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Tig Thomas and Plum Crazy

Reunited with his beloved Half Tonner, Tig Thomas is 'having a ball:', reports Bob Ross.

The Plum is racing again. Tig Thomas, at the age of 80, has been racing his famed 35-year-old Half Tonner Plum Crazy in Middle Harbour Yacht Club twilight races and in classic yacht events on Sydney Harbour.

Early in the current season, Plum Crazy won the spinnaker division of the Henri Lloyd Festival Cup in a south-westerly gale on Sydney Harbour.

With the wind gusting up to 44 knots, only five boats finished the event. Plum Crazy's ageing crew didn't need to set a spinnaker but carried the number four jib around the course to win.

Crew regulars are Rob Ogilvie and Bob Beesley. Both were aboard Plum Crazy with Tig when in the 1975 Sydney-Hobart race she set a record for boats under 9.5m (31ft) that still stands today.

The boat, painted a very distinctive purple, designed by Bob Miller and Joe Adams and launched in 1971, was one of the most successful Half Tonners of the early 1970s when the Half Tonners had the strongest fleets in a burgeoning level rating scene.

She was jointly owned by Thomas and Max Bowen. Tig's brother Ted, then general manager of the Seven television network, was the navigator. Plum Crazy won the Dunhill Half Ton championship in December 1972 and with that the right to represent Australia at the Half Ton Cup in Denmark. She placed tenth, a worthy first Australian effort in a hot international scene.

From Wagga to the water

Gilbert F. ("Tig") Thomas, a retired chartered account and local government auditor, hails from Wagga Wagga where he started sailing in Heavyweight Sharpies in 1949 and then Gwen 12s.

On moving to Sydney in 1962, he sailed his Gwen 12 at the Lane Cove 12ft Skiff Club until 1966 when he landed the biggest job in the community service organisation Apex, international president, and had to put his sailing aside for two years.

Then he began racing an Endeavour 24, the 22nd off the moulds, with Middle Harbour Yacht Club. He won the NSW championship in 1970 and won it again with his second Endeavour 24 in 1971.

"Then I decided to get into a big offshore boat, like a Half Tonner! They were just coming into vogue."

One of his clients for many years, Max Bowen, joined him in a partnership to have the boat built. "I was having a drink with him after work one night and we were talking about this Half Ton stuff, level rating, which was the only way to go for ocean racing.

"Max said, 'How much would one of these cost?'

"And I said, 'about $40,000 odd.'

"Max said, I've never been involved in competitive sport, why don't we do it, why don't we make one?'

"'You put up the money, I'll put in the proceeds from my Endeavour and I'll find a winning crew,'" responded Thomas.

They commissioned Bob Miller to design a Half Tonner to be built by Doug Brooker with three cold-moulded skins of Oregon, sheathed in Dynel.

Bowen was responsible for both the name and the purple colour of Plum Crazy. "In a discussion over the name, being a Wagga boy, I suggested Waradjeri, the Aboriginal tribe of the region and was told to piss-off," Thomas said.

"Then Max said, 'I've found a beautiful colour, which I have never seen on a yacht. It's called Plum Crazy purple. It's also a great name for the boat because I feel pretty plumb crazy getting into something I know nothing about.'"

Miller designed the boat; his assistant, Joe Adams, drafted the lines. Besides the concept, Miller contributed his ideas on equipment layout. "He was wonderful through the design process. Everything was freehand. We ended up having all the halyard winches on the mast below deck. Brother Ted who used to do all the navigating could look up through the coach house windows to help with all the sets, gybes and drops. It was just a great arrangement when you had a full crew."

Plum Crazy won second division and was 16th out of 79 starters in the 1971 Sydney-Hobart race, the first Hobart for Thomas. "A bit of an easterly was blowing and we put up our brand new reacher. We got a gun start and led the fleet up the harbour for the first 20 minutes.

"Then the breeze kicked around to the north-east and we had to do a sail change, to a number one headsail." Back in those days you had to unhank one sail before the next sail could be hoisted so in the process of changing Plum Crazy lost the lead. But Thomas has always remembered having the line honours winner, American Jim Kilroy's 73ft ketch Kialoa, crossing Plum Crazy's stern halfway up the harbour. "We led the fleet for 20 minutes of glory. And apart from having a line squall off Wollongong, it was pretty much an easy run."

