Wild Oats XI skipper Mark Richards on why he loves wild oceans but dreams of perfect race conditions.

By Richard Cooke.


King of the high seas: Mark Richards, 46, yachtsman

Mark Richards is one of Australia’s most successful and recognised sailors. He skippers Wild Oats XI in the Rolex Sydney to Hobart, the most successful yacht in the history of the race. He has taken line honours in the race seven times (including two “trebles”) and is the current race record holder. 

Richard Cooke Tell me a little bit about your relationship with the sea. It must be different from your average person out and about on a tinnie at the weekend.

Mark Richards Yeah, it’s interesting, I love being on the ocean even when it’s really rough. It’s just something I really enjoy. Bass Strait is notorious for being one of the roughest [waters] in the world so it’s always exciting leading into this race. I just love being at sea – we were there last week in really rough seas, and there’s just something about it. I think it’s the isolation from the world; you’re in your own place, you control your own destiny. All those sorts of things play a part in it.

RC When you first started sailing Wild Oats, did you know then that it was going to be something unique?

MR No, not really. I mean there’s no question that we pioneered this style of boat. But I don’t think anyone, not Bob [Oatley], not myself or anyone really in their wildest dreams realised that this would turn into something that is quite so special.

RC Now are you just trying to cement that legacy?

MR We’re at the age that we’re still really enjoying the sport. To have the association I’ve built with Bob Oatley, and to have one of the coolest sailing boats in the world to sail… I mean it’s pretty hard not to get motivated. It’s also something that won’t last forever.

RC Meeting down at the docks, you appreciate just how many people are involved in a boat this size. Is skippering it more like being a coach than an athlete?

MR It’s like running a business more than a coach. It’s very business orientated, so you’ve got to have clear management in the organisation, and people capable of performing the job. 

RC A small business in big seas?

MR Pretty well.

RC In these ocean races, it seems as though human error plays a big part in who places. Is that true here, or in a place such as Bass Strait are you more at the mercy of conditions?

MR You look at maritime disasters around the world, I’d say 95 per cent are related to human error. So whether it’s the race or a voyage or whatever it is, at the end of the day the humans are responsible for getting the boat there, in good shape. And in a race, the difference between first, second or third or last position. Human error plays a big part in this event and hopefully we’ve got a great team who can work through any situation that’s thrown at us.

RC On the ocean, are you thinking about time or your competitors?

MR No, it’s all about the competitors, mate, we don’t even think about time. You’ve got to win the race to get a record. And if the right conditions come along, the record’s always on the table. I’ve said it many times before that these boats are capable of smashing 12 hours off the current race record, but that all comes down to conditions. 

RC Is there such a thing as a perfect day of sailing that you’re chasing?

MR Yeah, we’ve never had that in the Hobart race though, and a proper north-easterly like Kialoa had in 1975 all those years ago when she set that record that lasted 21 years, that was just perfect running conditions all the way to Hobart. We’ve always had a nor’-easter and then a southerly, or a southerly and then a nor’-easter. But yeah, one day it could happen, it could happen next week, you never know.

RC When you’re out in the deep ocean, you see all kinds of strange things: containers fallen off ships, sunfish… Anything that’s stuck with you?

MR In 2009 we had, I’d say, about 20,000 dolphins around us. The whole ocean was just completely taken up with jumping dolphins. They were migrating and it was quite a phenomenal scene to see them all heading south towards the southern oceans. I’ll never forget it.

This week’s highlights…

• Track cycling: 117th Austral Wheelrace 

Today, 6pm, Hisense Arena, Melbourne

• Soccer: Melbourne City v Melbourne Victory

Today, 7.30pm, AAMI Park, Melbourne

• Cricket: Australia v India third Test 

Friday-Tuesday, 10.30am, MCG

Buy tickets now for…

• Brisbane International

January 4-11, Queensland Tennis Centre

• Sydney International

January 11-17, Olympic Park Tennis Centre

• Australian Open Tennis

January 19-February 1, Melbourne Park

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 20, 2014 as "King of the high seas".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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