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Episode 17: Gerry Fitzgerald Show Notes

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So this week we are with Gerry Fitzgerald and we are going to spend this episode talking about marine safety training and we’re going to drill into Gerry’s background, a lifetime of maritime experience and life involved in all things related to the ocean. So Gerry welcome along to this week’s episode of the Ocean Sailing Podcast. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Thank you, good to be here. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Thanks for agreeing to have a chat. My personal experience is I went through a number of your training courses two and a half years ago and I found it fascinating but as 45 a year old student, what I found even more fascinating was many of the stories that you shared with us in terms of your personal experience in life and on the ocean and some of your adventures and it made it easy to learn and it made it really fascinating. 

I could have spent those training courses just listening to your life stories to be honest and not the course material if I had a choice. So take me back to when your life and the ocean kind of converged, and how did you get the maritime bug in your blood? 

18 foot skiffs in action on Sydney Habour

Gerry Fitzgerald: I guess my father, growing up in Brisbane, near the Brisbane river inspired me to a large extent. He sailed 18 foot skiffs on the river prior to the war and then a colleague of mine came by an old sailing boat under a house somewhere. He lived at Norman Park, the river was very handy to him. We got some tar and tied up the hulls and worked out how to stand up the mast and away we went. I guess my father and my future brother in law were inspiring in that sense, in that they got me onto the water. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Okay and where did things lead to from there?

Gerry Fitzgerald: From there, I was a frequent Gold Coaster and that Kirra for many years, Kirra Beach. They were sailing off the beach, catamarans developed by Lindsey Cunningham and the quick cats were able to surf the surf prior to Mr. Hobie Alter coming on the scene and away we went. So I saved up some money and bought myself a quick cat, sailed it around a number of prices up and down the Queensland coast, in fact offshore, and then got into tornado catamarans as an Olympic class. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: And there was a tornado fleet based at Kirra Beach, five or six tornado catamarans and away we went, we raced off Kirra. Ultimately as life progressed, I stuck with the tornado class and competed in regattas internationally and nationally and also at the state level. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Okay and did you have a day job? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, I had a day job. I had a day job which morphed into working for Carlton & United Breweries and working for Carlton got me traveling a fair bit and I ended up being transferred to Cairns back in the late 60’s at the Cairns Brewery and I introduced tornado catamarans to Cairns and got involved in the administration of yachting up in that neck of the woods. So I really enjoyed developing a fleet up there as well. So we had — well I think we might have had 15 tornado class catamarans sailing off the beach at Ellis Beach up in Cairns over a period of time. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s a pretty respectable size fleet too, that’s a good size fleet. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed and it was at the end of the world regardless, regardless of the fact that I had a brewery there and a damn good one too. We campaigned from Cairns and we travelled to Perth, towing our boats behind us for regattas over there. Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney of course and here in Brisbane. But unfortunately my skills didn’t developed as they needed to in the tornado class. There were damn fine sight. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So you weren’t Olympic material then? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: I certainly wasn’t Olympic material, but I was a willing participant and got to meet a lot of good guys. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s great. So how did things sort of evolve to the point where you made a living out of being on the water? 

Queenslands Kirra Beach

Gerry Fitzgerald: I got involved in offshore multihull racing in the 70’s. So racing 40 foot, 60 foot trimaran and catamarans. Invitations came from various boat owners and back in the 70’s, offshore multihull sailing was really highly developed and highly refined. The multihulls were more highly developed in terms of design and enthusiasm for offshore multihull racing fostered mainly by the Multihull Yacht Club of Queensland but also other multihull fleets in Sydney led to regular races between Sydney and Mooloolaba. These were conducted annually. Brisbane to Gladstone of course. Gladstone to Cairns multihull races were regularly conducted and attracted a lot of media attention mainly because of the fact that they were breaking records. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: The need for speed. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: The need for speed, that’s exactly as it was. We were on the edge of development in terms of design, wing mast, rotating masts, foils were all experimented with. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow as far back then? That’s pretty amazing. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: As far back then, yeah. But for a whole range of reasons, growth in the offshore multi hull fleet declined as technology caught up with monohulls and monohulls of course are a lot cheaper to build and maintain. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Easier to sail for a lot of people. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: For a lot of people, it’s much easier to sail, yeah and they didn’t have the risk. So I guess then, I had a day job in the 70’s, which was in the liquor industry. I invested in a couple of pubs, which provided me with the resources to spend more time sailing. I got into monohull racing back in the early 80’s doing Sydney to Hobart Yacht Races and so forth and then I realised that I needed some commercial qualifications if I was going to get into maritime on a full time bases. 

So I went along to TAFE and did a master class five, then went to work in a maritime industry driving 24 metre vessels, both power driven vessels and sailing vessels. This led me into a career that took me into a lot of places as a paid employee, driving boats from the equator all the way down to Antarctica. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow. 

