“No man is an island,” the poet John Donne wrote, but in part of his life, sailor and adventurer Tony Mowbray has come close.
Mowbray has been but a speck on the sea on his solo voyages, particularly when he spent 181 days sailing around the globe in 2000 and 2001. And he has been made to feel like a speck by Mother Nature at her angriest, especially during the fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.
But when we meet for lunch at the Wickham Boatshed cafe, it quickly becomes apparent that Tony Mowbray belongs to an archipelago of camaraderie along the waterfront. A couple of diners yarn to him, and a fellow sailor stops at our table.
“There you go, Tony, I want to put 100,000 into your next boat,” the bloke grins. He drops an Indonesian 100,000 rupiah note onto the table. That’s about $10. Mowbray laughs.
His current vessel, Commitment, is berthed just out the front in the marina. Mowbray’s paint-speckled hands indicate he has been working on the yacht this morning. The vessel, which he uses to lead adventure tours to far-flung places such as Antarctica, is 60 feet long. He should have a yacht that is 77 feet long, Mowbray says, as boating lore dictates your vessel’s length should be one foot for each year of your life plus 15 feet.
“I’m about to turn 62, but I’m not about to get a bigger boat,” he says.
A 60-foot yacht seems about right for Tony Mowbray. He has the energy of someone in his mid 40s. He eats like someone determined to stay fit, ordering a salad and drinking only tea (he gave up alcohol last year). And he dreams like a child. Those dreams have taken Mowbray to the ends of the earth and the edges of human endurance.
GEOGRAPHICALLY, Tony Mowbray was born for a life under sail. He grew up in Belmont, and he still lives there by the lake. But as a boy, Mowbray believed his future was not over the horizon but under the ground. He expected to follow his coal miner father into the local colliery, and for a few years he did, working as an apprentice electrician. But there was a world to explore.
“I know as a teenager when I was going to school, I was the classic ‘looking out the window at the ocean, dreaming’ kid rather than paying attention to the French teacher, I guess,” he muses.
Mowbray had been sailing since he was 11. He had asked his maths tutor, Bob Snape, about the pole in the corner of the room. It was a spinnaker pole for his yacht, Mr Snape explained. From that moment, Mowbray gained an introduction to sailing and a mentor. He competed in his first race out to sea, sailing from Swansea to Newcastle and back, when he was 14.
“I can still remember the movement of the boat on that undulating swell, and the boat moving and rocking and rolling a bit, and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s different’,” he recalls.
“I’ll take that to the grave with me, that feeling. It was another notch in the barrel of addiction to the ocean.”
That addiction deepened when he competed in his first Sydney to Hobart race in 1973. The 18-year-old sailed on Cardinal Puff, owned by Newcastle businessman Peter Rundle, who Mowbray considers another mentor.
“I’ve been lucky to have a lot of mentors in my life,” he says.
The race also provided him with a life lesson. As the yacht rounded Tasman Island at night, the “cold, scared” teenager finished his watch and went to bed.
“The other guys let me sleep through when I had to get up,” he says. “But I played ‘doggo’. I should have got up, but I didn’t. I was actually awake. I promised myself that I’d never miss another watch ever again, and I never have.
“I guess you can take that as a parallel to life. Don’t sleep through your watch. Get up and have a crack, whatever it is you’ve got to have a crack at.”
In 1998, competing in his 14th Sydney to Hobart race, Mowbray was leading seven others on his boat, Solo Globe Challenger, as it contended with horrendous conditions.
“Quite simply, for 15 hours, we thought we’d found out how we were going to die,” he says, recalling he wasn’t panicked as he considered his fate. “So it’s drowning, most likely drowning. That’s interesting. I’ll think about that for a while.”
Mowbray thought about what it would be like in the water. He wondered what his last thought would be. He was sure it would be about his two kids, Holly and Jordan.
“I went to the core of my soul,” he says. “I found out what makes me tick.” I ask him what that is. Mowbray pauses, sips his tea, then pauses longer. “Life is to be lived. Kids are the most important thing. I just love my kids. And it reaffirmed the essence of me is commitment.”
Mowbray promised himself if he lived, he would stop procrastinating. He would buy the computer the kids wanted, and he would abandon his long-held commitment to sail solo around the world non-stop, “because this was just bullshit, too risky”.
The crew of Solo Globe Challenger survived the race in which six sailors lost their lives. A few months after the ordeal, Mowbray was returning from Sydney after a function for the rescue crews when one promise began to unravel. By the time he was back on the lake, alone, one beautiful afternoon, he broke the promise to keep another: he would sail solo around the globe.
“I was a long way from being right,” he says. “I’m still not right, I’m still gun-shy at sea. But I went back.”
In October 2000, Mowbray set sail from Newcastle on a yacht filled with supplies, and with a soul suppressing a few fears. On April 14, 2001, he sailed back into the very harbour we’re looking out on. About 25,000 had gathered along the foreshores. While he appreciated the recognition, the reward was in having kept a promise to himself.
As much as he loves the ocean and sailing, for Tony Mowbray, a yacht is merely a vehicle to be “out there”. And by that, he means to be challenging and finding yourself.
Mowbray talks about that to audiences as a motivational speaker, and, for more than a decade, he and his son have taken paying passengers on voyages, as they seek the adventurous side of themselves. Some never find that, despite having been on an adventure.
With that in mind, I ask him what it takes to be an adventurer.
“It has to be what you really want to do,” Mowbray replies. “You can’t just talk it, you have to walk it. It’s got to be passion, it’s got to be coming from within, spirit.
“If you conceive a project or a challenge, you go out there, you put all the logistics together, you tick all the boxes, you make it all happen, and when it’s happened, doesn’t it feel good! You get that feeling of self-satisfaction, or inner peace. You don’t need people to tell you how good you went, you just know within yourself. It’s a really tranquil feeling.”
“So why are so few of us adventurers?,” I ask.
He pauses before answering, “I don’t know.”
“I think people just get used to being in their comfort zone. They’ve got to have the three ducks lined up on the wall all flying in unison. That’s good for some people, but for me it’s not. If a duck falls off the wall, that’s good. If two fall down, that’s really good!”