A moment with Murray

Barry Tranter | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 6

Arguably Australia’s most famous sailor, Iain Murray explains how he finds time for it all.

For me, there are several lasting images of Iain Murray, AM. The strongest is from a couple of decades ago. I was out on a 30-ft yacht to watch the 18-ft skiffs race on the most evil day I have ever seen on Sydney Harbour. The howling sou’wester filled the air with spume and visibility was down to about 50 metres. We found the windward mark by accident and waited for the boats to appear. And waited. And waited. Finally, out of the veil of white, came the distinctive red hull of Color 7. The entire boat shuddered in the gusts, but the crew held her flat and coaxed her upwind. We shuddered in the gusts, too.

Color 7 rounded the mark and reached off into the murk. We waited another 20 minutes or so, but no one else turned up. There is no second, Your Majesty. Color 7 was the only boat to finish that day and I thought that the result said something significant about her skipper and crew. For the record, Murray won a record six consecutive 18-ft skiff world titles from 1977 to 1982.

Jump forward to 1987, America’s Cup time in Perth. On the TV screen are Iain Murray, his wife Alex and their dog Cliff, at a press conference. The trio have become national figures and Iain is the best-known Australian sailor by far. Perhaps he still is.

Jump forward again to 2007. I am with Iain Murray in his office, one of Sydney’s most desirable, on a finger wharf in Pyrmont. The office is headquarters for Azzurra Marine, the Murlan property group and Kookaburra Challenge, the sailing school and charter company. Iain Murray runs all three. Beyond the windows sits Kookaburra’s fleet, which includes two Volvo 60s and the America’s Cup boat Spirit.

I am lucky to catch him. He is in Sydney for only a few weeks. His main project at the time was to qualify for the Beijing Olympics (see footnote: Ed), which meant sailing in as many Northern Hemisphere regattas as possible.

BUSINESS FIRST

Considering my opening paragraph, it is not surprising that Iain Murray has had the drive to succeed in business. He has been involved in property development for many years, but the growth of Azzurra Marine is a more interesting story, considering how hard it is to make a quid in boatbuilding in this country.

Azzurra grew out of a project to build personal boats for a Sydney businessman, whom Murray describes as a confirmed boataholic. Murray designed a number of boats for his client, including several which were built by Dave Warren near Gosford, on NSW’s central coast.

“At that time, the Gold Coast City Marina precinct was just starting,” says Murray, “and we decided to start a small yard and build old-style motor boats.

“We were then asked to do various jobs; to build different boats including offshore racing power boats for Bill Barry Cotter. Other people asked us to build boats, including consultancy work for Riviera, and after a while we realised we’d become like McConaghy in Sydney and Cookson in New Zealand – builders of custom boats.

“My partner decided to pull out and I took the business over. We purpose-built the Azzurra Marine factory, a very nice boatbuilding shop.”

The company is currently quoting on bigger sailing yachts up to 110ft, maybe 120ft in composite carbon as the oven is big enough.

“We have the composite skills and we also have the fine joinery skills and detail design required to build those sorts of boats,” says Murray.

I had recently been aboard Cambria 2, the 90ft power yacht headed for charter in the Kimberley region. Her fitout is astounding; traditional in style with modern touches. A pretty nice piece of work, I suggest.

“A very nice piece of work,” Murray corrects.

If you want to order something bigger than 120ft from Azzurra, a new factory is being prepared in Newcastle to handle builds up to 160ft.

Also under the Azzurra umbrella is Sydney Yachts, builder of high-tech production yachts (all designed by Murray, Burns & Dovell) and a number of one-offs. A few years ago, Murray owned one sixth of Sydney Yachts, then, after a series of ownership changes, he acquired the lot.

And in 2006, Azzurra bought Marten Marine from New Zealand. There was a link; back in the early ‘80s, Murray had marketed Steve Marten’s Noelex 25s and 30s in Australia. Azzurra bought Marten’s assets, which included the moulds for the 49 and 67, and designs for the 73 and 85. All are Reichel Pugh designs.

“It will be good to work with Reichel Pugh again, as I did the America’s Cup challenge with them in 1995,” Murray says.

Now there were three brands: Azzurra Custom Yachts; Marten Marine for high quality custom/production cruising yachts and Sydney Yachts.