Rediscovering Mawson's Hut in Antartica after it was close up in 1913. Photo: Reuters

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah so I got an opportunity to become first mate on a sailing boat going to Mawson’s Hut. A 16 metre aluminium sailing boat, which has been designed by Ben Lexcen who was an around the world single handed racer and it was converted into an expedition vessel and off we sailed south of Hobart, 1800 miles down to Antarctica. It was relatively easy to do back in the 90’s because the regulators weren’t overly concerned about the adventurous types. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: They just let you go, right? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, they just let me go. Or let us go, more correctly. We spent months down there doing various jobs opening up Mawson’s Hut. Mawson’s Hut was fascinating, a time warp from 1913 and exactly, it had a lot of ice inside but it was as it was when it was abandoned when Mawson came back to Australia. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So I don’t know the background of Mawson’s Hut but what led to it being closed, and what led to it being reopened? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Okay, well it was built by Mawson to study the location of the south magnetic pole. So a number of scientists went down there, they set up a research base in 1913 and Mawson led the expedition. He also did some inland exploration, which was very high risk in those days and subsequently after a period of time when the research was completed, Mawson came back to Australia and consequently, the South Pole was conquered. 

Mawson had worked out the mathematics of the movement of the South Magnetic Pole, which is where your compass needle points, and the hut was abandoned. It was intermittently used over a long period of time and if anyone ever gets a chance to go to Hobart, then the Mawson Hut has been recreated in Hobart and it is really fascinating. Of course, people travelled in those days under sail as what he did and it was a pretty adventurous trip. 

Subsequently, the Government of Australia has restricted individuals from heading down there because of possible danger to the ecology and of course people. If you go to Mawson’s Hut you want to go inside. It’s secured, it’s well locked, we had permission to go in and do various things. It’s fascinating to say the least. 

Mawson’s Huts expedition conservator Peter Maxwell stands in the workshop section of Mawson’s Hut. Photo: Reuters

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And the research that he did is that still serviced today in terms of compass variation calculations? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, absolutely. Of course all basic recreational navigator understand variation and the adjustment that has to be made to bearings, to use the charts that we have been using for a long time, paper charts. So “variation” as the name suggests, just is adjusted in an annual basis on the charts that have been printed and the movement is well-known now and we all make our annual adjustments to paper charts. 

Many of us have moved away from paper charts and we’ve gone into electronica where it would be fair to say that most of the thinking done for us in relation of the mathematics of navigation. Flinders of course had a lot to do with discovering deviation and deviation is caused by the magnetic field on board the ships was sailing on them. Flinders noticed that when nails came into use to build ships, the metal in the nails were affecting the ship’s compass. 

So there had to be another adjustment made for navigational purposes and these days, deviation on board a vessels, we are sailing on is addressed by having a deviation charted prepared by a licensed compass adjustor and the licensed compass adjustor’s prepare a deviation chart for us and they give it to the owner of the boat and he applies the deviation if he is using the ship’s compass for navigation. But these days with electronica, things don’t require as much as in depth understanding as to what’s happening on the boat we’re sailing on. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: I was going to ask you about that and one of my questions or comments is the complacency that GPS creates and there’s a whole group of sailors now sailing keel boats that have never actually done anything but tune on a chart plotter and recreational parks are always taught to look for potential landing strips whenever they’re flying along in case of engine failure but I don’t think sailors, you know, some sailors would quickly be in trouble if they lost their electronics or their engine and are you seeing a decline in seamanship skills and with what technology is helping to provide or solve for us? 

Australian geologist and Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson (1882 – 1958) Photo: Getty

Gerry Fitzgerald: I am seeing a massive dependency on electronica to navigate your way either up the coast, up the river or across the bay as the case might be and this is a dangerous dependency. We all know people who wouldn’t get out of bed every morning unless their app told them that it was Tuesday at 9 o’clock or whatever and these days, there are so many apps that give us a false sense of security. 

The replacement of electronic charts, from paper chart to electronic charts, is almost universal and people have got their whole life on their tablet in front of them and if they become dependent on it and power goes down or the tablet goes off or went overboard or whatever or the driver of the tablet is not able to drive the tablet, then the vessel is going to be left figuratively rudderless so to speak and we’re seeing lots of electronically induced accidents occurring. 

So if one has got navigation — can buy a navigation app, install it on their laptop computer, connect it up to the fluxgate compass, then we become totally dependent upon that particular method of navigation. We are seeing accidents occurring where mariners are following the electronic chart, turning on the auto pilot and then watching a movie or reading a book and we’re having a faster boat sailing up behind a slower boat because they’re on exactly the same electronic track. 

So there are lots and lots of those accidents occurring. The East Coast of America comes immediately to mind, a high traffic area. I haven’t come across those sorts of accidents occurring on the east coast of Australia at this time but what I certainly have noticed is an absolute dependence on electronic navigation and there are some terrific, absolutely terrific innovations and one of the major innovations, in fact the greatest electronic innovation in my lifetime has been the introduction of AIS. 

Many people are buying AIS now to alert them to the fact that there is a vessel in close proximity. An AIS provides a range in bearing to that particular target. An AIS can provide closest point of approach, time of closest point of approach. In fact can provide the identification of the vessel and this has been enormously helpful to the recreational boating community. Pardon my cough. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s okay, I had it last week and just so folks know a little bit of background noise, we’re at the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron. We are sitting outside on the grass around the back of the training building, sort of in the sun but as a result, there’s the odd vehicles, and the odd sailor, and the odd bird in the garden, so there’s a little bit of a background noise. 

So I was going to ask you about AIS because I mean on one hand if you’re going offshore as a sailor, it gives you a lot of confidence that 60 minutes out you start to see on the AIS that the heading, speed and closest point of approach and time with AIS, as opposed to you’re out there and it’s dark and there’s five metre waves and suddenly a ship appears out of the darkness and that whole risk of being run down. 

