot spot for Hornet racing and when local doctor Brian Walker found that his wife, who was also his crew, was expecting, Bob was drafted in to crew for an event at Burnham on Crouch.

Also competing at the event would be Tony Allen (of Holt Allen fame) and crew Terry Smith, who would go on to win the Bronze Medal in the 12m Sharpie at the Melbourne Olympic Regatta). After the sailing, Bob would persuade Tony and Terry to attend the Brightlingsea Regatta with their boat that August. Lacking an easy way to get there, Tony Allen looked at an AA Road Atlas, found Brightlingsea and decided the easiest way was to sail there.

The Brightlingsea Regatta that summer would mark the start of a long friendship, for though Tony had to return to work, Terry would stay on for the week and he and Bob would make the most of the Hornet before the pair sailed it back around the coast to Burnham. A while later, with Terry busy elsewhere, Bob would end up crewing for Tony and with the championships at Hayling Island next in the schedule, the deal was that Bob would build a boat, which he would fit out with Tony's fittings. The pair got to Hayling, but in the demanding conditions Tony would find that there had been a lack of forward thinking in the way the fittings had been attached, as first the rudder, then the cleats fell off. There was though another side to being a 'Horneteer', for although many of the fleets of this era still talk in hushed tones of their on-shore antics, the Hornets shouted it out off the rooftops, often literally! This may have been the Hornet of the small spinnaker, fully battened main and sliding seat, yet it was a boat that even the IYRU had agreed to be both exciting yet accessible, that would do much attract the young. The result of this was that almost from the off, Hornet sailing would become something of a byword for alcohol fuelled excessive behaviour and though looking back today some of the antics are cringe-worthy, at the time it was all fantastic fun.

Bob was in the thick of all this and he loved it, yet without realising it, at the same time circumstances would be dictating a major change of direction. Back then Yachts & Yachting had been built on a strong East Coast presence, in particular that area around the coast from Thorpe Bay to Lowestoft, via Burnham on Crouch, Stone and Felixstowe Ferry, and Bob was supplementing his income by submitting race reports.

Tony Allen recalls being at the bar after sailing with Bob, only for him to have to slip away as he had to 'file his copy'. These first forays into journalism would take on an increasing importance in Bob's life, as his plans for a career in dentistry would end up being put aside, as he somehow managed to turn his father's van over in the middle of the Strand. There may well be more to this story that is best left unsaid, as this would end up being what is best described as a 'brush with the law', which would then have an impact on his après sail activities with the Hornet fleet. At the Colwyn Bay Nationals, Bob was sailing with a locksmith, with the pair being a part of the plan to 'spring' the monkeys out of their cage at the local zoo'. In a later moment, this may not have been seemed to be such a good idea, as Colwyn Bay would join the list of locations where the Hornets were banned!

Yet somehow, despite these diversions and the demands of preparing for a new career as an accountant, Bob's prowess out afloat would be gaining an enviable reputation. Not all of it would please everyone, such as his organization of the famous crews strike at the Hornet Nationals, which saw the helms left holding their rigged boats in the water while the crews suddenly decamped back to the clubhouse for a beer to discuss the way that some of them were being treated.

Bob's belief in the sanctity of the role of the crew was well-founded, for back then the 'silly planker' in the front of the Hornet was getting something of a raw deal. The boat, though hugely fun to sail, was demanding and far from being the easiest boat for the crew, yet the crews would get almost nothing in the way of recognition, apart from the unhelpful vocal urgings of the helm. Not for the last time, those caught out by Bob would take their revenge very publicly, as some of the helms who had been caught out by the 'strike' would catch Bob as he came back towards the clubhouse, soaking him with a pair of fire hoses. Yet Bob's reputation for being able to make the boat go fast was such that he was hard to argue with, as he had already been the World Championship winning crew in 1958 with John Partridge on the helm, a feat that they would repeat three years later. Although a highly successful partnership, the relationship between John and Bob would also show up a somewhat darker side of Bob's make up, in this case his ability to lose his cool, for despite the cheery and friendly nature, when pushed there could also be temper. The row between the two was both public and noteworthy and though it was glossed over, when in 1965 Bob again took the Champion crew prize, it would now be with Mike Patten on the helm.

