It’s a pearler of a day to be interviewing renowned writer/promoter/raconteur Rob Mundle, OAM, though rarely are there ‘down’ times for a media man with the Midas touch and a serendipitous knack for being in the right place at the right moment.
With the ink barely dry on a new Matthew Flinders-inspired hardcover, and his Bligh tome spawning a bounty of its own, the 66-year-old scribe has just fielded another publishing offer that will keep him busy for the next year.
He’s more ebullient than ever; rightfully so when you can stroll from one assignment to the next and be paid to do what you adore.
As we talk, sunlight bathes the rooftop balcony of Mundle’s Southport apartment of eight years, for which he has just netted a handsome sale price. There is languid warmth in the air and in his voice, the voice of yachting, as he explains that he and partner Prue can now escape the madding Gold Coast crowd for quieter parts south.
Most yachties would know the name if not the face, as Mundle has covered every major race or regatta, for every medium, over the past 50 years … while also promoting quite a few of his own.
In the most eclectic of careers he’s been everything from TV weatherman to Bondy biographer, always chipping away at the fringe, embracing fresh challenges as eagerly as his lungs engulf a sea breeze.
He’s now relishing being on the other side of the microphone for this interview. I, on the other hand, swim in a pool of self-doubt because the most difficult profile to write is one of a fellow writer – can you possibly do justice to the story of a story-teller?
They know the tricks of the trade, answer the next question even before it’s posed, so I fear for the candid, guard-dropping one-liner as Mundle measures out the tempo and timbre like the pro that he is.
The rewards, however, soon flow in the form of eloquence and insight. Preconceptions disperse in the breeze, never to taint the yarn. I see glimpses of a man who genuinely loves life and people, yet who struggles with personal titles … even for his business card.
“I never really look back on life, I just wonder what’s next,” Mundle says. What’s next is that we look back on his life …
SON OF A SEAMAN
Mundle was raised on Sydney’s northern beaches, post-war. His father was a merchant seaman with 20 quid to his name when he met and married Rob’s mum. They squeezed into a two-bedroom duplex with Rob’s grandfather and uncle and spawned two other boys, Dennis and Bruce.
Rob’s grandfather was a true mentor and character. He put his age up to fight in the Boer War and reduced his age to go to World War I. He survived Gallipoli, Egypt and the Western Front and according to his grandson was a trueblue, salt-of-the-earth Aussie.
Early photos of a three-year-old Rob show him perched in a backyard boat with a broomstick and bed sheet, replicating the feats of his squarerigger forebears. He slept on the open veranda, sharing a bunk with Dennis, up until the age of seven when the family moved to Collaroy Plateau.
Life as the 11-year-old Mundle knew it changed the day a school mate invited him to go sailing on a 12-Foot skiff at Middle Harbour. “I’ll never forget the moment we pushed off the beach. It’s still with me vividly today, the feeling of pressure on the sails and the boat accelerating away, the noise of the bow wave,” Mundle recalls. “I knew that was where I was meant to be.”
Mundle Snr later bought a 16-Footer, but neither the racing, nor the father-son relationship, reached scintillating heights. With two races to go after a barren season, Rob was handed the tiller … “I won both races,” he says, “but instead of saying ‘fantastic’, Dad took it personally.”
Mundle left Narrabeen High School without a clue about what to do next. He’d devour the Daily Mirror newspaper looking for inspiration, until finally it came to him – he rang the paper to ask for a job.
He was interviewed the following Monday and immediately began work as a copy boy. When Rupert Murdoch started The Australian in 1964, Mundle was one of two copy boys sent to the Canberra bureau. He stood in the print room when the first edition of the national paper rolled hot off the press.
Mundle eventually became the paper’s first cadet journalist in Sydney, acquiring a quickthinking writing discipline that only intense deadline pressure can instil. He explains: “If a tram crashed or whatever, you had 15 minutes to get the story, get to a phone and file from your notes.”
At the time, Blanche d’Alpuget – future wife of Bob Hawke – was writing a half-page boating column for the Sunday Mirror, and she offered Mundle the job during her holidays.
In 1964, he covered the first of countless Sydney-Hobart race starts from aboard a mate’s homebuilt runabout, which nearly sank off the Heads. Mundle subsequently sailed in three Hobarts, first aboard Apollo in 1975, then in 1979 on Yeoman XXI as part of the British Southern Cross team, and finally in 1981 with Syd Fischer’s Ragamuffin.