But I also read recently that there’s a view that AIS should become more mainstream and more wide spread for recreational mariners, but a commercial ship captain said, “Well if there ends up being that much out there, I’m just going to filter out the smaller boats because I can’t handle the clutter on my screen and I’m more interested in the big ships and they’re just going to have to watch out for me, I’m not going to watch out for them.” 

Example of how AIS occurrs

Gerry Fitzgerald: That is correct, vessels over — commercial vessels from 12 metres up to 24 metres in certain areas of operation must be fitted with AIS and of course, all big ships are fitted with AIS mandatorily under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. What you said is absolutely correct. Small boats fitted with AIS can filter out a whole range of information if they choose to but there’s very few cruising sailors who have installed AIS that don’t fully utilise AIS as a tool. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s a great tool. I found it fantastic. I think you just can’t take the assumption that just because people can see you as well that you can assume that they’re going to look out for you and stay out of your way. You’ve still got to use it as a lookout tool and take responsibility. I think thats the lesson with AIS. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely, we find that in our radar courses where small boats fitted with radar just don’t appreciate the difficulty of interpreting the radar signal. Small boats fitted with radar don’t understand their legal obligations if they’ve got radar on board their vessel. The obligations under the International Regulation for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea and very few small boat sailors who have spent the money on radar appreciate that they have to know what action they should take under rule 19. 

If they detect by radar alone the presence of another vessel, there are certain things they can do, certain things they must not do and they will be held to account for the result of anything that occurs where they’re using radar alone to detect the presence of another vessel. Now the good thing about AIS is, A, it’s about one sixth of the price, B, it requires no knowledge of the cull rigs, C, proximity alarm sound, D, the identity of the vessel that’s it’s a threat is clearly displayed on the AIS system. 

So it is a major, major step forward for recreational sailors and I commend it and I say, “Small boat sailors forget radar, start with AIS.” If you’re going to put a radar, then you need to understand what your legal obligations are and its limitations more importantly. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So I’ve got radar and I’ve got AIS and I’ve had my sailmaker tried talking me into taking my radar off and saying, “If you’re racing, you shouldn’t have radar. It gets in the way,” and I’m adamant I need to keep it because sometimes we’re out on the broad-water at night and the radar is fantastic when you’re motoring along and you know full well that there may be boats in the channel, boats without lights on. 

Radar’s a great tool but also, I’ve had instances with my chart plotter where my GPS location is 20 metres left of a channel marker but in reality, I am 20 metres to the right and so I have also learned that with GPS, and it’s not the norm but at times it can be 20, 30, 50 metres out and again your radar with indexing where you are in relation to the land around you and overlaying that on every chart, it gives you a lot of confidence at night too. So I’m a bit of a fan of both and I found them both in different ways give you some great tools at night. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed. So AIS is not fitted to islands or reefs but it can be fitted and indeed, it can be fitted to navigational marks to provide a greater degree of accuracy for night time navigation, indeed in daytime navigation but AIS will tell you who’s out there particularly commercial vessels, larger vessels. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Which you really want to know when you’re a small boat. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Well you do want to know, particularly if you’re going into places like Gladstone, particularly Mackay, Townsville, Cairns. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And just anywhere of east coast of Australia if you’re out there. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Where there’s high traffic. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s the five to 20 mile zone. It’s like a motorway sometimes. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed it is. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Okay and I did your one day radar training course, which I found — and I already had my radar for two years but I found that once I learned how to use it properly, it just changed how I use it, but also I started to understand why some of the things I was seeing that didn’t make sense, did make sense and it was a sea clutter and some of the things too. I found that really useful. So take me back to some of your other adventures? From memory, I recollect that you’ve done some contract away for the place and for the Australian Navy. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, during the Solomon Islands Insurrection, I was working on a 500 tonner as the master of a ship that did a whole range of things around the Solomon Islands. It was carrying copper, it was running steel out of Bougainville out of the old copper mine workings, salvaging steel and so forth and so I developed a pretty good understanding of how the Solomon Islands-Bougainville area worked. 

I happen to be in Honiara one night when I noticed some Australian naval activity, a little more than normal. All Australians were called to the high commission where we were briefed on the fact that the Australian government was going to undertake an operation where the military and the Australian Federal Police were going to restore law and order. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Right by stealth. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Law and order — no, just by the sheer force, the presence of the Australian Army in uniform. When the Australian Federal Police arrived, they had some immediate priorities obviously but because the Solomon Islands is so diverse in terms of its population spread through various islands, they realised they needed boats to travel around and to locate and to transfer troops and so forth, to various areas. 

So the company that I was working for was employed to provide a police boat service and are also employed to provide a service running troops and equipment to various locations within the Solomon Islands. I had qualifications that would allow me to operate vessels of a certain size. The Navy were unable to operate in certain areas in peace time. Solomon’s being in peace time so they employed civilian contractors. 

