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Portrait of Alex Whitworth
© Alex Whitworth
Reproduced courtesy of Alex Whitworth

Alex Whitworth

1942-

Alex Whitworth was born in 1942 in an air raid shelter in Malta. He was raised in England where his father taught him to sail in an 11-foot dinghy. When Alex was seven years old, his father gave him a copy of Joshua Slocum's 1899 classic, 'Sailing Alone Around the World'. Young Alex read about Slocum’s many adventures, of the perilous seas and close encounters with tribesmen in the Tierra del Fuego, South America and pirates off Gibraltar. This sparked a fascination with circumnavigation; however it wasn’t until years later, when Alex sailed his first Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 1977, that he gave the idea more consideration.

Alex joined the Royal Navy (RN) after he failed his final school exams and while at the RN College at Dartmouth in 1961, he sailed in his first Fastnet race on board LEOPARD. Alex emigrated to Australia in 1966 and worked with Adastra Aerial Surveys before going to University. He later became a founding member of the Faculty and Departmental External Advisory Committees at the University of Wollongong and, in 1998, was made a Fellow by the university.

Alex and his partner Hilary Yerbury purchased BERRIMILLA, a Bluebird class 22-foot sailing boat. Later, they discovered that 'Berrimilla' was the Aboriginal name for the Blue Kingfisher that lives all along the coast of NSW. During the late 1980s, BERRIMILLA was stolen from its moorings. In 1993, Alex and Hilary purchased a Brolga 33 and called it BERRIMILLA II. A quote on Alex’s website notes:

'BERRIMILLA was designed in 1965 and is a dinosaur compared to modern boats. She has a displacement hull shape and is heavy and slow but very strong and seaworthy. Alex bought her believing that she could be sailed almost anywhere with the right preparation and crew.'

Alex sailed Berri for the next 16 Sydney-Hobart races, including the horror 1998 race where they took first place on Handicap in the PHS Division. For this race, Alex was joined by Peter Crozier and together they faced 80-knot winds and mountainous seas. It was the most disastrous Sydney-Hobart race in history and resulted in the loss of six lives and five yachts. The emergency air/sea operation rescued 55 sailors and 71 of the 115 yachts failed to finish.

In 2005, Alex and Peter sailed BERRIMILLA II around the world via Cape Horn. Alex and Peter were about halfway between New Zealand and Cape Horn when they first communicated with the International Space Station (ISS) and one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) most experienced astronauts, Dr Leroy Chiao. In a 2011 interview with ANMM curator Penny Cuthbert, Alex explained: ‘There’s a point in the Southern Ocean where, if you’re in a boat, you’re probably as far away as it’s possible to be from any other human being on the planet.’

Alex realised that as the ISS orbited several times a day ‘somewhere overhead’, its crew would be ‘the nearest human beings’ to BERRIMILLA II. As Alex put it, ‘spacemen and sailors’ made contact via satellite phone and found various parallels in their respective journeys. There was a ‘shared isolation’ and the reality that as a crew, you ‘have to survive together’. Alex and Peter sailed to Falmouth, UK where they met Leroy Chiao and competed in the 2005 Fastnet race finishing in 11th place. They sailed on home to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope, completing their voyage in time to start the next Sydney-Hobart race.

On 10 April 2008, BERRIMILLA II embarked on its second circumnavigation, this time via the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately Peter was unable to join the second voyage, so Alex sailed with Corrie McQueen and, later in the voyage, Kimbra Lindus. The crew sailed from Sydney to Alaska before they navigated the treacherous Northwest Passage. Northeast of Point Barrow in Alaska, Alex described what the conditions were like: ‘It was really scary stuff … it was foggy … we couldn’t see more than 20-30 metres around the boat, and white ice disappears into fog.’ Over about 31 days and a bit over 3,000 miles, they navigated their way through the Arctic route and at one point BERRIMILLA II was lifted out of the water at the stern by a whale.

In the 2011 interview, Alex said that he felt ‘waves of relief’ wash over him as they sailed into Falmouth on 20 September. Another Fastnet race and the crew set sail for Australia again this time via Lisbon, Cape Town and the Kerguelen Islands.

According to Alex's website, 'BERRIMILLA II became the first, and so far the only boat in history to:

- Sail consecutive Sydney – Hobart races with a Fastnet race in between, all under sail – and she finished 11th overall in that Fastnet and 2nd in the Double Handed division

- Circumnavigate the world via both Cape Horn and the Northwest Passage

- Sail from Australia to England via the Northwest Passage

- Complete a circumnavigation Fastnet Rock to Fastnet Rock also via the Northwest Passage.'


Sources:

'Alex Whitworth', from website 'Berrimilla: A Tiny Boat and the International Space Station', Accessed 29/07/13.

Nicole Cama, 'Sailing, Spacemen and underpants', ANMM blog, 29/07/13 Accessed 30/07/13.