Eight Bells: Jack Baxter

Published on March 11th, 2019

Jack Baxter

by Joe Cooper
For those readers thinking, who? You need to be either an Australian sailor, of a certain age, a participant in the IOR racing in the 1970s and 1980s or a serious aficionado of the America’s Cup, in 12 meters.

Jack was a fixture, a near legend I reckon, in the West Australian sailing scene for the better part of 60 years. Coach, crew, navigator, skipper, boat owner and builder, Jack navigated Alan Bond’s 12 meters for three America’s Cup challenges in Newport, in between a life full of sailing.

Jack Baxter quietly, and peacefully, crossed the bar on Monday 4 March 2019, aged 79, in the company of his wife of nearly 60 years, Di, and three wonderful daughters.

I met Jack when, as Boat Captain and then crew on Bondy’s 1980 Challenge, I was in Fremantle for 6 months and then in Newport for the challenge. For a fella with a serious mischievous streak and a wry smile, his role as ‘Adult Supervision’ was just enough to keep the troops more or less in line.

For me he was a great mentor and leader. Watching him and how he worked, sailed, played, and conducted himself (well, most of the time) was an education in being a smart, thoughtful, skilled, and giving human.

Born in 1939, Jack worked as a Math and Manual Arts teacher in Albany, Western Australia before his first AC with Bondy, as Navigator aboard Southern Cross, in 1974. Growing up in Albany, it would have been impossible not to sail as Albany sits just in lee of Cape Leeuin, the southwestern most corner of Australia and one of the Great Capes.

His dad, a primary school principal, introduced Jack to sailing, if not from birth, then pretty damn close. He must have paid attention to his dad’s lessons because years later his first Sydney Hobart Race was as Navigator for Huey Long’s Ondine, not a bad first offer, for a kid from Albany.

This might have been the race captured in the infamous video of a cold front coming through as the maxis were roaring down the east coast in a black nor’easter, with all manner of spinnakers and extras set. I have a recollection of him describing the mayhem aboard as they figured out, just in time, what was happening to the other boats. Jack went on to sail another 9 or 10 Hobarts including, as the skipper of his own boat, a Bob Miller design/Ben Lexcan design that he built and co-owned with a mate.

He sailed in the Admiral’s Cup aboard Hitchhiker, in the Clipper Cup, the Sardinia Cup, and 1976 Half Ton worlds in Trieste, ITA. Jack could spin a good yarn, a significant accomplishment in the Australian sailing community and I remember an instructive (to a nipper Boat Captain) yarn of sailing as Navigator aboard Southern Cross, the first Aluminum 12 meter ever built.

As navigator he was also on the runners, and while working up the boat off Freo and so regularly sailing in the Doctor, the headsail trimmers were eternally calling for more runner. A three to one purchase onto a Barient, probably 32 with a fit, 35-year-old Jack wielding an honest to goodness 5 lb. chrome plated, cast bronze, double grip, ratcheting winch handle, was not up to the task.

Jack, never one to shrink from a conundrum, put on his deer stalker and went to the boat early one morning to get to the bottom of it all. He ran a builder’s string from stem to stern, just kissing the mast on which he placed a datum. He then proceeded to wind the runners up to the increasing stages so marked on the deck and checked the offset on the spar.

At the max tension he was endeavoring to exceed for the trimmers, he discovered the boat was bending something like 4 inches or so (the number may be wrong, but the process is as he described). This experience may have contributed to the massive longitudinal stringers in Hitchhiker years later.

Jack returned to Newport in 1977 and again in 1980. He was not a part of the historic crew in 1983 but returned to the AC scene in Freo in 1987 as the coach for one of the Aussie defenders.

A summary assembled by Di and sent to me by daughter Pippa, of his is volunteer work for the Princess Royal Yacht Club, his home Burgee runs to three pages, single space, small font. Coaching, organizing, planning, building wooden Optis, still going I am told, mentoring the nippers and generally sharing his vast wealth of knowledge with all comers.

After the 1980 series, he turned this vast repository of the sailing milieu into a RYA sail training business running courses up to Yacht Master Offshore. He continued to be involved with anything to do with sailing across the vast spectrum of life that sailing encompasses, for us all.

He and Di stayed with us when they visited Newport in the early 2000s enroute to Spain to watch the AC regatta and mingle. He had been in contact with various odd-bods involved and remarked over dinner and wine one evening that it might be more professional, more money for the troops and a bigger deal now, “but they are not having as much fun as we did….”

We went for a harbor tour in a RIB and did drive-bys of the old haunts. Founders Hall, the Salve dorm we lived in, The Cooke House, and of course stuck our heads in at the Candy Store, the Black Pearl and Christies. Sadly, Australia’s home base in Newport, Newport Offshore is now timeshares. We did not actually talk much but there was a wealth of history, humor, sea stories and, dare I say, emotion humming along close aboard, and just behind, those twinkling eyes.

I had a beer with some of the 1980 guys as they did a fly by to Newport after visiting Larry’s Great Show at the 2013 America’s Cup. They told me then that Jack was “crook”, never a good sign.

My life in Newport finds me constantly driving past the scenes of oh so many adventures, many involving Jack Baxter. As Jack slips his dock lines for the last time and points his bow to sea and the great, vast horizon over which no one knows what will happen, rest assured, whatever it is will be improved by Jack’s great heart, the twinkle in those eyes, and his great yarns.

Bon Courage mate

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