Home' Afloat : AFLOAT October 2014 Contents 62 AFLOAT.com.au October 2014
Successful veteran yachtsman and
gentleman, John Walker, passed
away peacefully at Royal North
Shore Hospital on 15 July, 2014, with his
family around him, three months shy of
his 92nd birthday in October.
‘Gentleman Johnnie Walker’, a long-
time member of Middle Harbour Yacht
Club, bounced back from pneumonia and a
subsequent heart attack in 2012. He would
have been philosophical about his death
– happy to have lived as long and happily
as he did – only sorry to leave the family
he loved so much behind.
Humour well intact, he told a
photographer at the Sydney Short Ocean
Racing Championship in November that
year: “There will be an extra charge if you
want me to pose ... and more if you keep
me waiting!” He also bragged that he was
older than Tig Thomas, a past commodore
of the Club, also racing at the event.
John and his reliable Three Quarter
Tonner, Impeccable – which describes John
to a tee – was designed by Doug Peterson
to the old IOR rule and built in Sydney by
Doug Brooker in 1980.
The two contested 25 Sydney Hobart
races together. Unusually, his first was
in 1982 as a 60-year-old, the last was the
2008 race when he was 86. Best Hobart
results were: second overall (IOR) and won
GENTLEMAN JOHNNIE WALKER
Division D in 1986; third overall (IOR) and
won Division B in 1993 and fifth overall
(IRC) and third in Div E in 2006.
These and other great victories
resulted in the master yachtsman being
awarded Ocean Racing Veteran of the Year
in 1994, 2003, 2004 and 2008 in the Cruising
Yacht Club of Australia annual awards.
The gentle and extremely likable man
was held in high esteem and attracted a
long-term dedicated crew. Leaving a lot
of the deck work on long ocean races to
the crew, John’s secret to success was
his navigating skills. He had an uncanny
knack of picking wind shifts and current,
which converted to his winning the MHYC
Navigator’s award in 2009.
Felicity Nelson completed 12 of her
19 Hobarts on Impeccable, only moving on
when John announced he would call ocean
racing quits. It says spades about the man
who was remarkably nimble for his 91 years
and looked much younger.
Boat and owner remained competitive
to the end. John skippering Impeccable
to wins and places in major MHYC
events such as the Sydney Harbour
Regatta and Sydney Short Ocean Racing
Championship, including this year. He
loved his boat, sailing and the camaraderie
that came with it.
That he could be all that he was belies
John’s earlier life.
Born Ota Wachtel in Czechoslovakia
on October 18, 1922, John met his wife
Helen in 1945 in Prague. They married in
1948 and migrated to Australia in 1949,
unable to speak English. The couple had
50 pounds of luggage and just five pounds
in cash to their names, having to sign all
else to the Communists in Prague just to
get their passports.
Both were incarcerated in
Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration
camp in Czechoslovakia during World
War II. John was later moved to Auschwitz
and both lost family in the camps. John
was unusually frank about his wartime
experiences and his treatment at the hands
of the Hitler regime.
John never let those bad times dictate
his life. He said he and Helen were so
happy to survive that they decided to
always be happy and celebrate life when he
and Helen moved to “beautiful” Australia,
where they had two children and became
A qualified engineer, John had to finish
his education after the war, but his first job
on Australian soil was teaching ice skating.
He had started ice skating competitively
at 12, and by 16 was the Czechoslovakian
Pairs Figure Skating champion. John said
it was hard work and great training for not
giving in when in the concentration camps.
Helen supported John later on when he
started a timber business, at which time
he changed his name by deed poll from
Ota Wachtel to John Walker, on having to
repeatedly spell his name for people. He
had seen an ad for Johnnie Walker whisky
... which he liked. The business eventually
flourished and he was awarded an Order of
Australia for services to the building and
timber industry in 1966 of which he and
Helen were inordinately proud.
John is survived by his wife Helen and
children Gary and Susan and their families.
h Di Pearson
John contested 25 Sydney Hobart races.
His first was in 1982 at age 60, the last was
the 2008 race when he was 86.
John skippered Impeccable to wins and
places in major MHYC events such as the
Sydney Harbour Regatta and Sydney Short
Ocean Racing Championship.
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