Helsal tribute to Joe Adams in Rolex Sydney Hobart

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Helsal, arguably the flagship name of the late Australian yacht designer, Joe Adams, will pay its respects to him in a special way in this year’s Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race.

Rob Fisher’s Helsal III will sail the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia’s annual race with decals on each side of its hull in tribute to the man responsible not only for designing three of the Fisher family’s four Helsals, but the highly successful Australian marque of Adams 10s and 12s.

The 81-year-old Adams was murdered at his home in Baguio City in the Philippines in October. Adams spent most of his life in Sydney before moving to Port Macquarie and then to the Philippines, where he eventually sold his design business and retired.

In 1972 Rob’s father, Sydney surgeon Tony Fisher, was attracted to the idea of a ferro-cement yacht to replace his boat Derwent Hunter. He figured he wouldn’t have to worry about woodworm or osmosis with a concrete hull. To Tony’s mind, there seemed to be a lot of positives, despite the prevailing view that concrete yachts would never be up to racing.

He engaged Bob Miller, later to be known as Ben Lexcen, to design a racing boat capable of taking line honours in the Sydney-Hobart. Joe Adams was working with Miller at the time.

“Bob teamed up with Alan Bond in preparation for the 1974 Southern Cross America’s Cup campaign, so Joe took over the design work of Helsal,” Rob Fisher recounts.

The first Helsal, named after Tony’s wife Helen and daughter Sally, was launched in April 1973 and went on to take line honours in that year’s Sydney-Hobart race in a little over three days. It has always been referred to since as “the Flying Footpath”.

“There had never been a ferro-cement boat like this one. It was a very different construction,” Fisher says. “Dad engaged a bridge engineer named Peter Ellen. He came up with the idea of positioning tension cables 45cm apart throughout the hull. Most other people had just used concrete and reo.”

Helsal weighed in at 40.4 tonnes, which was not overweight, considering Fritz Johnson’s maxi Windward Passage was 36.3 tonnes and Jim Kilroys Kialoa III, which broke Helsal’s record two years later, weighed 39 tonnes.

By 1975, just before the Kialoa record, the Flying Footpath held every race record on the Australian east coast. She was the first sloop-rigged maxi in the world (most others had been ketch-rigged), but powering her up was a problem.

“It had massive, massive rigging,” Rob Fisher says, “and in those days you couldn’t build a sail that would hold its shape. With today’s materials it would have been much easier.”

The Fishers sold Helsal in 1979. She went to the Philippines as a charter boat, but went up on a reef the following year. She was towed into Manila harbour where she sat around during a dispute between the tow company and the insurer.

She was blown onto a breakwater in Manila during a cyclone and sank. She was raised, but the force of the incident broke some of the cables within the concrete and destroyed the famous yacht’s integrity. As far as Rob Fisher knows, she is still in Manila harbour “With a half a dozen families living aboard.”

In 1979, Adams designed Helsal II for the Fishers, two metres shorter and of fibre glass. She was a pocket maxi, designed to rate the maximum under the IOR rule. The Fishers took her to a second and third across the line in Hobart races in the early 80s and she set a record for the Montague Island race in 1981. They sold her in 1984, but Helsal II may have been the best of them.

“In the 1980 race we were south of Flinders Island, leading Peter Blake’s Ceramco New Zealand,” Fisher says, “and we should have won. We misjudged our distance from the coast and hardened up too soon. Ceramco overtook us; we caught up, but then lost it with some bad crew work.

“Blake came on board after the race and asked us to race him to Macquarie Island and back as part of his preparation for the next year’s Whitbread. We had to decline, told him this was as far south as we were going.”

Ceramco lost her mast in the first leg of that Whitbread, though still managed third place at the end.

The third Helsal that the Fishers owned (and still have) was Arthur Bloore’s Adams 20 The Office, which they bought in 1987. Bloore, a Queenslander, had fitted her with a centreboard. She was a cruiser/racer version of Helsal II.

During her time in Queensland, she had a small fire on board and Tony Fisher was asked if he would buy her.

“He wasn’t keen, but when he went up to see it, he couldn’t help himself,” Rob Fisher said.

In 1988 the Fishers broke the Lord Howe race record on Helsal III. It was then put out to charter in Bali. They sold it there in 1995, then it came back to Sydney in 2000 to be gutted into a full cruising boat, but sat around on the mooring for four or five years.

Tony Fisher tried to buy it back, was resisted so went to France and bought Helsal IV; a Philippe Briand designed cruising yacht. As soon as he bought Helsal IV, the owner of Helsal III decided to sell.

Fisher bought Helsal III for a second time and, with the Fishers all now living in Hobart, Tasmania, had local designer Fred Barrett design a fixed keel and generally update the boat, bringing the mast aft and going to a masthead rig.

Helsal III competed in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 Rolex Sydney Hobart’s, took 2011 off to break the Launceston-Hobart race record, and she is back in the Hobart for this year.

“For a 29-year-old boat she’s pretty quick for her age,” Fisher says.

“It will be a special race for her, given what happened to Joe. That’s not the way anybody should go. He’ll be with us.”

PS The Fishers sold Helsal IV last year, but she’s still around Hobart.

By Bruce Montgomery, Rolex Sydney Hobart media team

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 12 December 2012 )