Half Tonners take off

Half Tonner racing took off in Sydney over the next few seasons with new one-off designs plus Peter Joubert's Currawong and Peter Cole's East Coast 31 production boats providing affordable, close offshore racing.

Plum Crazy won the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron's Dunhill Trophy Half Ton championship in December 1972, comfortably with three wins, a second and a fourth in the five races, from Jack Savage's self-designed Pajen with Pretender (Peter Willcox), a Cavalier 32 production boat from Auckland, third. Three New Zealand yachts, chosen from selection trials in Auckland, were in the fleet of 14.

The Australian Yachting Federation, on the strength of that showing, endorsed Plum Crazy to represent Australia at the 1973 Half Ton Cup in Denmark. Meantime, the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia decided to raise money to send the best Australian Half Tonner crew to Denmark and charter a boat for it there. Seven boats including Plum Crazy entered the selection trials. Plum Crazy won, to collect the CYCA's air fare sponsorship while Thomas elected to ship his own boat to Denmark.

Soon afterwards, Plum Crazy won the 500 mile Sydney-South Solitary Island-Pittwater race, a new event conducted over the Christmas-New Year holiday period and won it again in 1973.

Plum Crazy was crewed in Denmark by Tig Thomas, Ted Thomas, Roland Bull, Kevin Shephard and Robert Hart.

She suffered mishaps before the series at Hundested. First, she hit a rock in the dark, while sailing at six knots, in the 150-mile invitation race a week before the series. Then, while being lifted from the water by mobile crane for an examination of the damage, the five-ton crane overbalanced with the boat in mid air.

Plum Crazy plummeted back into the water and the crane jib fell on top of her, crushing the coachhouse. The damage took a long time to repair and Thomas's crew lost five days of valuable tuning and training time.

Frenchman Michel Briand, sailing the Andre Mauric design Impensable won. Plum was tenth. She looked beamier and flatter than most of the other boats and while she was well sailed, she was badly beaten downwind by the more slender and lighter European designs. "We were the heaviest boat there by a long way and that was the difference," Thomas says. "We would have been about 8000lb and the next heaviest would have been around 6000 lb."

Plum Crazy also had problems upwind when the breeze was light and there was a small chop. Thomas felt she lacked the power to punch through it. "She is a beautiful boat in flat water."

On returning to Australia, she finished second to Warren Anderson's Currawong 30 Granny Smith in the RSYS championship for the Dunhill Trophy in December 1973 from 10 starters, with Geoff Peacock's Scampi A third.

The Half Tonners were really on the move in the 1973-74 season with 12-15 racing keenly each Saturday in a special division created for them at Middle Harbour Yacht Club.

Thirteen boats contested the Half Ton class in a level rating regatta conducted by the CYCA in March 1974. Peter Cole's East Coast 31 Shenandoah won from the S&S design Defiance (Andrew Clinton) with Plum Crazy third.

Plum Crazy won the Dunhill Trophy series in December 1974, then finished third behind Tom Stephenson's S&S Defiance, a fibreglass stock boat which won by half a point from Shenandoah in the Half Ton class at the second CYCA level rating regatta in March 1975.

Record Hobart

Two of Thomas's crew in Plum Crazy's reborn sailing program, Bob Beesley and Rob Ogilvie, were with him on the 1975 Hobart race. The other crew members were John ("Joe") Hooton and Martin ("Ferdie") Leschkau.

Beesley and Ogilvie sat in on this interview and contributed their recollections of the 1975 record run, before heading out with Thomas on a Thursday twilight.

Conditions were ideal for record breaking in the 1975 Hobart race. The light easterly at the start backed through north-east to north and freshened to 25-30 knots on December 27, the day after the start. This remained until the evening of the 28th when, for a few hours, it shifted to west-northwest at 15-25 knots. Off the Tasmanian coast, it freshened to 40 knots from the north for the leading and mid-fleet boats, giving a frightening ride to Tasman Island with many spinnakers blown out.

Jim Kilroy's new Kialoa III, a 75ft S&S ketch, set a race record of two days 14hr 36min 56sec that was to stand for the next 21 years and the first nine yachts finished inside the old record. Plum Crazy's time was four days 1hr 18min 16sec. Bowen and Thomas donated a half model of Plum Crazy as a perpetual trophy for the first yacht under 9.5m LOA across the finishing line, won in 2006 by Sean Langman's Maluka in the time of 04:14:17:39.

