Illawarra yacht skipper Noel Cornish says he will be like a ‘kid on Christmas morning’ as he lines up on Boxing Day for his seventh Sydney Hobart race, writes GREG ELLIS.
When the fleet of almost 100 yachts sails out of Sydney Harbour on Boxing Day, one will be proudly flying the Wollongong flag.
St Jude, launched in December 2007, boasts a crew predominantly made up of Illawarra sailors, including owner and skipper Noel Cornish, who is competing in his seventh Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht classic.
But despite his experience and four decades of managing large workforces, Mr Cornish still finds it hard to contain his excitement at this time of year.
"This is the sixth race in this particular yacht, St Jude, which is named after my wife Judith, including the 'Saint' bit," he said.
"For me it is a way that I really do unwind and enjoy the adventure of it. I am 63 years of age and I get the same thrill heading to that start line on Boxing Day morning as an eight-year-old kid gets on Christmas morning. I feel pretty fortunate."
Mr Cornish said for him it was not a matter of life getting quieter as he got older.
He was recently elected national chairman of the Australian Industry Group and there is plenty to keep him busy in the lead-up to one of the world's most famous ocean yacht races.
"There are months of preparation and then there is this great buzz at the start. Then you push yourself mentally and physically the whole way through," he said.
"Along the way, there are also some wonderful experiences with wildlife such as whales and particularly with dolphins. And on a clear night, the stars put on a display that is just something to be imagined.
"Interspersed with that is some pretty uncomfortable times. I have never ever felt unsafe, but I can assure you there are many times I have felt uncomfortable."
Mr Cornish's crew is made up of mates he enjoys sailing with.
Boudewyn (Boudy) de Haas, Mish Ivaneza and Andrew, Peter and Jono Liddle all hail from Wollongong.
Last year St Jude finished 46th overall for eighth in Division 2 and the crew is keen to at least equal its best result and finish in the low 30s this year.
The ultimate goal is for St Jude to finish in the top 25.
Mr Cornish said sailing competitively in the famous race was always a challenge and that was why he did it.
"You get 10 people in a space who are capable of pushing the boat and themselves," he said.
"It is a very competitive fleet and most people who sail in that race are not weekend sailors. They are people who are seriously into the sport. So you give it everything you have got. And the elation at the finish is amazing."
He said the five Illawarra members of his crew all had one thing in common.
"They have all been through the Illawarra Yacht Club," he said.
"It has done a great job training young people to sail. Many came through youth sailing and still sail on skiffs."
Mr Ivaneza said he still sailed 16-foot skiffs on Lake Illawarra and this was his fourth Sydney to Hobart on St Jude.
"I have sailed for 25 years," he said.
"I am a shipwright by trade. I keep doing the big race because I just have a love of sailing."
Mr Cornish said the youngest member of the crew was Jono Liddle.
"He has sailed with us for a while but he is now 18 so he can do his first Sydney Hobart," he said.
"He is sailing with his father, Peter, on the bow, and his uncle, Andy."
Jono knows what to expect because he helped sail St Jude back from Hobart with his father and uncle last year.
His uncle said it was "worse coming back than going down last year" but that had not put his nephew off.
"This is something I have wanted to do for a long time," Jono said.
"It is something not many people get to do. I have dreamt about this ever since I started sailing. I was about 10 when I started so I have been sailing eight years."
Each year, Mr Cornish hands out some of his own trophies in Hobart.
"One is a fairly ornate old coffee pot," he said.
"It is not solid silver, it is silver plated but it is the closest we could get to an America's Cup. It gets awarded typically for some outstanding achievement by a crew member."
Last year it went to one crew member who climbed to the top of the mast when a sail twisted crossing Bass Strait.
"This is something we have practised many times but you never, ever think you are going to have to do it. But it turns out we did and we got him up and down safely," Mr Cornish said.
Mr Cornish's emphasis on safety makes his one of the safest boats on the water.
Procedures are drilled into every crew member at toolbox meetings before every outing.
That commitment to safety started early in Mr Cornish's career as a superintendent of transport at the Newcastle steelworks.
Safety became an obsession many years before he went on to become chief executive of BlueScope Steel's Australian and New Zealand steel plants.
He had attended the scenes of accidents where people were killed or seriously injured and never wanted again to be placed in a position where he had to tell someone that a family member was not coming home.
"We have safety regulations that go beyond the regulations required," Mr Cornish said.
"If you step on to our boat, it is like stepping into a department at BlueScope. When you are 100 kilometres offshore and a big southerly blows through, you need to know that all the safety is well and truly in place."
Though Mr Cornish names his yachts after his wife, Judith, that is as close as her connection gets.
"The first time she actually ever saw St Jude was at the end of the third Sydney Hobart.
"She flew down for the finish and actually christened the boat at that stage with a bottle of champagne.
"We do have one photo of her on the boat. But that is the closest she has ever come to sailing on it. That is what happens when you marry a country girl."