Despite fractured ribs and possible spinal injuries 83-year-old Alby Burgin stepped up to the helm of his 50-footer, Alstar, and steered it across the finish line in the inaugural Coffs Harbour (Australia) to Fiji yacht race at 8am today. In doing so the world’s oldest owner-skipper kept intact his record of never having retired from an ocean yacht race.
When Alstar negotiated the narrow passage through the coral reef at the entrance to Suva Harbour there was little evidence of the punishment the yacht or the crew had endured over the 12 days of sailing from Australia’s east coast. There was a gaping 18-inch long crack in the hull below the waterline at the bow. The only two working sails left in the wardrobe – a staysail and storm trysail – were set.
A large crowd cheered Burgin and his three crew, Robert Lott, John Duncan and Hermann Oberli, when the yacht docked at Royal Suva Yacht Club. Although in considerable pain from the injuries he sustained in a fall during the race, Burgin insisted he join welcome celebrations before being taken to hospital for a check up. He was helped ashore and presented with a shirt with the Fijian words for “never surrender” – Tabu Soro – emblazoned across it. His spirits were raised even more when a Fijian beauty dressed in a grass skirt burst from the crowd and embraced him.
Burgin described the race as one of the toughest he’d faced in his 74-years of sailing. “It just didn’t let up,” he said. “It was 35 to 40 knots on the nose for nine days. We saw gusts to 50.”
When asked by local media why he continued to go ocean racing when just about everyone at his age had retired to a nursing home, Burgin replied dryly: “I don’t like television.” And when questioned about what his wife thought of him still racing he said: “We’ve been married 58 years and my wife’s only seen me for 25 of them, so it’s probably a good deal for her.”
Alstar finished second across the line to Hugh Treharne’s Bright Morning Star. It will also be second on handicap.
After being checked over by a doctor, Burgin was back on his feet and supervising repairs to his battered yacht, Alstar, at Royal Suva Yacht Club, regardless of his own battered body. He has serious bruising and at least two cracked ribs – courtesy of the horribly rough weather he and his three crew had endured for most of the 1800-mile course.
“The ribs will heal with time. There’s nothing I can do about them,” said Burgin while he inspected the 18-inch crack in the hull below the waterline at the bow. He was arranging for it to be repaired as soon as possible in the hope that he can contest next week’s President’s Cup series at Port Denarau on the western side of Fiji’s main island. Then he plans to sail Alstar back to Australia two-handed.
Burgin is being referred to as “The Miracle Man” and “The Bionic Man” in Suva tonight – the latter being a reference to the fact that he has an artificial valve in his heart, a heart pacemaker fitted and wears hearing aids. He impressed the locals even more when he didn’t need to wear glasses to read the many congratulatory Emails that had been posted to him.
Burgin also confirmed that despite this race being the toughest he’d ever encountered he remained determined to compete in this year’s Sydney to Hobart. He was not sure what races would follow, but he would certainly consider the Coffs Harbour to Fiji race if it were, as expected, staged again next year.
In a fitting tribute to him in getting his crippled yacht to Suva and claiming second place behind Hugh Treharne’s Bright Morning Star, the Royal Suva Yacht Club is to name a new bar being opened this weekend as the Alby Burgin Bar. Burgin thinks that is “nice” but is even happier to know that his record of never having quit an offshore race still stands.
Tonight Alby plans to put on a sulu – a Fijian sarong – and step into the yacht club for a party in honour of the two race crews already in Suva. “I don’t think I