Keeping the wind in his sails

John Longley out early on the Swan River with his skiff crew
John Longley out early on the Swan River with his skiff crew

Perth’s world-sailing supremo John Longley has, at age 75, found a challenging new boating adventure that is striking a chord with seniors across Australia.

For the legend who helped mastermind Australia’s win of the world’s most elusive sporting trophy, the America’s Cup, to his genius in creating the Endeavour replica against all odds, John still has the wind in his sails.

When he encountered a four-oared rowing boat, a Saint Ayles Skiff, at the 2015 Australian Wooden Boat Show, and saw what it could do for communities, he witnessed a ripple that is evolving into a hobby movement, now with his support.

It brings together individuals and groups of people, allcomers  but especially seniors, to build and own the skiffs and row them on river adventures. Perhaps like John Longley’s team that rowed up the Swan River over a few days, camping on riverbanks, following in the wake of pioneer James Stirling.

The boats come in kit-form from South Australia and are built, usually with the buyers’ local timber, although full kits are also available. Top cost to completion would be $10,000 and that could be shared among a group of buyers.

The boats are easy to row, even for first-timers, and can be rejigged to take sails, as John’s was. Naturally.

John pulled together a small team at the Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht Club where he has been a member most of his eventful life and they assembled two skiffs.

“These skiff projects are incredible. They bring people together who perhaps haven’t known each other or groups of friends, in an active hobby they wouldn’t have ever considered.

“They are creating something useful and fun with a sense of owning something they can take out on the water anytime,” he said. 

These skiffs bring people together, like community glue.

In Tasmania, John encountered a group of 29 women who decided to build a skiff so they would have an interest and activity that didn’t rely on their men.

Various groups have taken different approaches to building the skiffs and getting them into the water. Often scouting among their people to see who has hands-on skills for the various aspects of assembling a skiff.

“There is more involved than just assembling them. But it’s amazing how people find someone who has this skill or that and get it done with a sense of achievement,” he said.

John explains that the 22-ft row boats follow ancient Scottish craft used for fishing and recreation around the Western Isles. And they were deliberately designed for community engagement.

“I watched one group of people from India, heading out on to the river. They had never been on the water before and they were smiling and singing songs from Bollywood. 

“These skiffs bring people together, like community glue,” he said.

Happy to support the movement, John points to information on the Saint Ayles Skiff website.

Away from the public spotlight these days, the legendary sports family members are a close-knit clan, often assembling on the Denmark property of John’s nephew, famous basketball star Luc and his celebrity wife, Anna Gare.

John, father of two adult boys and granddad to a tall, seven-year-old Marlon, still has important sailing roles after being sworn-in by the Governor-General to the Sydney-based National Maritime Museum.

The museum, with yearly visits by 850,000 people, has one of the world’s largest floating historical vessel collections. This features the $17 million Fremantle-built Endeavour, a replica of Captain Cook’s history-making vessel, which was brought to fruition by John. 

Masterminding its construction and personally navigating the project through a mine-filled funding crisis, John sees it as his greatest personal achievement. On completion he circumnavigated the world on the Endeavour through 149 ports over six years. 

John Longley at the helm
John Longley sails regularly

A close second to John’s long list of achievements is his America’s Cup contributions: Five America’s Cup campaigns, with the 1983 Cup win, flanking skipper John Bertrand selecting the Australia II crew, choreographing the team’s sailing tactics and then serving in the crew in the exhaustive role of grinder.

John was also Australia II’s project manager until he had to totally focus on racing the boat and Warren Jones took over. John co-ordinated the boat’s building with her controversial masterstroke, the winged keel. And with designer Ben Lexcen, he co-designed the boat’s entire deck layout.

At 41, after being manager and grinder for Australia IV in the 1986 Cup defence trials, John retired from Cup sailing.

He co-wrote the San Diego Protocol, the text book for Cup challengers and was chairman and convenor of the conference of designers who developed the IACC (International America’s Cup Class) rule.

Fremantle’s favourite son was the natural choice as event director for the ISAF Sailing World Championships, held in Fremantle in 2011.

For services to yachting, in 1984 he became a member of the Order of Australia (AM). His gongs include: Ron Tough gold medal for services to WA sailing (twice), Fremantle Citizen of the Year (he was an employers’ representative), Australian Sports Medal, Australian Centenary Medal, America’s Cup Hall of Fame, Australian Sailing Hall of Fame, WA Citizen of the Year, BIWA boatman of the year and Australian sailing lifetime achievement award.

John, however, feels there is one area where he comes-up short. Among all the towering Longleys, stretching up to 220 cms (7ft 2in), John says he’s ‘only’ 198 cms (6ft 5in).