Further serendipity was in store as skiff legend ‘Boy’ Messenger, who was friends with Murdoch, suggested Mundle should skipper an 18-Footer sponsored by the Daily Mirror. Mundle jumped at the chance … then jumped onto a trapeze for the first time.
“The 505 world championships were in Adelaide that year and I saw this photo of Paul Elvstrom steering his boat from the trapeze. It occurred to me, ‘why can’t you do that from an 18?’,” Mundle recalls.
“I put another wire and a long tiller extension on the boat. It was a nice nor-easter and the three crew were already on trapeze … I’ve hooked up and the boat absolutely took off.” So did the idea.
While former WA Premier Richard Court is credited with adding wings to an 18, Mundle and his mate John Biddlecombe dabbled with them in 1972 – and have drawings to prove it.
In 1971, with the call of the American yacht racing scene strong, Mundle told his editor that he wanted a year off. He left with a retainer to contribute sailing articles from abroad.
“I arrived in Los Angeles and for my first night in town I slept aboard the maxi Kialoa – it was the only bed available,” Mundle says.
From there he joined the Miami-Jamaica race aboard Ondine. As later detailed in his book Hell and High Seas, Mundle was pitched overboard on a black night, 20 miles off Cuba, and he just managed to cling on in the gale conditions.
Once in New York, he found a sailing magazine called One Design& Offshore Yachts man, which carried a feature on little-known Canadian designer Bruce Kirby. “I rang Kirby, who was living in New York, introduced myself and he said: ‘I’ve just designed this little dinghy and we’re going to have a demo day – why don’t you come out?’,” Mundle recalls.
“I hopped off a steam train at Long Island and here was this little boat, so simple it was beyond belief.”
The 4.2m dinghy had been christened the Weekender. They later changed it, sensibly, to the Laser.
“I jumped on what was Laser number 35 and blatted across the bay. As soon as I got back to the beach I said I wanted it for Australia.
“I’d gone overseas partly because I realised that journalism made you insular in your lifestyle. You went to the pub, you lost contact with friends because of odd hours … Here was a chance to step away and look at a new business.”
Mundle ordered two container loads of Lasers and returned to Sydney to establish Performance Sailcraft as a manufacturing base.
“Brand awareness is everything in marketing, so I put the word out quickly and got the boat in front of people,” Mundle says. “The price was right ($695) and what stunned everyone was the performance compared to simplicity.”
The Laser suited the no-nonsense Aussie way of sailing, requiring both tactical ability and physicality to succeed. Mundle also ramped up the social factor and built a great rapport around the class.
“Too often in this industry boatbuilders think they’re marketers. It’s easier to be a promoter and find the boatbuilders. The big thing is getting the orders,” he says.
At its height, Performance Sailcraft was building 15 Lasers a week. When Cyclone Tracy blew Darwin Sailing Club away, Mundle placed 10 boats on a trailer to start a new fleet in the Territory.
Home for Mundle, at this point, was equally simple – a bohemian boatshed on Pittwater accessible only by tinnie and devoid of luxuries like hot water. It was a step up, albeit slight, from a veranda bed.
With sailing mate Hugh Treharne, he began pondering a crack at the popular JOG keelboat scene. The new but unheralded Farr 727 from New Zealand caught their eye and they ordered what was the first Farr keelboat to reach Australian shores.
Christened Waikikamukau (pronounced why kick a moo cow), the 727 won the national JOG title and just about every other race it entered.
Tragically, the yacht later sank in the hands of a new owner during a JOG race. Three crewmen drowned.
Mundle was out of the Lasers by this stage and running the Rob Mundle Sailboat Centre at The Spit on Sydney Harbour. A 24-footer from the US soon blipped on his radar, with magazine reports suggesting it was blowing rivals into the weeds.
“Kanga Birtles, from yachtbuilders Jarkan, was also aware of the boat, so we decided he’d build them and I’d market them,” Mundle says.
Just as the Laser had done, the J24 opened another dimension in sailing. For maximum impact at the Sydney Boat Show, they parked a 911 sportscar beneath the hull and penned the tagline “Porsche of the Seas”.
A bigger challenge was convincing wives that this flush-decked flyer could adapt to romantic weekending. “I put the nicest cushions imaginable on it, placed an esky at the bottom of the stairs, and fitted a toilet and stove. We sold seven boats, deposit paid, at that show,” Mundle says.
Perish the thought that any J24 would race with such adornments. It was cut-and-thrust competition at its one-design best, and 40 Jarkanbuilt boats were sailing within two years.