So I was the first Australian Federal Police boat driver. We charted a 23 metre vessel and put it to work as a police boat. So I worked under Ben McDevitt who was an Australian Federal Police officer in charge of the operation. So we ran the police around the places where the police had to go then. We ran troops on that boat, armed troops into places where there were problems. Dropped them on the shore at nighttime and they did what the military and the police do in these circumstances. So I had a very interesting, to say the least, range of work over a period of a number of years, in the first three years of the Solomon Islands Insurrection. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Did you faced any hostile situations or risk type situations? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Plenty, yeah. We faced a number of operations where in the early days, the rascals boarded our boat and tried to hold us up. That’s before it became a police operation. We had just to deal with that as best as you can. It varied by circumstance, for instance one night we had three guys board the vessel with an attempt to rob the safe and steal food and do various other things. 

We had basic security protocols in place onboard the ship and consequently, we knew they were on board and then we harassed them into a corner and overcame the problem and lots of other similar circumstances. We had people from a particularly island group board the ship we’re on, The Neptune Gail, and we were there to drop supplies off to them, a hundred or so people came on board and they had a sit in, they weren’t going to leave the boat. Now very difficult for us, unarmed, to deal with that problem but I was told by my employer not to come back with anybody other than the 30 employees on the boat. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So the headcount was a hundred more men. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah so we had to deal with that over for a protracted period of time and that was all about negotiation. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Right and did they get hungry eventually and go on their way? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: They got pretty hungry eventually, but we dealt with the problem through negotiation and it was pretty challenging. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It sounds like it’s pretty challenging and wide ranging kind of work. I mean did you find that satisfying? Did you find it difficult and frustrating at times? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: No day of sea is ever the same, of course. It doesn’t matter where you are. Up there at that time, each day would present four five significant challenges that might be of a security or safety issue. So understanding the perils that seek and present was overlaid by the perils of an unstable environment, which ramped my skill sets. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Well I was going to say, just being an everyday person on the ocean, I have experience and judgment and decision making. All those things are important but that takes it to a whole other level that you’re not even looking for the problems that are landing in your lap each day. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed but all in all, it all came back to seamanship and people management, which encouraged me to continue maritime studies remotely and through the Australian Maritime College down in Launceston. So I ended up doing a wide ranging job on both power driven vessels in that context, in the military context and on sailing vessels. So I went away and I spent a period of time getting a square rig endorsement on the master’s ticket and sail square rigged ships including the replica of the Batavia, 1800 ton, which was brought out to Australia in 2000 to coincide with the Olympics. It was the home base of the Dutch Olympic team and it’s only ever sailed on a number of voyages here in Australia out of Sydney Heads and at the end of the Olympics, it was put on a low loader and it was transported by sea back to Holland. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It weighs 1800 tons?

Gerry Fitzgerald: 1800 tons, built by traditional methods to the traditional design of the original design so with adzes and no nails and it was incredible. We sailed it, took it off, towed it with a couple of tugs out of Sydney Harbour during the Olympics and engaged in square rigger activities with the endeavour that we had a naval battle at sea..

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow, how fascinating. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: …purely under sail. Yes, it was enormously enjoyable. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And what sort of speeds do you move at on a boat that size? The speed’s probably not even part of the equation I guess. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: No, the speed is not part of the equation but I think the fastest we got the thing going at was about seven or eight knots. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Oh, that’s pretty respectable given the size of it. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, 1800 ton. Getting it moving is the basic problem and the maritime authorities were very reticent to let the Batavia loose in Sydney Harbour. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: You wouldn’t stop it in a hurry, would you? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: No and there was 7,000 sheets on that boat, 7,000 lines that had to be manoeuvred to sail the vessel. Now each of those lines relate to a particular mast and each of those lines had a Dutch name. So 7,000 different names for different lines that did different things. Now, I was captain of the bowsprit and we had about 100 lines to adjust the four headsails. Let me tell you, Workplace Health and Safety issues into those context went out the window. But there was a captain of the mainmast and the captain of the foremast and the captain of the mizzenmast and there were all Dutchmen. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: What an amazing structure and a whole organisation to run a ship. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed, but it was so rewarding, so rewarding. So it was a pleasure and a joy. I was the master of the Windeward Bound, which was a Tasmanian based square rigger and I was doing my master’s sea time for 24 metre square rigged vessels during the Olympic period. So they called on all of the square rigged skill sets from Australia to get the Batavia up and running, which was the only period in its existence. It’s on display on the hard, I think, in Holland. I haven’t been there, back to see it but fascinating. Thoroughly recommend going onboard and having a look. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That would be a sight to see. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, it is a sight to see. All flack sails, very, very heavy. Very big loads. Anyway, so be it. It was thoroughly enjoyable. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow, and just completely diametrically the opposite of being in the Solomon Islands on peace keeping support duties. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, well the square rig came before the Solomon Islands but I had the opportunity to sail to Antarctica again out of South America, out of Ushuaia, onboard Spirit of Sydney, which had been purchased by a new owner and he took me over there to do the first couple of voyages down to the Riviera of the Antarctic, which is the Antarctic Peninsula and that was a different part of Antarctica, totally different marine life and pretty Spartan way to go to Antarctica too I might add, the Spirit of Sydney. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Not a lot of luxuries on board. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Not many luxuries indeed. Stalactites were hanging inside the boat off there.

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Right, that is cold. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah that is cold. Nevertheless, it was all part of maritime experience and when I decided that enough was enough in terms of taking random commercial jobs wherever they might be in the world. I decided that I needed to spend more time at home and I cobbled together my qualifications and applied to became a training centre. The inspiration for which was the six deaths in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. 