“Basically, we pulled all that under one roof here and we call it Azzurra Marine,” explained Murray.

CORPORATE CRAFT

And there’s more. On the ground floor of the Pyrmont building is the Kookaburra organisation, formed when Murray and Peter Gilmour bought the Kookaburra operation after the America’s Cup in Perth. They used the 12-metres for corporate sailing on Sydney Harbour and later sold them and bought the Volvo 60s, Ericsson and DHL and the 1992 America’s Cup boat, Spirit. These are moored below Murray’s window at Jones Bay Wharf. There is also a trio of Murray-designed Magic 25s, which are part of the Kookabura sailing school.

As I write this, I realise I have forgotten to ask Murray about his involvement with naval architects Murray Burns & Dovell. Too late, he has left the country, so I take the lazy way out and consult the website. “Iain’s role in the MBD office today is as Project Overseer and Adviser,” I read. “Iain is often involved in establishing the design concepts in the early stages of design development and in making the concepts work once the boats are on the water.”

On top of all this, there is the Murlan property company, responsible for a number of significant developments in Sydney, and a series of retirement homes. Murlan is involved in developing the Great Barrier Reef Yacht Club on Hamilton Island and the group is working with partners on the Woolwich Dock facility on Sydney Harbour, a dramatic venue which will become a showpiece.

It took a few months to complete this interview, as Murray spent a lot of his time between February and June in the Northern Hemisphere on his Olympic qualifying campaign, “trying to make a racing sailor out of an old bloke (he is 49).

“The Star is a difficult boat to sail. It is highly competitive and physically demanding and none of that gets any easier as you get older,” explains Murray. “I gave up professional racing a dozen years ago and to come back and get razor sharp again is a difficult process. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do that. It’s now or never, really.”

TOUGHEST CLASS

The Star is generally regarded as the toughest class of all. Murray was fourth in the Bacardi Cup and third in the Western Hemisphere Championship, both good results. In Holland the week before we chatted, they had an ordinary result in light airs on a new boat. The week after our chat, he headed for Portugal to prepare for the World Championships.

On top of all this, he still designs boats. On his desk is a pencil sketch for a hydraulic fitting for the Star, and he shows me a drawing for a 5.5-metre tender for the Star campaign; a deep-vee hull with stepped sections above the waterline to add stability and an intriguing knuckled bow reminiscent of the America’s Cup yachts.

“I’m a scribbler, really,” he says. “Generally, I sit down, try to figure out what the owners want, then do rough and ready sketches and work with the designers and build it up. I can still do it, though I don’t have too much time. I don’t read books or watch too much TV.”

Iain and Alex Murray have been married for 30 years now and have three daughters, aged 14, 12 and 10, whose tastes run more to dance and music than sailing. But he prints off a photograph of his eldest daughter, Eliza, steering the new Color 7 18-footer He is a proud father. But the story of the new skiff is another of those loops of synergy that mark Murray’s life.

“Channel 7 came to me a year ago and said they wanted to get back onto Sydney Harbour as they are doing the Hobart race. The head of sport there is an old friend, a skiff sailor, and he said they wanted to recreate the opportunity Ted Thomas gave me all those years ago with Color 7.”

Murray found a young crew and a new Color 7 is now in the 18-footer fleet. Channel 7 also sponsors Murray’s Star.

How does he do it all? “I try to float over the top of the whole thing. I’ve got lots of different partners and stakeholders and my time largely goes to maintenance of all of the projects and the sailing. My family gets what time is left over,” he laughs – ruefully, I think.

“I’ve got terrific people working for me and many have worked with me for a long period of time – a lot go back to 1982. We are sort of like a big family, in a way. There are now more than 200 people involved, more than 150 in boatbuilding and 30 people in the retirement village operation.”

The rich and influential are attracted to the world of boating and Murray has formed a close personal sailing and professional relationship with many of them. And in every part of the operation, the names of old friends and long-term employees pop up. He has raced with quite a few people for 20 or 30 years and, the more we talk, the more I understand that business and sailing are intertwined, and the people involved tend to stay involved for a long time, which says a lot about Iain Murray and his success.

“My life’s a bit like that; that’s the theme. What goes around, comes around.”

Footnote: Iain Murray and crewman, Andrew Palfrey were recently named as members of the Australian team to sail in the 2008 Olympics in China.


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