Given this close association with the Hornet, there would be some in the early 1960s who would cast him in the role of a Judas, when he also took up with the Fireball, a new class that would place a premature cap on the growth of the Hornet. Both boats measured in at 16ft/4.8m, but there the similarity ended, as for all the well-known charms of the Hornet, it would be the lighter, brighter Fireball that would capture best the new atmosphere of the 'swinging sixties'. Originally a hiking boat, in 1965 a trapeze would be added, then the following year the first World Championship would be held.

Bob's intentions to compete in the event would show some of his other abilities, firstly when he built a fully competitive boat in a garage at Brightlingsea that was a clear step ahead of the boats that had until then been built. Bob is also always ready to innovate, for as Peter Sandy, who with his sister Christine were another of the top first-generation Fireball teams recalls, Bob turned up at the Championship (again at Hayling Island) with a low-cut jib with a foot that hugged the top of the deck line. Fireball jibs until then had used a high cut clew, but Bob knew his rules and though there would be much discussion about the development, Bob had got this right, the jib passed measurement and before long all the other boats would rapidly follow his lead. Yet another aspect of Bob's event preparation would be in the way he has been able to attract sponsors, but back in the mid-1960s the very idea of getting in support was yet another ground-breaking move from Bob. The use of a low friction paint on the hull was nothing new, as Graphspeed had been around for a while, but this had the downside of needing to be regularly rubbed down with wet and dry, which left the user looking like a not very efficient chimney-sweep. Eventually, a new version would come out, but now the matt black colour was replaced by 'Smoothie' which was a bright pink colour. There may have been other sponsors, as Bob's boat, by now pink, would carry the name 'Pink Plymouth', which suggested a connection with the Gin maker of that brand (which sounds like Bob!). It wasn't just the boat that was pink, as Bob was now often seen in a pink blazer and when wearing it, his arrival in the bar would be accompanied by a 'Pink Plymouth' song!

1966 would go down in the record books at the year of "they think it's all over" as England won the World Cup, but it would be a stunning year for Bob as his success in the first Fireball World Championship would be added to another success in the Hornet Worlds at Zegrze, Poland, this time crewing for Terry Wade.

Bob would then lure sailmaker Colin McKenzie into the Hornet, where the pair would win the UK National Championship in 1969, before going on to win a windy Worlds at Perth, Australia the following year in the iconic 'Play it to the Rules'. For most sailors, having a World Championship winning boat would understandably make one a tad precious about it, but that is not Bob's way and when a young Stephen Heppell needed to borrow a boat, despite his not having sailed a Hornet before, Bob was quick to offer 'Play it to the Rules'. Stephen would love sailing the boat so much that he would go and buy his own, but not before capsizing Bob's boat and bending the mast. Some owners would have 'gone spare' at this, but Bob did not, or at least, not to them. As Stephen was trying to recover the damaged Hornet, an obnoxious speedboat owner wanted to launch his boat and was being very vocal about his 'right to launch' until Bob, with a wheel brace in his hand, chased him off down the road. All was well until the following day, when the mouthy speedboat owner returned, with the Police in tow, with the result that Bob would be taken in for questioning, getting a huge cheer from the assembled fleet as he was led away... For reference nothing further happened - he was just 'spoken to' and sent on his way!

As well as doing the big events, whenever it was possible Bob would campaign the Hornet at his local clubs, with Burnham, almost a home from home for him, being a popular venue. Burnham was famous for hosting the traditional season opener for the Hornets with the Easter Egg trophy, but one year, with a number of new helms heading for the club (not the easiest place to locate in pre sat-nav days) Bob was generous enough to somehow get his beloved Lotus Europa car into the ditch, a beacon for anyone who was lost to follow. Bob loved his fast, smart cars and his 'super-cool' Lotus Europa, which was bright purple colour, would always be driven to the maximum. On one trip back from Burnham, Bob's wife got out and took the train home, rather than hang on for grim death as Bob 'floored it' off down the road!

One would think that multiple World Championship victories would be the defining moment in a sailor's career, but already Bob has always shown that 'have trapeze harness, will travel' mindset, which created even more of a reputation.

