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Legend remembered: John Bennetto, "JB" to his friends and sailing mates, was a legend in Australian yachting.

The 61st Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was to have been John Bennetto's 45th Hobart, a final bid to win the race Overall with a yacht that he owned. Wise counselling, however, saw him announce his retirement from ocean racing in early December after he became seriously ill following a stroke. He asked his longtime sailing master Tony Nicholas to skipper Quest to Hobart one last time before it was sold.

Bennetto, 79, passed away in a Hobart hospital only nine days before the Boxing Day start of the "Sydney Race", as Tasmanians generally refer to the blue water classic.

The tough, 628 nautical race was the love of his life. He first sailed in 1947 aboard Kintail and the following year crewed on the winning Tasmania boat Westward.

Quest, a former Rolex Sydney Hobart Race winner which Bennetto bought only in 2004, was sailed in his memory by longtime members of his crew, many of whom had sailed with him for the past 20 years and longer.

Bennetto's record of 44 races, mostly as skipper of his own yacht and including 17 straight races without a retirement with his Frers 47 Mirrabooka, remains unchallenged for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and is probably unprecedented in world ocean racing.

The Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Geoff Lavis described John Bennetto as a "legend of yachting in Australia", a yachtsman who had made a magnificent contribution to ocean racing over the past 60 years.

"His record of sailing in 44 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Races is probably a world ranking achievement for any long ocean race."

"He had a huge commitment to the sport and, had his health not deteriorated so rapidly in the last few months, I am sure he would have been on the starting line on Boxing Day.

"Over the past 60 years John, firstly as a crewman and then as a yacht owner, passed on his great skills of seamanship to many up-and-coming sailors, introducing them to ocean racing.

"Many of them who have, and still are, sailing on his yachts, are on the path to logging as many races as 'JB', as he was is known to his sailing mates and colleagues."

The burgee of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia was lowered to half-mast on the news of John Bennerto's death. On Boxing Day, Marion Cooper, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania, dropped a white rose into Sydney Harbour at the start of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. Then as they rounded the offshore mark, the crew of Quest cast a wreath into the Tasman Sea.

"John Bennetto" was closely involved with the Quiet Little Drink, the famous post-race get-together of sailors in Hobart, which has raised significant sums of money for young sailors to gain international experience.

"We ran the Quiet Little Drink for 30 years and the accumulated funds ran into many thousands of dollars," said QLD co-ordinator Tony Cable, himself a veteran of 41 races to Hobart. "John acted as trustee for these moneys which we gave to young sailors, including three Tasmanians to enable them to sail in the Fastnet Race in England and many other international events that gave great impetus to their sailing careers."

I knew "JB" for more than 50 years. He was a wonderful raconteur ... a bit of a sailing larrikin with a vast range of stories about fellow yachties and himself. Over the years he extolled his wisdom and seamanship skills to hundreds of younger sailors. He once told me he would never ask one of his crew to do something he would not do himself.

John Bennetto was an officer in the RAN in World War II. He was aboard HMAS Australia when it was attacked by Japanese kamikaze aircraft off the Philippines.

He was a strong and remarkably agile foredeck hand on Kintail in his early days and even in his 70s could still often be seen at the top of the mast of his yacht at the CYCA, checking the rigging before the start of the race back to Hobart.

Roast dinners aboard

After his first Sydney Hobart aboard Kintail in 1947, Bennetto sailed in four subsequent races on Kintail although in 1948 he was on board another Tasmanian yacht, Westward, which won the race on corrected time. In following years "JB" sailed on a number of different boats, including a couple of races with his long-time friend Don Mickleborough on Southerly before buying Norla, the first of his own ocean yachts.

"JB" raced his first Mirrabooka (Aboriginal for Southern Cross) for several years before buying his much-loved Frets 47, Mirrabooka II. He skippered this boat in 17 consecutive Rolex Sydney Hobarts between 1987 and 2003 without once retiring, including the stormswept race of 1998.

He refurbished Mirrabooka II for the 1994 50th anniversary Rolex Sydney Hobart Race "to ensure she becomes a relatively fast IMS cruiser/racer of the future ... the crew has gone into training ... but roast dinners will not, however, be abandoned!"

Those dinners were not abandoned, at least until he bought the champion grand prix racer Quest, with its limited creature comforts below deck.

Quest was to have been John Bennetto's real chance of winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with his own boat but sadly he could not achieve that in person. But no doubt he had a close contact with "Hughie" the sailor's wind god and was keeping a weather eye on Quest as she sailed south on Boxing Day.

A Memorial Service for John Bennetto, held at St David's Cathedral, Hobart, drew many of his friends from around Australia, among them Commodore Marion Cooper of the RYCT and her husband, Des a Past Commodore of that cub, Immediate Past Commodore of the RYCT Robert "Biddy" Badenach, RYCT Sailing Manager Tony Nicholas--who skippered Questin the Rolex Sydney Hobart--Commodore GeoffLavis from the CYCA and his old sailing mate CYCA member Don Mickleborough.
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Title Annotation:Profile
Author:Campbell, Peter
Publication:Offshore Yachting
Date:Feb 1, 2006
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