Rob riding wave with the write stuff
THERE'S a nautical song playing in the background as author Rob Mundle (AM) talks about his latest book.
The ocean-racing machine's rigging is swaying above, while below the hive of activity on the Sydney waterfront edges towards its climax on Boxing Day.
This is where Rob is most at home. He's been the face of Australia's blue-water sailing scene for close to 51 years.
The 73-year-old has already recorded the maritime history of Australia's big-ship adventures in Bligh: Master Mariner; Cook; Great South Land; Flinders; and The First Fleet.
His latest book is a detailed account of the 75 years the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia has run the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.
It's a Boxing Day tradition to be on the shores on Sydney Harbour or glued to the television to watch the live-action start of the iconic race. Multimillion-dollar yachts with professional crews line up against weekend warriors prepared to take the ultimate challenges of testing themselves and their yachts against nature and each other.
Rob knows this Everest of blue-water sailing extremely well. He's "gone south" three times and authored the international best-selling book Fatal Storm, which gave a deep insight into the devastating 1998 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, where six lives and five yachts were lost.
Writing about Australia's maritime adventures has proven an appropriate fit for the former journalist. While researching Under Full Sail, Rob discovered his great-great-grandfather, George Valentine Mundle, was the master of a clipper ship that brought cargo and migrants to Australia.
As famous names and fabulous experiences roll off Rob's tongue, a picture emerges of a writer who has been "kissed on the bum by a butterfly".
Rob left school with no idea what he wanted to do, but he did know he was good at writing his old school compositions and had an interest in world affairs.
"I loved reading the newspaper every afternoon," Rob said. "One day I was reading the Daily Mirror and I said to Mum, 'I am going to ring them and see if they have any jobs' without having any clue of what sort of job. I just loved the whole thought of a newspaper environment. A week later I was a copy boy."
One work day he was walking upstairs to the Sunday Mirror office when a blonde woman by the name of Blanche d'Alpuget stopped Rob and asked him whether he could fill in as the yachting writer while she went on holidays. "I just about kissed her on the spot," Rob said. "It was one of those freakish things about everything unfolding in your favour."
So, the copy boy suddenly also became the Sunday edition sailing column writer.
When Rupert Murdoch started The Australian in 1964, he moved a group of copy boys and journalists to Canberra to help put the new publication out. "I went down as a copy boy," Rob said. "It was very exciting standing in the print room next to Rupert when the first edition of The Australian came off the presses. It was an adrenaline pump for everyone."
While journalist Anna Torv, who later became Rupert's second wife, was keen for Rob to stay in Canberra, the lure of better sailing options in Sydney drew him back to the big smoke. Soon after his arrival in Sydney, Rob was offered The Australian's first Sydney bureau journalist cadetship. He also got to keep his Daily Mirror sailing column.
In 1971, the chance to travel to America to see the big-boat competition and write about it was supported by his editor, Neal Travis, who offered Rob a retainer to keep filing stories while abroad. "Suddenly, I had kicked another goal," Rob said.
He finally returned to Australia and got caught up in trying to make money out of selling little Laser dinghies, which became an Olympic Games class.
Round about then, Rob and an American friend, Lisa Halaby, who was in Australia training as an architect, were towing Rob's yacht Waikikamukau back from a regatta in Queensland. When Rob drove the trailer under a low bridge it became stuck, much to the angst of the drivers behind. Lisa quickly leapt onto the truck bonnet and leant on the mast, so Rob could fit the load under the bridge. "People were cheering and car horns blowing; people had never seen anything like it," Rob said. "That girl dangling from the end of the mast, that absolutely delightful lady, went on to become the Queen of Jordan."
But, "once journalism is in your blood, it's there forever", Rob remembers. He was drawn back in by Kay Cottee's husband, Peter Sutton, who was working on the Channel 10 Sports Week with host Ray Warren, as a sailing reporter.
"I (also) got to be weatherman on prime-time news," Rob said. The news editor then decided to send Rob to Newport, Rhode Island, to cover the 1983 America's Cup.
"My world and the whole world of sailing changed when Australia won the Cup," Rob said. "I was on air that day, live and worldwide, for eight hours and 10 minutes. Apparently, that still stands as a record for live television."
Rob has now written 17 books, including Sir James Hardy's and Alan Bond's authorised biographies.
His 18th book, The Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, is for sailors and non-sailors. Available in bookshops from this month, the book is full of sailing history and entertaining anecdotes.