WA’s solo sailor drops anchor

JON Sanders, who has had the wind in his sails for more than 70 years, earning him boat loads of sailing world records, believes keeping active is central to a contented life.

“At least it is for me,” says Jon at Royal Perth Yacht Club, home to his history-making, blue-hulled yacht.

“People in retirement should do what suits them. Jump in the car and drive around Australia; or go on the Queen Mary 2; or the Ghan. But you do need to do something physical,” says the living legend.

Coming up for 79, the oldest person to circumnavigate the world and the only person to do it 10 times, Jon has set a simple course to sail to his final sunset. Merely to stay active, sailing only locally and leisurely.

Asked how he’d like to be remembered, Jon says: “I don’t know how I’ll be treated when I’m gone. I’m not like that. I suppose I might be a bit of a legend for a while. And then I won’t.”

In the world of sailors there are the elite, the super sailors and the legends. Jon qualifies as all three.

There are few ports, even the remotest spots around the world, where Jon Sanders isn’t recognised and hailed. He’s sailed into ports so many times, he can do it with his eyes shut.

“I sleep at night while sailing,” he confirms. “My body clock wakes me every 20 minutes to check the instruments.”

These days, Jon’s boat, Perie Banou II, is fitted with technology that detects and reports nearby ships or fishing boats.

“Where I mostly go, near islands, there’s not much traffic. But you always have to be aware of boats. There are more fishing boats, I reckon, than there are fish.”

Jon sights plenty of whales and believes they’re growing in numbers.

On his latest circumnavigation feat, Jon sailed for 15 months over 28,844 nautical miles.

“This one was easy,” he says, choosing to take his time.

Before he got his sturdy sea legs, Jon was a wool classer, sub-contracting his outfit to WA’s big sheep stations.

Then a landlubber, he used his money to dabble with boats until his hobby steered him out to sea. His mostly solo existence, far away from civilisation and at the fate of the elements, was led by his passion for new horizons.

But he’s not a recluse.

“I like being with people, but in what I do on a boat of my size (13m) it’s a bit tight for others to come.

“I enjoy sailing with the crews bringing boats to Australia from Japan or Hong Kong or Indonesia,” he said. Jon says his life’s choice wasn’t conducive to marriage and he’s remained single.

Jon won’t touch alcohol while sailing but says he enjoys a beer and a restaurant meal while catching up with people after he comes into a port.

His sailing life is frugal; something light to nibble for breakfast and during the day but making himself an evening meal.

“It’s mostly canned or packaged. I make a point of having greens and healthy food,” he says.

With a heart scare behind him, Jon is feeling his ageing bones but is committed to being as active as possible. He accepts what the proverbial tide washes in and paces himself.

Jon keeps in touch with another West Aussie solo-sailor, David Dicks, the youngest man to circumnavigate the world.

“He sometimes helps me with the boat,” Jon says of the younger man he inspired.

David is now a commercial helicopter pilot, flying passengers from a luxury Kimberley cruise boat to tourist hotspots. David, father-of-three, follows in the family tradition with his dad, mum and sister all flyers.

In honour of a triple-circumnavigation, the Royal Perth Yacht Club awarded Jon its inaugural James Cook Award, a gold medallion for sailors who have performed ‘rare and exceptional feats of seamanship and navigation’.

The club supports its world-honoured member, arranging advance moorings for him around the world, handling arrangements for his various attempts and assisting with the media. Various companies provide Jon with materials including Rolly Tasker sails and from B & G, his major sponsor, more than $40,000 in electronic equipment, including his navigation system.

“I had some assets, some land which I gradually sold off. I could probably manage finances without the supporters but it would be a bit tight,” says the man with no interest in seeking gain or glory from his sailing feats.

At the conclusion of his momentous, lifetime journeys, Jon stands out like a beacon. Worldwide, nobody on water ranks anywhere near the West Aussie.

Most recall the world’s first solo, non-stop, triple circumnavigation in 1988 on board SV Parry Endeavour. The 71,000 nautical mile journey took 658 days – the longest distance sailed continuously by any person or vessel. The boat takes pride of place next to the 1983 America’s Cup-winning Australia II in the Fremantle Maritime Museum.

Jon’s first-time solo sailing records include:

Five Cape Horn roundings (one east-west and four west-east); Five Cape Horn roundings during non-stop circumnavigations; four roundings of the five southernmost capes; a circumnavigation using the east-west route; four circumnavigations using the west-east route; circumnavigate non-stop via Cape Horn west-about and east-about; skipper of small yacht (less than 15.5m) to complete five circumnavigations, crewed or single-handed and only yachtsman to complete five circumnavigations via Cape Horn, crewed or single-handed.

From 2000, Jon has skippered a 44ft sloop from Sydney to Europe via the Red Sea and Suez Canal, including his 11th crossing of the Indian Ocean and fourth transit of the Suez Canal.

Other voyages include: Indian Ocean (14 times), Atlantic Ocean (11 times), Pacific Ocean (12 times), Australian seaboard, west-to-east and east-to-west (45 times) and Cape Horn (five times).

And there are many more by the bloke who says he’s “just a sailor”.

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Journalist, commentator, broadcaster and author. Lee, columnist for Have a Go News has reported for The Australian Financial Review, The Australian, The West Australian, Sunday Times, Albany Advertiser, Melbourne Herald, Launceston Examiner, Business News and national magazines. Lee has covered federal politics, industrial relations and national affairs. A public speaker, newspaper columnist and author of two books, Lee co-hosted 6PR’s current affairs radio. He also co-founded a stable of national business newsletters. Lee is former communications manager for a non-profit, mental health carers’ organisation.