Mick MacRobb (1966-2016)
Mick MacRobb 1966-2016 (by Rob Mercer)
I first met Mick many years ago on the south coast at a NSW Sea Kayak Club Rock N Roll weekend. He was paddling a boat he had made from plywood packing cases with a paddle made from recycled building timber and he seemed to enjoy the boat not just for it’s good sea manners but also for the fact that he had produced such a useful, effective craft from little more than unwanted scrap simply by the direct application of skill and know how.
More often than not when the EK team arrived to present, exhibit or coach at any significant gathering of kayakers, anywhere on the expansive East Coast of Australia, Mick would be there, in the beginning with a few home made items to sell, but ultimately as an exhibitor with his own range of equipment and especially his sails. He hit it off so well with Sharon and Mark and I that we often combined forces sharing display spaces, more so we could enjoy one another’s company than for any serious business reason. When we had on-water activities to present Mick would often back us up helping as a sweep or tail end paddler picking up tips for his own kayak guiding along the way but also just to learn new techniques.
Mick’s support for community groups and clubs meant that many a raffle was boosted by the donation of a Flat Earth Sail and even if it wasn’t a kayaking group needing a sail to raffle he would turn his hand to just about any practical task that wasn’t already covered, from operating a radio to setting up a Marquee; always with the same quiet, capable, no nonsense approach.
Mick was a raconteur in the truest sense and would share stories and ideas drawn from his personal experiences. He was an outdoor educator, directing programs in hiking, climbing, caving, whitewater, diving and sea kayaking but he had also been a printer, a champion in the sport of fencing, an armorer, a drogue maker, sail maker, a builder of movie sets, a designer of theatrical costumes, a coastguard crewman and even a bushfire fighter rappelling from helicopters. Mick’s yarns from these and many other facets of his fascinating life were never boastful and just as likely to focus on some simple but amusing detail. He had the rare gift to see the extraordinary within the ordinary, to celebrate the nuances of life in a world of overstatement and to do so with his trademark humility and humor. He didn’t treat his dyslexia as a barrier but rather just as another way of seeing the world, he had an enquiring mind and broad tastes in philosophy, literature and music. Mick’s great mate John Woollard, in his fine tribute shared the story of how the Flat Earth brand had come into being during an amusing and whimsical discussion on a quiet tropical beach with Mick playfully defending the theory that the Earth was indeed flat!
One rain-swept morning whilst trapped weathering a storm under our tarp watching gale force winds ripping the tops off the waves just across the beach, Mick regaled us with a tale of the trials of working as a dyslexic printer on a rural newspaper, especially when the editor and typesetter were called away and he had to finish the copy for them! The story was so funny and told with such candor that I almost fell off my chair and out into deluge.
This was on a week-long trip, and included some of the wildest and most exciting sailing conditions any of us had experienced. At one stage Mick managed to untangle and re-rig the sail of our less experienced mate after he had capsized. Mick did this whilst rafted up in heavy seas and strong winds, he did it quickly and easily so we were surfing the big waves northwards again in no time. Mick knew we didn’t really need to sail in these conditions, we would have made good speed anyway, but that wasn’t the point, this was all about the thrill of sailing in strong winds, just because we could.
Long before Mick or I started paddling, Tasmanian Sea Kayakers had been fierce advocates for use of sails on their kayaks but it remained a very fringe activity on the mainland until universal joints and up-haul lines were added to move the sail towards the bow, keeping boom and rigging clear of the paddler and allowing them more foredeck space for the full range of strokes.
With his usual humility Mick was always keen to point out that his sail was based on the earlier work of Norm Sanders who was one of the first to move the sail forward and it is true that Norm’s combination of lines, stays and mast fittings solved a problem that was holding a lot of potential kayak sailors back, but for the Flat Earth story this was only the beginning.