Mundle saw similar potential in the Adams 10 and applied the marketing magic when it was needed. It didn’t end there … he casually suggested to John Biddlecombe that the market needed an affordable, fibreglass centre-cockpit cruising yacht for dreamers. Six weeks later, the Manitou 32 was born, and Biddlecombe flogged more than 100 hulls.
Could he market a dog? “A dog gets found out,” Mundle says, without hesitation. “The boat has to be right.”
Mundle’s own taste runs to cats. A 43ft Crowther, christened Cat a mundle pigeons, was his pet project, but it also caught the eye of Elle Macpherson’s father Peter Gow, who insisted on buying it. Today, the hunt continues for another catamaran of similar ilk.
Back in the ’80s the hunt also continued for new media opportunities, and Mundle fielded a call from Peter Sutton, producer of Good Morning Australia on Channel 10, about a new network sports show. A TV career was launched, and The Australian also took Mundle back as a freelance correspondent.
Channel 10 quickly promoted him to the weather gig, running a campaign showing bikini girls enjoying the bountiful sunshine that Mundle had laid on for them. “For the first six months it rained every single weekend, so it was one of the shorter-lived careers,” Mundle laughs.
The door remained ajar to work in Newport for the America’s Cup challenge of 1983, and every day for five months he watched history unfold. Come the fateful showdown between Australia II and Liberty, Mundle co-anchored the international broadcast for over eight hours.
His voice echoed through Australian homes in the wee hours as viewers stayed glued to Ten’s live coverage.
“We were broadcasting from an outdoor podium at the entrance to Newport Harbour. It was an incredible atmosphere because we had a crowd gathered to watch our monitors,” Mundle says.
“Being a sailor, I could sense that Connor hadn’t gybed back, but we couldn’t get perspective. All we could gauge it on was the wave angle and bow wave – Liberty looked high and soft while Australia II looked lower and had a bow wave.
“I said to the guys ‘this could be interesting’ and lo and behold they got through.”
In the hysteria that followed, Mundle cashed in with a learn-to-sail book.
His first serious project was the auto biography Sir James Hardy – An Adventurous Life in 1992, which garnered critical acclaim and established Mundle’s credentials as an author, not just a reporter.
By comparison, 1999’s Fatal Storm, which covered the tragic events of the 1998 Rolex Sydney Hobart, was a task so daunting that only someone with tabloid training would attempt it. John Ferguson, from Harper Collins and a keen sailor, knew Mundle was the man for the job. By the time they met, Mundle had made a head start on the research, and he churned out 120,000 words in 12 weeks.
“I had to be first out and it had to be the best,” Mundle says. “I’ve been told that Fatal Storm became the biggest-selling book of its kind in the world … It’s the thing I’m most proud of because it’s a bible for boating safety as well as a good read.”
Mundle’s next book venture came in 2001, while he was dining in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Into the restaurant strode Alan Bond, fresh from his enforced custodial holiday and eager to tell his version of events. He offered Mundle, whom he’d known since the Apollo days, the chance to write it.
The idea for a Bligh book came again from John Ferguson. With the perspective of a sailor, rather than a mothballed historian, Mundle was able to grasp the true merit of Bligh’s seamanship. He didn’t just write, but righted the wrongs of Hollywood’s flawed portrayal.
The new Flinders book took two years, and Mundle was researching up until the final draft. “I’d walk every morning on the beach, jump in the surf, and my head’s in the book the whole time,” he says.
His major diversion now is working for the Oatley family, officially as promotions manager for Hamilton Island Race Week, but in reality doing much more, including writing Bob Oatley’s life story as a private commission.
Curious, I ask Mundle what his own autobiography would be called, and the reply is immediate and unequivocal:Happiness is Everything.
“That was my grandfather’s credo,” he explains. “You’ve got to live life to the point you’re happy, because you’ll have happy people around you.”
The only boat that Mundle has missed en route is the one with children on it. “I tried marriage, but didn’t like it,” he quips.
The one and only Mrs Mundle was Christine, widow of America’s Cup skipper Tom Blackaller. They met in San Diego at the 1992 Cup, married a year later and separated after five years.
Still, there are no regrets. About anything.
A boy from Cremorne, who didn’t have two bob, now mingles freely with some of the wealthiest people in the world, courtesy of a beloved sport. He recently ended a two-year term as Southport Yacht Club Commodore, giving back to the sport, and in June received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to sailing and journalism.
“I’m rich in life,” he says. “Seriously rich in life.”