the ragamuffin man

Syd Fischer, the hard-driving owner/skipper who dominated Australian yachting for more the 30 years in his succession of Ragamuffin ocean racers has died a few days short of his 96th birthday.

An adopted child, Fischer grew up in a tough working-class Sydney suburb during the Great Depression. His father was often out of work and his mother died of pneumonia when he was just eleven. 

Syd left school at 14 to begin his apprenticeship as a carpenter. But being a forthright, stubborn, and ambitious young man he was never happy working for others and soon went into business for himself as a builder, then a property developer. By the late-1950s he was already well on the way to being a millionaire.

Fischer had excelled at many sports – swimming, boxing, football and tennis – before discovering sailing at the age of 33. He skippered his own offshore boat, Malohi, in the 1962 Sydney-Hobart race. The first of his eight famous Ragamuffin ocean racers followed in 1968. (The last was the 100-foot supermaxi now racing as Scallywag.)

Syd soon became the most prominent figure in the sport Down Under. He represented Australia eight times at the Admiral’s Cup, and seven times as captain of the national team, leading them to victory in the tragic storm-wracked 1979 series. His win in the tough 1971 Fastnet Race has been matched by no other Australian, and he won the World One Ton Championship in New Zealand in the same year.    

Fischer’s five self-funded America’s Cup campaigns (a record he shares with Sir Thomas Lipton) were less successful. He never earned the right to either challenge for or defend, the Cup. While he encouraged young sailing talent, including Iain Murray and James Spithill, and backed Australian designers, each of those America’s Cup campaigns struggled because of his notorious unwillingness to spend the extra dollars that an international contest at that level demands. 

Syd Fischer could be forceful, demanding, impatient, impetuous, suspicious, aggressive, disrespectful of authority, secretive, and sometimes even a bully. But he was also privately generous to individuals and the sport, good company, and was a loving father and grandfather. 

His long-time sailing friend Sir James Hardy wrote that it was a misjudgment to dismiss Syd as a harsh ruffian. “There’s much more to the man than that. When the dust settles, Syd has always respected the ideals of sportsmanship. He’s an old-fashioned, four-square Australian and you can’t help but like him for that.”

 – anarchist David