So it took about five years for me, up to about 2005, to get the necessary qualifications and accreditations to run a training business for recreational sailors and for commercial sailors as well and that in there has morphed into my business which is based here in Brisbane. We have six basic products centring around sea safety. So we have developed a marine first aid course for mariners, I’m not sure whether you did that one? 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: I did that one and it would be fair to say that the image of the de-gloving of the fingers is still etched in my mind and I saw it on the home page of your website when I was looking at it yesterday too. So it’s a very good course. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah so all of the six different products require five different levels of accreditation, working now as a registered training organisation within the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, a gambit of training products has been tedious, restrictive but absolutely vital for trainers to fit within that context and your listeners might not know but from the first of January 2017, the states will have no longer authority for commercial maritime activities within state jurisdictions. 

It’s all been handed over to Canberra. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority will be responsible for all commercial boat operations and they’ve been transitioning to this for five or six years. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And do you think that’s more positive than negative? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Oh absolutely. The one jurisdiction with AMSA is a better environment and it gives better outcomes in terms of safe operation of vessels, in terms of qualifications, in terms of survey standards. It’s now uniform, whereas previously, you could get a qualification in Queensland and you won’t be able to work in New South Wales. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Which is kind of ironic isn’t it? Given our population base, but also if you’re running a training organisation, then there’s opportunity as well to be able to, if you can provide qualifications that they can use nationally, those will get you opportunities too, right? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Exactly and the problem was you could be qualified to teach a master five here in Queensland but you couldn’t teach it at Twin Heads because you couldn’t use it and you weren’t accredited by the New South Wales government. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Which is kind of like red tape gone wrong. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, crazy. Crazy stuff. So it’s a very positive move in my view. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Okay and the courses that you run, so your sea safety and survival. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: We run sea safety and survival for recreational boaters. That’s mandatory for people that race to Hobart. It’s mandatory for people, for a percentage of people on every boat that does a Brisbane to Gladstone or Keppel Island race or Darwin to Ambon. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Sydney to Gold Coast. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Sydney to Gold Coast or Sydney to Coffs Harbour as the case might be. So that’s a recreational course of two days. Interesting times in recreational boating. We’re finding decreasing number of participants in organised yacht races. So the number of people that are actually going out there and racing is declining. There are a number of reasons for this. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It goes hand in hand with increasing compliance I suspect as part of it. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, it is related to compliance. Compliance is related to safe operation by participants. So every time there is a death or loss of a vessel in an organised event, that is an organised Yachting Australian event, the regulators do what the regulators do best and the regulators might write more regulations. There is no regulation that is introduced that is cost free and consequently, people say, “Bugger this, this is enough for me. I can’t afford to keep sailing with this investment if it’s going to cost me this much.” 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And it’s a time cost too for a lot of people who are just sailing recreationally, just with keeping up with it, let alone the money cost. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Major time cost. So participation rights are directly related to compliance as you’ve correctly pointed out but they are also directly to the economy. So if I’m a panel beater and the economy is going well in that particular segment, every panel be to buys himself a racing boat and off they go. However we’re now facing an uncertain economic future. I’m not sure which way it will go myself. 

But what’s happening is that racing sailors are being replaced on sea safety courses by retirees, grey nomads who bought themselves the dream. The dream is, buy a boat and sail to Hamilton Island. Buy a boat and sail to the Solomon’s. Buy a boat and sail to Indonesia or further afield. So lots of recreational sailors are now attending these courses. 

Because they now realise having spent half a mil on a sailing boat, a cruising boat realised they really need to know a little more than what they thought they needed to know. So radio courses, first aid courses, diesel engine courses, radar courses are all part of the skill sets that an informed offshore sailor has in his intellectual tool kit to ensure that the boat gets to where he wants it to go. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Are you seeing couples doing these courses? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So not just the male, “I know everything me and my wife will be fine sitting in the cockpit as long as I don’t fall off the boat or get incapacitated” type attitude. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: That was the transition. So the transition was the guy retires, buys a boat, has either a lot of knowledge about yachting because he’s come out of racing or sailing so he’s made an informed decision. The majority make decisions of the heart and of course, they used to sail as a kid so they don’t need to know. So they send their partner along and she attends the course and then she comes back and she says, “I’m not going unless you go to these courses and get some qualifications,” which has been quite hilarious. 

So now we see, there was a start seven or eight years ago of cruising couples doing rigger courses that require qualification as an outcome and of course, where mom and dad both operate in ignorance, it only takes one voyage with wind over 15 knots for the uncertainty to start to bubble to the surface as to whether they’re really equipped, as you would know, to do the dream voyage. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Yeah and if you’re not confident, especially in a yacht, a bit too much heel angle and a bit of sea sickness and somebody gets a bang on the head and the confidence and the drummers can be shattered immediately, particularly for the uninformed. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, that’s right. There’s a great move amongst cruising couples to go to multihulls, which gives me great joy. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Given your long time passion for multihulls? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah and multihulls are faster and of course, they’re far more stable but they’re proportionately more expensive as well. There’s a definite move for cruising couples to go into multihulls and cruising multihulls really do provide the opportunity to cover distance quickly and live in a degree of comfort. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Well they’re almost like an apartment, the living space in them. I mean my wife would love to have that space in the whole sit flat in an anchorage kind of concept. It’s probably not right now for me but you know, you see — I do see all the positives. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah and lots and lots and lots of positives. The typical mono-huller, probably doesn’t morph into multihulls simply because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he knows what he knows and he sticks with his knitting, so to speak. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s the generational issue that’s a part of it too, right? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: It is a major generational issue and I might say that there are certain yacht clubs in Australia who avoid involvement in multihulls for a whole range of reasons. Some practical because their marina will only take half the number of boats, etcetera. But that general awareness, particularly America’s cup. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s helping a lot.

