ROLLY TASKER is one of Phuket's most remarkable residents. The story of his amazing life as one of the world's great yachtsmen and sailmakers has just been told in a new book, Sailing to the Moon, The biography of Rolly Tasker. Here are some exclusive extracts, by permission of the publishers:
Rolly on being introduced to yachting in Perth, Western Australia, by father Percy:
TASKER had a vivid memory of sailing. At age eight, Percy took him to Point Walter where there was a regatta on Mosman Bay. They walked out on the Point Walter spit dividing Freshwater Bay and Mosman Bay.
''The view was unforgettable as one by one the yachts skirted the edge of the bank where we were standing,'' Tasker recalled with unbridled enthusiasm as if it were yesterday. ''The race included a fleet of full-raters (32 ft).'' He could remember the names: Lynx, White Wings, Cinderella, Astrea and Pioneer.
''They were followed by a fleet of semi-raters (22 ft), and another of 16 ft skiffs,'' Tasker said. ''That day I learned the meaning of 'Suicide Buoy' in Mosman Park. Two 16 ft skiffs capsized and drifted ashore on the sand bank to bail out.''
From that year, 1934, he and Percy followed the sailing races at Royal Perth Yacht Club, and Perth Flying Squadron based at the foot of the Perth Esplanade. There was also the Perth 14 ft Dinghy Sailing Club races with its clubhouse on Riverside Drive. Then there were the regattas at Claremont Yacht Club, Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club and Fremantle Sailing Club.
A new world was opening up, and young Rolly was loving it, especially when Percy took the family and friends out on a rented yacht.
''My father taught me how to make model yachts; how to work timber and laminate pieces of wood together using home-made resin glues,'' Tasker said.
Percy supplied him with small pieces of stainless steel sheeting and aluminium pieces to fabricate fittings and parts for his models. At first his designs came from American hobby magazines. They were crude copies of boats powered by wind, such as the early Vikings' longboats with their simple square sails, and Arabian dhows with their more efficient triangular sails, which could slip upwind better and faster.
Rolly was fascinated with the Chinese junk. He tried to copy its design including the characteristic short mast, but had trouble fashioning a suitable sail. His most popular wooden model was of a more contemporary 32 ft (9.2 m) full-rater, at a one inch (2.54 cm) to a foot scale (30.50 cm). He ''raced'' it in the Swan River riverfront in Victoria Park.
''The tall rig was balanced by a deep fin keel and lead torpedo weights made from two pieces of my father's fishing sinkers,'' Tasker recalled. This model was ahead of its time. It demonstrated Tasker's formative genius. Tasker's model shows almost the same rig and keel configuration of the yachts used to contest the 2000 America's Cup, seven decades later.
Cutting the competition down to size:
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 the 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 and his best-known yacht, Siska, have some fun with Rupert Murdoch:
SISKA was on show in Sydney Harbour, moored in a pen next to (thirty-eight-year old) Rupert Murdoch.
''There were always ladies sitting around on the deck (of Murdoch's boat) in their bathers,'' Tasker recalled.
On one occasion there was a big party on Siska.
''How come you gather all the pretty girls?'' Murdoch asked with a grin.
''They are probably after the boat,'' Tasker replied. ''I have a big deck.''
''I'll buy it from you,'' Murdoch said. But Siska was not for sale.
Problems in Pattaya almost sink Tasker's venture:
Everything at this point seemed to be on the rise for Tasker and his operations. Then a business bombshell exploded. Poor management in the Pattaya loft, and alleged misappropriation of funds saw Tasker's Thai partners suing the loft's New Zealand manager. He was arrested and locked up in a Thai jail. During the court proceedings he made an escape with the aid of the New Zealand embassy, which provided a ''getaway'' car. It whisked him to Bangkok airport, and he made a hasty escape by plane to Singapore.
None of this helped Tasker.
''With much reluctance,'' he admitted, ''Kerry and I closed the San Diego gallery and flew to Thailand to take over the management and attempt to revive the operation. But after six months of gruelling work, we realised the business would never be successful in Pattaya.''
Corruption, and an uneasy alliance with the Thai interests, caused Tasker to take a radical step that perhaps only he could make. After his experiences in South Asia over half a century from Ambon in Indonesia to Hong Kong, he decided on one last throw of the dice in the region. He packed up the whole operation and trucked it 1000 km south to the naturally beautiful Phuket Island in the Andaman Sea, with its stunning beaches, caves, bays, inlets and capes.
Away from prying and corrupt influences, Tasker restarted the operation from scratch.
Tasker's longest voyage with cancer:
TASKER has had his own life-threatening illness for half his life, which in a way was selfimposed too, though he does not have a death wish. He first contracted skin cancer at forty. His ear began to bleed, and he had to have part of it removed. Tasker has had the problem through the last forty years.
He could have avoided it by covering up his face and body when at sea. But he refused. The reason was simple. He loved to feel the wind on his face and in his hair. He read the nuances of change in the wind like an enthusiastic academic reads newly-discovered historical documents. The elements, such as the breezes, lived for him.
Covering up and not sensing them ran against the grain of winning races. Those innumerable victories, and first across the line finishes meant much to him. But if he did it all again, he certainly would use more high-level protective cream, and he would make concessions with a hat or hood.
Wearing such sun-fighting accoutrements would mean he might miss the slightest of wind changes and then lose the odd race. And winning to Tasker, within the rules, was everything. Yet staying alive to compete has an even greater logic.
Extracts from Sailing to the Moon, The biography of Rolly Tasker, Australia's greatest all-round yachtsman by Roland Perry. Priced at $39.95 (Australian) the Sailing to the Moon is available online.
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