One of Bob's closest contemporaries from Brightlingsea was another Hornet sailor, Reg White, who had started making catamarans and soon, in addition to time in the Hornet, Bob was zipping around on a variety of high-performance cats that Reg had started to build. At this point the IYRU, worried about the proliferation of classes, decided to bring some order to the rapidly developing cat scene by calling for a set of Trials at the Catamaran Yacht Club to be held at the Isle of Sheppey, for the A Class single-handers and the B Class two-man boats. In advance of this Reg had been working with cat designer Rodney March, with the output of their collaboration being a boat that was taken out to the maximum dimensions for the B Class rules, with the resulting design, the Tornado, ending up as a superb machine that was simply better than the rest.

In the nine races that comprised the Trials, Tornado, helmed by Reg, and with Bob out on the wire as his crew, won seven heats and were thus convincing winners of the event, which then saw the Tornado being granted full International status, with all the indications being that this would 'at some point' see it in the Olympics. When speaking to Bob during the research for this article, I asked him who, out of all the helms he had not only sailed with but had seen/reported on, was the best and most 'complete' helm and without a moment of hesitation, he answered 'Reg'. When pressed for more details Bob said that Reg had it all: he could nurse a tender boat, drive another to the absolute limit and had complete command of all the technical side of the sport.

In 1967, with Bob and Reg riding high, the pair had another chance to race together, as a new challenge had been made for the Little America's Cup, which was raced for in C Class catamarans. With Reg's normal cat crew John Osborn away getting married, the plan was that Bob was going to take his place, only for Reg then to also become unavailable. Thankfully, a highly experienced Shearwater helm, Peter Schneidau was on hand to take over on the helm of Lady Helmsman and with Bob calling tactics from out on the wire, the pair would soon be ahead scoring early victories against Quest III, the US challenger.

It would not be a Bob Fisher story without at least one dramatic twist to the tale, with this being no exception. Halfway through the series, with the British boat looking dominant, disaster would strike when the starboard centreboard split, which then started to tear the case from the hog, leaving a very real danger that the hull could break in two. With the assistance of a Thorpe Bay guard boat, Peter and Bob nursed the crippled cat back to shore, where they called for a lay day, as the hull was hurriedly taken back to Sail Craft at Brightlingsea. After an all-night, non-stop session, the repair was completed, but this would not be the end of the drama for Bob. In the following race, with Lady Helmsman again well placed, the mainsheet traveller hung up during a tack, but as helm Schneidau went to free it, it released, with the boom catching Peter full against his temple, knocking him senseless. The situation was serious, but first there was a race to win, so Bob took the helm and mainsheet and kept the boat sailing until Peter had recovered enough to retake control. Amazingly, after an incident that could have been even more unpleasant than it had been, Bob and Peter went on to win the race and with it the Little America's Cup, by the 'horizon job' margin of over 11 minutes.

Bob was now not only just one of the UK's most successful sailors, but he was also one of the most recognisable ones. Having forsaken a potential career as a dentist to become an accountant, Bob had moved full time into journalism. When I asked him the question 'why journalism' his answer was 100% classic Fisher: "I needed the money". Bob had already shown that he could write with an easily understandable authority and was able to explain complex and at times contentious matters in a way that made for enjoyable reading. In addition to being found in print, Bob was also working with the BBC, who were keen to tap into the strong aspirational aspect of small boat sailing as, according to one national survey, this is what the modern man in the street wanted to be doing. This level of interest would result in the BBC commissioning a programme to be shown on Blue Peter, which although intended as a children's programme, had a huge adult following as well.

The BBC had approached Bob with a request that he teach presenter Valerie Singleton to sail for the cameras, which he did, and with the television starting to shrink the world, Bob, as a commentator and journalist would be in his element. With the BBC determined to be the first broadcaster (in Europe at least) to offer colour transmissions, Bob was perfectly positioned to provide insightful coverage on screen at the top international events, with this and his other media commitments taking Bob around the world and to the Olympics. At the Games, the UK would continue to enjoy medal success out afloat, though this would come courtesy of the efforts of highly motivated and talented individuals, rather than from a more concerted and organised national effort. The UK would cheer when the likes of Rodney Pattisson (twice), Alan Warren and Reg White climbed up onto the podium to collect their medals, but as Bob would point out, increasingly success was becoming the result of organised coaching. For someone who loved a party, Bob would ruefully concede that being up all night was poor preparation for any competition the following day.