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, it has certainly helped. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: When the kids started saying, “Hey dad can we get a cool boat like one of those catamarans?” That might change it. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, so I guess the big challenge are regulatory changes. Regulatory changes are driven by deaths in yachting. I am happy to say that deaths in yachting, in organised yacht races, have been declining and we haven’t had a death in an organised yacht race since Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Andrew Short and Sally Gordon died in the Flinders Islet Race. Category two race

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Yeah, that was a tragic story. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: But we are still getting deaths in yachting, recreational yachting, occurring essentially because people don’t know what they’re doing and they’re occurring on the return legs. So if we do a race to a particular destination, then when we have to get the boat home and there were always time pressures and crew pressures. 

The crew pressures are pressures that occur because we accept people to bring the boat home under the clock, to be home by a certain day. They don’t have the same skill sets onboard racing boats. Now, we had a death in January this year where they skipper of the boat was washed overboard in five metre seas and 50 knots of wind and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket harness or tether. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: No tether, yeah, out of Coffs Harbour on the return leg? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah on the return leg. We have another racing boat, had a guy trapped up the mast for seven hours in a Bosun's chair. He had to be brought down by a crew member of another boat who swam across to get him down. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Well they had “get there itis”, didn’t they? Because they both sort of could have sat at Coffs for two or three more days and they just waited for the weather to pass. The race was over but they were in a hurry to get home.

Gerry Fitzgerald: Hurry to get the boat home because, rather than hiring a car, driving home and coming back when the forecast is like it is today. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Yeah, well it’s funny that you say that because I had to have my insurance policy extended because I’m doing Sydney to Southport and Sydney to Hobart this year and then the insurer, and a premium and told them all that kind of stuff that’s more than 250 miles and that was all good. But I don’t know how the conversation started, but the insurer said we have four times the number of claims on the return trips than in the races. So if we have four claims going to Hobart, we’ll have 15 coming back from Hobart for exactly all the reasons you just have said, which I thought was staggering. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, you know, I preach the gospel. Three times a month, we’re doing sea safety courses. That’s probably 50% of all sea safety qualifications in Australia from our base here in Brisbane. I’m off to Sydney at the weekend for the next round down there. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So what locations do you do you hold your training? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: We train from the Darling Point Sailing Squadron here in Manly Boat Harbour in Brisbane. Terrific location, right on the water, there’s a good training ground and the dock is good for us as well. So you can bring a boat alongside if we have to. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s just hard sitting in a classroom and not daydreaming and looking out the window, such a great backdrop. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Exactly, exactly. In Sydney, we train in the Mosman Bay Sea Scouts Hall. It was a derelict building back in sometime in 2006 or 2007. Scouts hadn’t been using it and I approached the Scouts and I said, “Look, I’ll rent it off you, provided that you spent the rent money doing it up.” 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s a good deal. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: So that’s the way it is, so we’ve got a workable dock out the front, the building has been lined, the windows are being replaced, the floors have been polished. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Well you don’t get conditional landlords like that normally. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: No, that’s right and free parking in Mosman in Sydney, free 12 hour parking so it’s a great location and it’s worked very well. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Well that makes the courses cost effective when you don’t have all those other issues going on. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Those major overheads, yeah. People come by boat there as well and pull up in the Mosman Bay Marina. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So you’ve got those two locations, are there any other locations that you train in? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, we have been going to Darwin on a regular basis at the Darwin Sailing Club. They have now set themselves up so they don’t have to drag me and all my gear up from Brisbane. Certainly Gladstone, certainly Port Curtis, Mackay Yacht Club, Coffs Harbour, Gladstone and we travel to China on a regular basis. In China yachting is the new golf. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Right, that’s interesting. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: And so in Shenzhen, they have built themselves a yacht club and a marina. So the yacht club is six star. It has got 100 rooms, six star with restaurants and so on. So one guy built that and gifted it to the club under whatever arrangement. Another guy built the marina. The marina is 300 berth and another guy donated 20 Beneteau 40’s as the kick off fleet. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow, they just donated a fleet of 40 foot Beneteaus? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah so they then realised they had the club, they had the marina and they had the boats, but nobody knew how to sail but we’re going to do a race over to Taiwan. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Just from the get go? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: From the get go, that was — they don’t miss a boat up there. So they said, “Well we need to make sure that people know how to be safe”. I suggested to them they needed to know how to sail to start with and safety would come as a few steps down the chart. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s like a byproduct, isn’t it? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: It is a byproduct, yes it is. Anyway, they all got to Taiwan and they all got back and they realised that they didn’t know how to sail when some key people fell overboard off a number of boats and they didn’t know how to do man overboard drills. So now there’s a thriving business in China for ex-pats to teach people how to sail and on 40 footers. I mean the Chinese have brilliant thinking sailors. So for the future if anybody is listening who might want to pursue a career in China, there’s lot of opportunity for people that are appropriately qualified. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s going to open up a whole significant channel overtime isn’t it? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Yeah and great for production boat builders too to have some extra scale out there, which overtime continued innovation and cost come down, and all that stuff starts to happen. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yes, there is a major production boat industry in China of course. Lots of boats are coming are being built by Australians in China and Taiwan and certainly Vietnam and the work standard quality is good. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s great. Okay, then your website, what’s your website address for listeners? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Marine Training, all one word, all lower case,

