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Rudder, Philip Sydney (Phil) (1910–2004)

by Gawen Rudder

Philip Sydney Rudder, who has died aged 94 in Sydney after a short illness, meticulously recorded his life as a businessman, yachtsman, inventor, carpenter, adventurer, coach and mentor.

He was a boat builder and designer and built his first craft – a rather dodgy and unseaworthy seven-foot galvanised iron canoe – at the age of 11. It sank in the wake of a ferry in Mosman Bay, leaving him to swim to shore.

He was also a keen boardie and built several long boards and surf skis, which he rode with consummate skill off Palm Beach.

Rudder was the driving force behind building the Avalon Sailing Club clubhouse in 1954 and was made a life member last year. He crafted many VJs and other small sailing boats for a generation of young sailors.

In 1959 as skipper he earned some notoriety (and the front page of the Herald) when his 47-foot sloop Blue Water foundered on rocks off Batemans Bay during the Montague Island race.

In 1963 he formed Rudders Yachts in Brookvale and gained the licences to build Nicholson 32s, Olympic class Solings and eventually Ynglings. In the mid-'60s he was building and selling yachts at the rate of one a week.

Through the International Yacht Racing Union – on which he represented Australia – he came to be on first name terms with the Norwegian royal family and King Constantine of Greece.

Rudder was also one of the first to create a marina, which he called Yachtsman's Wharf, at Bayview in 1966. He owned too many boats and taught too many people the ropes to count, but the last yacht was an Etchell, which he bought when he was 74 and sailed out of Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club on his beloved Pittwater.

He finally, and somewhat bashfully, became master of a large stink boat (a derogatory yachtie term for boats powered by engines rather than sail) owned by a merchant bank and moored at The Spit. Those who enjoyed its stateroom hospitality included many of the so-called entrepreneurs of the day, some of whom eventually served several years as a compulsory guest of Her Majesty.

Before launching his boat-building career Rudder was a successful, but reluctant, businessman. At 19 he began working in the garage of his father's trucking company after an unspectacular result in the Leaving Certificate. He proved to be adept at dismantling truck motors and far better at mechanics than mathematics.

At 24 he got the opportunity of a lifetime. His father, through his association with Qantas Empire Airways, arranged for him to be on the inaugural flight to London, in association with Imperial Airways (now British Airways). The trip took 12 days, with refuelling stops and overnight stays at Raffles Hotel, Singapore, the Oriental, Bangkok and Shepherds in Cairo.

Back home he became a purser on the first C-Class flying boat out of Rose Bay and recalled delivering tickets to Lord and Lady Mountbatten at the long-gone Australia Hotel.

In 1937 Qantas moved its head office to Sydney, but his father remained vice-chairman and the association continued. In 1955 he took the family company, by then known as Rudders Limited, public. Rudders Limited expanded to become one of the Big Three transport companies; it later merged with and eventually was swallowed by TNT.

In 1956 Rudder was appointed a councillor of the NRMA and only retired from the board 23 years later. In 1957 he was asked to establish the Outward Bound movement in Australia. Through this he met the Duke of Edinburgh, with whom he shared a love of the sea and Greece.

Always the adventurer, in 1981 – aged 70 – he decided to take up gliding. He liked to say that this allowed him to use his sailing talents in the air. He lost his gliding licence when the authorities later found out how old he was.

Rudder the inventor was instrumental in launching the concept of containerisation for sea, road and rail transportation, developing the first of these anywhere in the world for Rudders in 1936. In World War II the US Army commandeered 200 company containers for operations in the Pacific Islands.

In the early 1960s his company completed the first co-ordinated rail and road train link between Adelaide and Darwin. He invented, but never patented, the tail gate loader still seen today at the back of delivery trucks and designed a mobile crane, one of the first in the country.

Rudder the carpenter was honorary set builder for the Hunters Hill Dramatic Society and over 20 years created 32 stage sets as well as replicas of famous pieces of furniture such as Van Gogh's raffia chair and Cicero's stool.

When he was 75, Rudder and his great friend and fellow yachtsman Malcolm Barlow decided to create a solid fixed wing sail – it frustrated Rudder that this aeronautical invention never quite took off.

His last invention was a one-handed croquet mallet for disabled players at Hunters Hill Croquet Club.

He is survived by Gawen, David, Philippa and Gwenda, children of his first wife, Gwen, daughter of the then premier of NSW, Sir Bertram Stevens; Hilary, his childhood sweetheart whom he married in 1976; 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

On the day of his funeral, the Blue Peter, symbol of Outward Bound and the ensign that signals "leaving port today", fluttered in the breeze waiting to take the sailor home to a place where the wind is always fair and the sun never sets.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September 2004

Citation details

Gawen Rudder, 'Rudder, Philip Sydney (Phil) (1910–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/rudder-philip-sydney-phil-20835/text31565, accessed 22 November 2017.

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