If there was one area where preparation was becoming a byword it was in the America's Cup, where just a seat at the table was now costing seriously large amounts of money. Bob had already castigated the UK, both the sailing scene and the wider industrial base, for the collective failure to support the continued defence of the Little America's Cup, where the signs were all too painfully apparent that our dominance was on the wane in the face of better supported and funded campaigns from abroad. At least though we had a position here to surrender, for in the America's Cup proper the UK always seemed to be chasing the game, poorly prepared and underfunded. For Bob, this really mattered as his lifelong interest in the Cup, going back to his boyhood days at Brightlingsea, provided him with the motivation to make the Cup his very own subject.

The amazing memory he had first demonstrated in the Brightlingsea One Designs now came to his aid, as no snippet of information was too small or too trivial to escape his notice. He only had to be told it the once for him to be able to not only recall it, but then put it into the correct perspective in his articles.

By now Bob was writing for Yachts & Yachting, where he could make the most of that timely association with Jack Knights. The two writers were very different from each other, though both were famed for the clarity with which they told of things as they saw them. However, Jack was almost an absolutist, with little time for the subtle niceties, seeing things in black and white and writing it as such. Bob on the other hand is just as demanding and investigative yet allows that there is a place for shades of grey, with the result that his writing style is less confrontational and more nuanced. By now the was UK leapfrogging ahead of the rest of the sailing world, courtesy of first the Flying Dutchman squad and then clever development of the youth coaching scheme, under the watchful eye of Jim Saltonstall, with Bob using his regular column to highlight these activities in a helpful and supportive manner. Saltonstall, who Bob would call 'Sunny Jim' was another who when asked for a comment for this article, spoke so warmly about Bob, saying "if it needed saying, Bob said it, as it was, but at the same time he was always fair".

Although Bob was now 'star quality' on the international scene, covering Olympics, America's Cup challenges and other major events around the world, he never lost sight of his own roots and would happily grace the likes of a Hornet dinner where his skills as a public speaker would see him give the best of talks, that were as informative as they were hilarious. Although it may sound as if Bob was locked in behind a desk, he kept his sailing CV topped up, though he was now more often than not to be found in any one of a number of the IoR yachts. He shared a successful Mini-Tonner with Larry Marks, then competed against him in the keenly contested Half-Ton division.

By now Bob was Solent based, which gave him almost unlimited opportunities for highly public successes... and failures. The Round the Island Race would provide a rich source of material for Bob, who was not above cracking the occasional insider joke with his increasingly international circle of friends. When Bruno Troublé, who had been helm of the 1983 French America's Cup challenge, managed to clip the wreck of the Varvassi when rounding the Needles, which resulted in the sinking of his much-fancied yacht Xeryus, Bob's response was an article suggesting that the smell of perfume would be there for ever. Not everyone would have known that Xeryus was sponsored by the Givenchy perfume brand, but Bob would nevertheless use his knowledge to add that clever colour to his writing. But as the saying goes, those who laugh last... Just a few years later Bob would be competing in a Round the Island Race, when he too managed to hit the wreck. It would not have been so bad had Bob not written, just the week before, that "anyone who hits the wreck should not be allowed out afloat on their own"!

Later on, Bob would have an even more high profile 'moment' sailing around the Island, when he tried to shave a bit of distance off his route past Bembridge. There IS a route for taking a short cut at Bembridge Ledge, but Bob misjudged it and hit the rocks that make up the shoal. Everyone had their VHF radios on, but Bob's Mayday call was not the sort of broadcasting that he was accustomed to. Despite the potential danger in the situation, Bob coolly informed the coastguard that the liferaft was already inflated and snugged up alongside, but as large cracks were appearing in the hull, the attendance of the lifeboat would be most welcome! For someone like Bob to have such a high profile moment would have been bad, what made it worse was that Bob was sailing the 45ft Tony Castro designed 'ULDB' - Ultra Light Displacement Boat 'Barracuda of Tarrant', which itself was one of the stars of the Sunday night BBC TV series Howards' Way.

