From lowly deckhand to serial-winning southern wind racer, Marcus Blackmore has always had his eyes on the prize, says Marilyn Mower
I remember looking at a photo from Hamilton Island Race Week 2019, a regatta known for its “race hard, play hard” philosophy and the Prix d’Elegance, a hotly contested team uniform competition. One of the racing boats – you could see the graphics spelled out “Hooligan”– had its crew done up head to toe in nylon body suits a la Blue Man Group, except these were screaming fluorescent lime green. I remember thinking, those would be fun people to race with.
Meet the Chief Hooligan, Marcus Blackmore.
Credit: Jeff Brown/Breed Media
Along with Bob Oatley, Lang Walker and Neville Crichton, Blackmore is one of the big names among Australian racing superyacht owners. BOAT International met up with him as he was anxiously awaiting delivery of a new 29-metre Southern Wind to replace an 25-metre named Ammonite that he’s raced around the world since 2016. While optimised for a good turn of speed, his Southern Winds are built as performance cruisers that race under ORCsy handicaps. For serious racing he prefers box rule classes like the TP52 Hooligan, which supplanted his Farr 40 fleet, but talk to Blackmore long enough and you get the feeling he’d race a log canoe if someone suggested it.
Like many of his friends, Blackmore is cut from the humble cloth of the self-made man. A Queenslander by birth, his father, a naturopath, had come out from England and started a vitamin business after opening Australia’s first health food store in Brisbane in 1938. The idea of supplements, preventive medicine, the environment and recycling were radical in the 1930s and not initially welcome. After his father’s passing in 1977, Marcus set to work transforming the family business from a modest vitamins manufacturer into a transpacific complementary medicine public company. With the reins of the company turned over to a successor, he now spends more time on the water, even it’s just tooling around Pittwater with his wife, Caroline, and dogs on his Palm Beach 50, soon to be a 60. He’s such a natural around the waterfront that it soon becomes obvious he’s not a Johnny come lately to boating.
Blackmore wanted to be a ferryman when he was young, such was his love of the water. “Before that, in my teens, one of my mates in Brisbane had a small sailing boat called a Gwen 12 and invited me to crew with him. I think I spent more time in the water than I did in the boat, so I decided sailing didn’t really appeal.
“My father had motor boats and I liked those. I used to spend my weekends working as a deckhand for a ferry company. When I turned 21 I got my masters ticket and I ran a fishing boat in Queensland. It wasn’t really until I came down to Sydney where I had a good mate, John Biffin, an ex-Queenslander with a Duncanson 35, that I started to sail again. He used to let me borrow it. Now I lend him my boat. Anyway, that’s when I got the taste of yacht racing.”
Credit: Jeff Brown/Breed Media
Young and fit, Marcus would get invited to crew as a grinder. On a Hobart race, after a while it seemed to him like the people back in the cockpit were having an easier time of it – and more fun. He asked his ocean racing mentor Peter Green how one gets to sail at the back of the boat and was told the short answer was to buy one. “So I did.”
He bought his first boat, a Nantucket 43, from the late Bob Oatley. “I entered my first Hamilton Island Race Week and won my class. Oatley and I were long-time friends. We did an Admiral’s Cup series together in his 20-metre Wild Oats with one of the first canting keels, and we won. I did the long races; they called me the offshore strategist, which meant I was the weight on the rail. That was a wonderful experience.”
Credit: Jeff Brown/Breed Media
As far as Southern Hemisphere distance racing goes, there is no gnarlier nor famous event than the Sydney Hobart, all 630 nautical miles of it. “I’ve done 12 Hobarts and I don’t plan to do any more,” says Blackmore. “My thing now is regattas.” He’s too modest to say his thing now is winning regattas, but that or finishing somewhere in the silver happens regularly. That Farr 40 class? He was at the top of the leaderboard from 2000 to 2007 with three Farr 40s. Hamilton Island Race Week? Blackmore is now known for having the sort of dialled-up programme that allows him to attract guys like the legendary Tom Slingsby as his tactician, plus Olympic 470 medallists Will Ryan and Matt Belcher and Australian Olympic coach Victor Kovalenko. At last year’s Hamilton Island event he beat Sandy Oatley’s Wild Oats X for first place in IRC.