Plum Crazy, in setting her long-standing record, faced 75-knot sou'-westerly from Maria Island, 120 miles from the finish. Even nowadays her crew is still not sure how she did it, although she did cover 197 miles in one 24-hour period.

Thomas says: "At one stage I said I would buy a beer for anyone who had the speedo hit the top of the scale, 12 knots. It looked like being a very expensive offer because the needle stuck there and we must have been doing 15 knots.

"We were flying off every third or fourth wave with the boat so well-drilled, you could take your hand off the tiller. And the waves of that nor'-easter were perfectly formed. From the top of the wave, you could look left and right for a quarter of a mile and see these beautiful regular waves. It was just incredible.

"The bow wave started at the mast and I had to stand up tall to see over the top of it when I was steering.

"We started with the half ounce kite from out of the heads. We were up to about 25 knots apparent when we put the three-quarter up. And at 35 apparent, we put the one-and a-half up.

"Then we were down off the Tassie coast, Beeso was about to take it off. Then I heard a plane overhead so we must have been fairly well down the coast and I said, 'Hold it Beeso, we're going to have our photos taken."

Bob Beesley
Thomas continues: "We then poled out a headsail until we got the 75-knot sou'-westerly off Maria Island. All the big boats had gone around the corner by then."

Ogilvie: "I can't work out how we set a race record when we got 75 knots of headwind."

Beesley: "We were in the lee there, hard on the wind but fairly close in. When we wrapped the kite, the forestay spun around and popped the bottom section off the twin C-stay, which meant we couldn't put the headsail up easily. We had to feed the tape up the forestay half an inch at a time."

Ogilvie: "Next morning it was freezing cold."

Beesley: "There was snow on the mountain as we went up the river."

After the Hobart race, Plum Crazy sailed to Melbourne for the Half Ton championship on Port Phillip. The pace had moved on. She was the oldest boat there and finished sixth.

Thomas became commodore of Middle Harbour Yacht Club in 1976. "I had great difficulty finding time to get on the boat and to organise crew. I finished up with an all-girl crew. But we did a lot of offshore stuff, Oges and myself, with two or three girls."

He continued to sail in JOG events until 1988 when he sold Plum Crazy to Mel Jones. After a break, Thomas got back into sailing with a Sonata 26 which he JOG raced, then a little Catalina 250 which he sailed "just for fun" and then bought a Mystere 26 which he donated to the Mosman Sea Scouts Group last year.

Meantime, Jones died four years after he bought Plum Crazy. John Howard then bought her and converted her for cruising, elevating all the halyard winches to the cockpit and installing an electric anchor winch, a furling headsail and a dodger.

"John had Col Beashel did a makeover on the boat and convert her to what has become a reasonably comfortable cruising machine. The boat is in great condition and full credit to John Howard. He did a wonderful job and when he sold it to me, he gave me four typed pages about all the bits and pieces."

One very noticeable change is the hull colour, now white. "Shortly after I sold it to Mel, he rang me one night and said, 'Tig, I am having great difficulty keeping the purple topsides decent. Do you mind if I have it painted white?'

"I said, 'It's your boat.' He had the decency to paint a purple stripe around the waterline. Shipwrights have told me I would be a bloody fool to paint it a dark colour again; it's not good for the timber."

Ogilvy: "You could paint the stern purple. That's all anybody sees!"

Although the three spinnakers Plum Crazy carried in the 1975 Hobart race came back to Thomas when he bought back the boat in November 2005, they have had little use.

"Last Sunday was the first time we had a spinnaker up. We had a young 505 sailor on board who helped bring the average age down to 66. Beeso is 59 and Oges has just turned 63. I am having a ball with the boat and these two guys are enjoying it as much as I am.

"Originally, I bought it back to cruise but it's very hard to resist the opportunity from time to time to do a bit of Mickey Mouse racing. I would like to do some good coastal cruising and sail to Lord Howe."

Plum Crazy is probably in better condition now than when Thomas sold it. Howard had the topsides polished each year and Col Beashel did a wonderful job of painting the bilge, which was originally varnished as the rest of the interior woodwork still is. "You could eat your lunch out of the bilge, it's so clean," Beesley said.

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