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s a great domain name, Google would love that, from a search engine point of view, that’s great. Just jumping back, I remember you telling me you were actually on a yacht in that Sydney to Hobart race in 1998. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: That’s correct. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: But you didn’t complete the race, so tell me about that? Because I remember listening to that story at the time just absolutely wide eyed when you told me about that and the information you had access to and decisions you made. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Don McIntyre bought the Benlex and designed the aluminium hulled Spirit of Sydney and Don raced it around the world on a single handed event and at the end of the race, he decided that it would make a good expedition vessel and where else would you want to go other than off to Antarctica on a sailing boat. So he took Spirit of Sydney down to Antarctica with 10 paying passengers onboard. 

He went down there in January and had a good time and had a backup plan. The backup was the’d do it again next summer. So he did it again next summer and I was retained as the first mate partially responsible for crew training with the skipper and the skipper was Dave Price, a naval architect and a well-known sailor. So we decided that the Sydney to Hobart yacht race would be our delivery voyage from Sydney where Spirit was based. 

So then for a number of reasons, the vessel would not comply with category one. It complied with category zero which is an around the world yacht and race boat. So we said, “Well, what we’ll do is we’ll start with the fleet.  We will sail down with the fleet, metal in tows and all the paying passengers onboard, 10 of them and that will allow us to sort out how that goes during a typical Hobart yacht race.”

Well, we hung about with the heads and then we took off with the fleet but we got a phone call by the time we got to Wollongong from Roger Bantam who was the weather router. He’d been retained to give us advice about the Antarctic weather and so forth, he rung us up and said, “Go home”. He said the fleet are going to get bashed up and you don’t need to be bashed up this early. You’ll probably get bashed up from Hobart South. 

So we turned around and told the crew that we were pulling out because of the forecast weather and we got back into Sydney and we swung at the peak and we listened to the events unfold on the high frequency radio and the high chief radio over the next couple of days and we were glad we’d pulled out. We had one crew member pull out then, they didn’t like what they heard on the radio while we were anchored in Quarantine Bay. 

We then took off to Hobart in generally pretty good conditions across Bass Strait, got down to Hobart and then we did a reassessment of the crew that were on board and we suggested to a member of the crew that this voyage wasn’t for them. So they got a refund and we then brought another crew member down who filled his place and off we took and we had a voyage to from Hobart to Antarctica that was predictable. 

The weather advice was good, the weather routing was good, the weather was manageable, 35 knots on the beam, five metre swells, plenty of ice once we were south of 55 south and found our way into Commonwealth Bay which was quite tricky, no charts. Found our way in and managed to get the boat secure before the first katabatic wind came through. Katabatics are 70 knots every afternoon at 2 o’clock. 

So we had a month there doing what we had to do in Mawson’s Hut putting instrumentation in mainly and then doing some voyaging. By voyaging, I mean voyaging out onto the ice in our ice climbing gear. It was a voyage of a lifetime and I would love to go back to Commonwealth Bay, going to Antarctica is addictive. The light is different, the whole thing is different. You just have to experience it, it’s extraordinary. So we had some near misses but none that are deterring in any way from wanting to do it again but it’s not for the unwary. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: No and the weather is the weather when you were down there? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: The weather is the weather when you’re down there, you’ve just got to deal with what you have and there had been people, fool hardy people who tried to do it and there’ve been no loss of life amongst the fool hardy.

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Which is quite remarkable, given how hard it is to get them out of there.. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, it’s extraordinary. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And when I did the sea safety and survival course which I highly recommend for everybody racing offshore, cruising offshore just in terms of the confidence it gives you. I highly recommend it and I think about 80% or 90% of my crew have done that course in total and I think it’s extremely valuable but one of the key lessons out of your example there with Roger’s advice and I think his nickname is Clouds. 

I tracked him down and when I sailed across Tasmania and used his services. The weather down there was fantastic and he made us wait for three days before leaving even though we were impatient to go, this northerly system came through but our crossing which was eight days, we had six days of motoring or motor sailing just to due to the lack of wind. 

Then we had a couple of night at which we’re at boat, I don’t know, 35 knots in six metres but he routed us around the top of a system that was much bigger through the south but the lesson is the easiest way not to deal with the problem is just stay safe and out of trouble that way. If you could just wait for it to pass or go around it and then don’t put yourself through it. It’s a good starting point. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely. So I have been impatient as everybody is, sailing voyages at a particular point in time and then rounding the southern island of New Zealand, sailed down on New Zealand on my way to Cape Horn on a delivery trip. I decided to take a short cut and I’m lucky that I’m here to recount it. So I just came too close to the southern end of the south island of New Zealand. The ocean goes from 4,000 metres to 200 metres in 10 nautical miles and if you’re in that 10 nautical mile, the sea just obviously stands up. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It stands straight up like the Cook Straight in New Zealand, not like Bass strait on a bigger scale. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yep. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: It’s interesting, I heard about Bass strait for years but I never fully appreciate it until I looked at the nautical charts and you see the Tasman Sea going from 4,000 metres to 3,000 to 2,000 then to a 150 metres. You’ll just think, “Well of course the volume of water is going to go through that small gap but it stands up.”