TP52 racing is a thrill to watch because it’s so competitive. “I have owned two [TP52s]. The first I bought from Team New Zealand; they were building a new boat every year. I told Grant Dalton, ‘I’ll make the deposit now and you deliver it at the end of the season.’ The team ended up winning the Med Cup and delivered the boat to me [as the season ended]. They took it back to Australia and won every regatta except two, where they came second.
Credit: Jeff Brown/Breed Media
“I sold that boat and raced Dragons for a while before deciding to get back in, and bought the TP52 Azzurra from the Roemmers family. A similar thing happened – I took first in Hamilton Island two years running. The TPs are fantastic to sail and we have an emerging fleet of older TP52s here, and our own Corinthian-type handicapping system. It’s excellent racing.”
Next, Blackmore almost sheepishly admits to another boat. “I also have a McConaghy 38, just a quick race boat,” he says. “One design is the best racing. You build a camaraderie in one designs. You learn the rules of sailing and technique on the one designs.” He notes that with the MC38 or his TP52, one weekend class racing event might include seven races or more than the average club racer might do in half a season.
Which is not to say that Ammonite did not race. She did and there are trophies to prove it. Fresh from her sailing trials and delivery in South Africa, she sailed up to the Loro Piana Caribbean Superyacht Regatta in Virgin Gorda. “I thought maybe we could put the boat on a ship to get it there, but the guys at Southern Wind explained that’s not the way it's done.” Blackmore optimised the 82 for handicap racing in ORC by eliminating full teak decks, saving 350 kilograms, and the boat has a custom lifting keel. After finishing fourth in her first contest, the crew continuously worked at dialling up the boat and won the 2018 Millennium Cup in Auckland.
But it’s the cruising he’s done in the South Pacific that has him waxing poetic. “It doesn’t matter which of the countries you go to, once you get away from the cities, a lot of the locals are subsistence people but they are kind and happy. If you are going to cruise in those areas you need to understand the culture. When I go into the Pacific, the locals call me “brother” a lot and I’m an honorary chief in Samoa [where Blackmore’s employees and he and Caroline donated the money to rebuild two schools after a devastating tsunami].”
Credit: Courtesy of Owner
“I love spending time with those people, but when you are there, you have to be respectful of their traditions to win their respect.” He shared examples of people who have few material possessions but are very happy, adding that their values and culture are extremely strong.
“We always research what the villagers are likely to need and we always take things to give them. On Fiji’s outlying islands, for example, they don’t have internet access for shopping and we heard that reading glasses were hard to come by. We bought a couple of hundred pairs online and delivered them. A lovely elderly lady came up to Caroline and said, “You don’t know how important this is to me. I can now read the Bible.’” Another highlight was the Lau Group of islands east of Fiji, and Fulaga in particular. “You need to get a permit to go there as they really don’t want to become a tourist destination. You couldn’t get permission until about five or six years ago. The people there are fabulous and mad about cricket. Take them reading material, they love books.”
Blackmore also spoke at length about being in Tonga during whale season. “We went diving with the whales; it was a truly amazing experience. We have photos of them leaping out of the water next to our 82.”
With so many golden memories on the 82, why did Blackmore switch to the Southern Wind 96? “I really don’t know, I just did,” he says, smiling. “I was particularly pleased with 82, it’s been a wonderful boat but I’ve owned it for three years. Southern Wind asked me if I would be interested in this boat, I said, ‘Oh, I guess’. It was well down the track when I got involved and Caroline did the interior. She’s done an amazing job working with Nauta. I am really excited about the boat. It's basically a bigger version of what I had before. I’ve always dreamed of having a big maxi and I think I’m finally going to get one.”
Ammonite II hit the water in September after a short delay due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic halting production at Southern Wind. She made her way across from Cape Town and is now sitting pretty in Newport, Australia. “We are going to take the new boat to New Zealand to do the Millennium Cup, which we won in the last boat. Assuming the America’s Cup goes forward, which we believe it will, we should have 20 to 30 boats in the Bay of Islands this year, then it’s back to Auckland for the MasterCard Regatta. Then we will see if this boat is any good or not.” Any bets?