For over a decade Mick patiently refined and improved every aspect of his Flat Earth design responding to input from the paddling community and surprising everyone with his simple elegant solutions. Under his steady hand the sails became ever easier to use yet more efficient, offering less setup time, less tangles when learning and more speed from small, simple rigs. Interestingly, the needs of serious expeditioners on long trips are often quite similar to those of newer paddlers on more modest ventures, they all want the extra drive from the sail without fuss or complexity, they don’t want the sail to be a distraction but they do want it to be stable and predictable whilst they focus on paddling, navigating and just generally making sea miles. I know Mick was thrilled to see his sails being used on so many of the serious expeditions and he watched with pride as the images poured in from all over the globe. I also know how much it meant to him to see images of happy day-trippers after their first paddle/sail with the wind at their back.
I have paddled thousands of kilometres with a Flat Earth Sail on my deck, in heavy weather and sea breezes, riding trade winds to tropical islands far over the horizon or big swells in cool Tasmanian waters, I have felt the hull humming as wave after wave slides effortlessly under me with the salt spray stinging my face, I have seen time again the equalizing effect of these sails in helping to keep groups together and lightening heavy loads on long days at sea. As always I look forward eagerly to my next adventure and as the sail snaps taut and the boat accelerates I will remember good times with Mick; his pirate’s chuckle, a twinkle in his eye and a story to tell.
To give you an idea of how wide Mick’s reach into the world of sea kayaking high achievers went, here’s a list of how extraordinarily successful Mick’s sail designs have been.
Each & every one of these paddlers embraced Mick’s sail as a vital piece of equipment in ensuring the success of their expedition.
- The first ever Greenland to Scotland paddle with Olly Hicks & George Bullard earlier this year.
- The first Aleutian Island Chain Traverse across the Bering Sea with Justine Curgenven & Sarah Outen, 2014
- Stuart Trueman’s circumnavigation of Australia, 2011
- The water tribe extreme open water event in the US, where they’ve even included a racing class based entirely around the specifications of Mick’s .8m sail.
As well as these stellar achievements, it has been the universality of Mick’s sails, their ability to equalise the speeds in a group of different strengths & abilities, effectively lightening heavy kayaks, and increasing the range & thereby the safety of ordinary paddlers, out there every weekend, doing extraordinary things."
Here's a few words in tribute to Mick from his myriad friends in the kayaking world.
“Rest in Peace my lovely friend. Your spirit will live on in the wind blowing in my sail Mick”
“With his innovation and skill, Mick changed the profile, not to mention the speed, of modern sea kayaking. A generation of adventurous kayakers mounted sails on their kayaks and turned wind into a joyous excuse to play. Mick’s sails made a long expedition day more pleasant. With his productivity and vision, he shared his passion and helped kayak sailing gain recognition worldwide. With his genuine kindness, he made friends and loyal fans who will miss him deeply, even as we celecrate the joy he brought to our lives by being himself, following his heart, and working doggone hard. Sail on, Mick. In the wind we will feel your spirit.”
“Mick did not invent paddle sailing but what he did was design a rig that was easy to handle on the water and could be retrofitted easily to almost any kayak. If you try paddle sailing, you will almost certainly become hooked on its fun. It all looks so simple but that is always the key to any successful design. From his tiny workshop Flat Earth kayak sails have almost single handedly reintroduced paddle sailing to mainstream sea kayaking in the the UK and Europe. So Mick, thanks for putting so much fun into our World and being such a great example of how to lead a good life.”
"I have probably been kayaking longer than most and in all of the years I have been doing it I have never experienced such a sense of loss and outpouring of genuine love within the paddling community for a fellow paddler as I have witnessed with the loss of Mick. He seemed to have touched the lives of almost everybody who has ever picked up a paddle, myself included. I am so pleased to see the ongoing tribute you guys continue to promote. I think you did this paddle for more than just yourselves. If your kayaks felt heavy it was because you had most of us on board with you. We are all still struggling with the unfairness of having Mick taken from us so early. Thank you boys and paddle hard every time you think of our mate."