Gerry Fitzgerald: Exactly, yep. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: So it’s not a matter of it it will happen to you. It will happen to you if you go through there in that kind of weather. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely but having said that, heavy weather shouldn’t be necessarily looked at as being an insurmountable challenge. Heavy weather is a part of offshore sailing. Heavy weather is enjoyable, heavy weather needs to be undertaken by people that know what they’re doing. So getting experience near coastal, which is far more dangerous because of traffic and reefs. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And ships. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, absolutely. Heavy weather sailing can be extraordinarily enjoyable. Alex Whitworth is a well-known yachtsman, has had a boat, he still has as of today, a Brolga 23 called Berrimilla and he sailed Berrimilla around the world, east-west and also north-south double handed. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow, I hadn’t heard of anyone doing north-south, that’s amazing. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Yeah, so he sails Sydney to Dutch Harbour in Alaska non-stop and then Dutch Harbour straight through the northwest passage from west to east and then down the side of Greenland and from Greenland down to Portugal, Portugal down to Cape of Good Hope and Cape of Good Hope across to Kerguelen Islands and Kerguelen to Tasmania. Yeah extraordinary voyage. So Berrimilla passes into history. He tells me it’s been sold, but I think he’s still in possession. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: That’s an amazing voyage, he’d be an interesting person to talk to. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: But a key point for him is that heavy weather has just got to be dealt with. I mean if you’re undertaking a voyage, then heavy weather if you’re out there, may not be avoidable. So if you don’t have a boat that can’t handle heavy weather, stick to the coast, stick to safe haven and that’s just as enjoyable as well. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: But if you’re boat’s set up for heavy weather. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: If your boat is set up for heavy weather… 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: The rawness and the beauty of it is actually quite thrilling. Once you’re comfortable and your realise it’s going to be okay, it’s actually awe inspiring just to see that the grandeur around you and when it’s just you and the ocean is actually a lot less to worry about. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: It is a lot less to worry about, exactly. So Alex won the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in his division. So he got through it all. Everything’s happened to Alex and my recurrent theme is, if you’re out there long enough, everything will happen to you too so you’d better be prepared for it. That’s why he makes a great presenter on our courses. So he comes up to Brisbane and down to Sydney and up to China as well where we’ve had our course notes, our sea safety presentation, transferred to Cantonese. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow and I think as we sort of wrap up, I think the value I got out of doing all the courses prior to sailing across the Tasman for the first time, it’s now two and a half years ago now, was just the life experiences you draw on. You can read all the books in the world and you can kind of grasp the theory but when you’ve got teachers that can actually apply the lessons based on life experience and great stories and analogies and examples, it makes the learning stick, but it makes it so enjoyable, and it makes it — it’s almost like the stories you’d take away help you to continue, just to meet the learning I think, that’s what I’ve found. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Indeed, that’s a good way to explain it because we don’t tell irrelevant stories I hope. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: No, I could listen to your stories all day. That’s why I’m here today right? So that’s great, so any last kind of lessons or advice you’d like to give recreational sailors and recreational racers about good judgment and safety and survival? 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely, you’ll only get the experience if you a go. So not many recreational sailors sail inside the Barrier Reef. Now, I’ve sailed many, many oceans, all of the oceans of the world where it’s cold and where it’s hot and all I want to say that too many of us in Australia are shirking the Barrier Reef. Once you have done some day sailing inside the reef on your boat with the keel sticking down and the coral heads sticking up, then you’ll be hooked but you’ve got to get the confidence to do it. 

So the basic rule of thumb is never avoid the reef but never sail before nine of a morning and after three of an afternoon. Find yourself a hole somewhere in the reef, 60 miles offshore and you’ll never go short of a feed, scenery and memories that you’ll carry right through your last days. The reef that is here on Australia, is just a great resource that’s under-utilised. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: And it’s in reach of 80 or 90% of the population of sailors in terms of its location where everyone lives too. It’s a nice sail up there. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Absolutely, look Lizard Island, they’re running a regatta this year okay out of Cairns. Check with the Cairns Yacht Club. I am a life member of the Cairns Yacht Club. Check with the Cairns Yacht Club, they are running a cruise and company, a race and inverted comers up to Lizard and Lizard are hosting the whole show. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Wow sounds fantastic. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Terrific, do it. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: What a great destination. Well in the show notes, and we’ll get this interview typed up as well and published on the Ocean Sailing Podcast website and on the show notes I’ll put links to your training sites so people can easily find it and some of these other things that we’ve talked about and then also, if there’s any photos or videos that you can share, I will publish those as well to give people some more graphical kind of experience around some of the things that you’ve talked about. 

And really a big thank you for putting aside the time this morning Gerry to join us on the Ocean Sailing Podcast. We’ve got lots and lots of listeners all over Australia and outside of Australia as well and I think this has been a really valuable insightful conversation and I think it will be really, really well, enjoyed and listened to. 

Gerry Fitzgerald: Terrific, thanks for the opportunity. 

Ocean Sailing Podcast: Okay, thanks Gerry.

Interviewer: David Hows