With the nickname of Dallas on Sea, Howards' Way was a soapy telling of life in a south coast boatyard, or as the popular press portrayed it, the 'gin and jags' set. Bob, as technical and sailing consultant for the series, was closely involved in making sure that the action and location scenes were realistic, though pressing Warsash into service as Rhode Island was thought to be stretching it a bit. With the Elephant Boatyard at the top of the Hamble becoming the Mermaid Yard (in case you were in any doubt, the opening credits featured the Mermaid figurehead that is still mounted over the front door of the Jolly Sailor pub, which would be a feature of the series) most of the location shots were either in the river or just out in the Solent. Bob gave the cast some on board training, then for the action shots, the members of the cast would be in the cockpit, with Bob crouched down in the companionway telling them what to do next.

The first boat to feature would be the prototype for the Laser 28, the Flying Fish... which would then be superseded by Barracuda of Tarrant, the Castro designed 45. In Bob's hands, far from being just a floating prop for the TV series, Barracuda would be a very quick boat that would go on to be the 1986 RORC 'Yacht of the Year', before going into production as the Sadler 45. The good news was that after 'sniffing the bottom' at Bembridge the boat would be fully restored with only a manageable interruption in the filming schedule for the next series. This aside, Howards' Way, with a regular audience of 10 million viewers, would run for six series, before the untimely death of one of the central characters brought production to a close.

More recently, Bob was able to make it around the Island in a classic yacht without hitting anything, which is something of an achievement given the crew that he had on board with him. If you put Bob, Barry Dunning, Simon Collyer, Eddie Warden-Owen, a young lad called Liam and Jim Saltonstall on one yacht, then anything can happen, but the worst was that as St Catherine's Point approached, Jim produced a bosun's pipe, a supply of Navy Rum and at midday, pipped 'Up spirits', at which point they all downed a full tot, whilst toasting the Queen. Had that been it, things would have been okay, but the tot clearly fired up Bob, who then went below, only to reappear with a bottle of smart red wine to 'wash the rum down'.

In his many decades of writing, Bob has built up a network of friends and contacts around the world, with the core of these being members of the SINS, the Society of International Nautical Scribes, a group that Bob had been instrumental in forming with top Australian journalist Rob Mundle. However, the focus so far is all about Bob as a journalist, but possibly an even greater claim to fame has to come from the quality of the books that he has written. Bob's first work was a book that he had shared with Reg White on catamaran sailing, with this being essential reading for multi-hull sailors through to today. Other books would follow, from the easy to follow 'Learning to sail' to a very clever work that highlighted the racing that made up the Admiral's Cup. As his experiences and knowledge grew, so did his skills as a 'wordsmith', until two of Bob's best aspects, his writing and his love of the America's Cup, would fuse together in his book 'Sailing on the Edge' which for a while was regarded as the most informative of all the books to date on the America's Cup.

Bob then went on to create what is now regarded around the world as the definitive work detailing the America's Cup with the first two volumes of the 'An Absorbing Interest' anthology, and with events in Auckland putting the AC firmly back into the spotlight Volume III is awaited with genuine anticipation.

Bob was still very active during the 2012 Olympics in Weymouth but with the passage of time, like so many who have spent their lives sailing, his knees and ankles would be showing signs of wear and tear. This might be forcing him to slow up a bit, leaving it to Barry Dunning to go forward to sort out the headsail when going around the Island, but his love of good sailing, good company and maybe a drink or two in the bar afterward remains as strong as ever.

In case it has seemed that stories have a whiff of sailing being a bit like snooker, a sign of a misspent youth, there is one more facet to Bob that shows how in addition to him taking from the sport he loved, he is equally happy to give back in return. One way he could do this was through his long association with the Sir Thomas Lipton Foundation, which helps children from socially deprived backgrounds see that their birthright does not come with the future 'hard wired' in. Through the 'Buoyed Up' scheme, children are assisted through season-long interaction with maritime activities, with the aim being to expand their original expectations of life. Yet this was far from a titular use of Bob's name, as he has been fully involved as a Trustee and with this being so close to his heart, it is only fitting that his daughter Alice will take over and continue his trusteeship.

It has been a true honour to be able to add 'The Fish' to the Wise Men series, and to me he will always be what another media icon, David Attenborough. would describe as a 'compulsive communicator', who possesses that rare ability to inform, entertain and for me (and I am sure for many others) to inspire.

Knowing Bob's love of poetry, I had wanted to end this retrospective with a couplet of poetry that I am sure that he would know, with John Masefield being the most apt:

And all I ask is a windy day, with the white clouds flying
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea gulls crying.

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