"Who wants to sail slowly across an ocean?"
Bruce was born on Norfolk Island, where his father, Charles Fairlie, was a marine engineer. Bruce’s father fought in France in WWI and survived, and later enlisted in WWII but remained on Australian soil, commandeering vehicles and shipping assets for the war movement.
Bruce’s childhood was best described as austere, with his father’s depression mentality imprinting on him forever the need to save every item for re-use or re-purposing. It was a time when people, through necessity, made their own furniture, made their own spare parts and made their own opportunities.
Entrepreneurial as a matter of survival, his father had started many businesses, including a banana plantation on Norfolk, and later, an electrical and gift store in Turramurra. After his ice-making plant at Ettalong went into meltdown, the father and son opened a small machining shop on the Pacific Highway, just west of Gosford. In the late fifties they were servicing and repairing outboard motors for the growing local trend of water-skiing and racing. That led to them securing the local agency for Mercury outboards, their favoured brand, and their choice for Bruce’s powerboat racing success in the early 1960s.
Always looking for a better solution, Bruce had been impressed by a new fibreglass car body modification, and set about learning all he could about this new wonder product. It was very light, but also extremely strong, ideal for boating applications. He was one of the early pioneers of fibreglass, spending many hours on research, through processes of trial and error.
Marrying Brenda in 1959, and with young children soon after, it was an adventurous roller-coaster ride. The factory expanded through the late sixties and seventies, as they bought neighbouring properties, and built more production space as demand dictated.
Racing his own designed and built mono-hull, namely Miss Fairlite, Bruce went on to win a raft of events, including the Hawkesbury River Bridge-to-Bridge, three years in a row. He was a class winner in the Ampol and BP 100 mile offshore events, and held the Australian 50 horsepower speed record, and the NSW Championship, and won many club events later with his young co-driver Peter McDonald.
Bruce was the inaugural winner of the Steber Offshore race, from Middle Harbour to Pittwater, in 1961, for which he won a cutlery and crockery set, which they still use today!
Winning major events in his own racing-class fibreglass powerboats was the best possible promotion for the brand, and he enjoyed great success.
In the early sixties Bruce read in a US boating magazine that the slower-paced world of yachting was about to take off, and with little experience in sailing, he designed a traditional thirty foot sloop, calling it The Clansman, a nod to his Scottish heritage.
This was a big risk for the young businessman, who’d only just turned thirty. Taking the plunge from powerboats to larger-scale yachts was a leap of faith, and showed his great level of self-confidence.
“In 1964, we took a big risk on building the plugs and moulds for The Clansman.” It paid off, and over the next thirty years the respected shipyard built over a hundred Clansmen. A strong Clansman Association was formed by owners wanting to foster a community, and there were regular Trans-Tasman match-racing events. There’s now a Clansman-only event at the Classic Boat weekend run by the Royal Prince Edward Yacht Club in Point Piper.
Bruce’s first order for yacht sails was the start of a long relationship with Peter Cole, owner of Hood Sails and designer of many yachts, including East Coast Yachts’ Cole 43, her sister East Coast 31, and the 25 foot Contessa. Peter went on to design the America’s Cup 12 metre challenger Steak ‘n’ Kidney.
The Sydney-to-Hobart was always of great interest to Bruce, and his boast won many placings in their various divisions. One year in particular, East Coast Yachts represented over ten percent of the entire fleet. He was very critical of the light-weight planing boats that came into popularity in the late seventies, and rightly predicted a disastrous result, which came in 1998 when six lives were tragically lost on the way to Hobart.
Later in life, Bruce took another leap of faith, into the world of industrial property development, building up a healthy property portfolio over the long term, for his self-funded retirement. He has never had a mortgage or even a credit card. With the great support of his wife, Brenda, they simply “took it one step at a time, and it all just happened.
“I never felt I did anything dramatic, it was just life rolling along, and we went with it. We had a lot of people who stayed with us for many years, which people did in those days. I had a very good team of people around me, like my personal assistants, Joan Chapman who was with us for over twenty years, and was part of the family, and followed up after her retirement by Alex McMinn who also helped us enormously.”
Bruce believes that employing people with the right skills and the right attitude was important to his success. “We had some very clever tradespeople working for us, like Alf Rolfe in the early days, and great people like Jack Stickley and Andrew Little.”
There were some funny times too. “We had our own full-time upholsterer in the loft, and we’d call up to him for something, but sometimes there’d be no answer. So we’d have to go up there, only to find him asleep under a big pile of foam rubber.”
There were lots of highs, and also some lows. In 1994, the uninsured factory burned down to the ground after a failed robbery attempt. With thirty years of highly flammable resin and chemical residue on the factory floor, it was impossible to put the fire out. Inside the factory, the biggest loss that day was Bruce’s own fully-completed Cole 43, the last boat to be built on the site, which sadly went up in flames too. Bruce had been building her on weekends, for himself, over the previous two years. He was planning on launching her the day before, but because it was raining, he delayed it, with tragic results.
Trade unions were one of the business lows, to Bruce’s mind. He dreaded them walking in unannounced. “One day a TU official came in, and he signed up a bunch of people, and took their membership money, but the next time he came in, months later, the same staff who he’d signed up kicked him out of the building, because he hadn’t done a single thing for them.”
A proud moment came in 2001, when Newcastle businessman Tony Mowbray sailed one of Bruce’s Cole 43s around the world single-handed, to become the fastest Australian boat to circumnavigate the world, in 180 days, non-stop, and unassisted. Bruce has a signed poster from him proudly hanging on his study wall, bearing Tony’s simple but powerful dedication: “Bruce, you built a great boat!”
Another accolade came via Peter Barker, who wrote a book about sailing around the world in his own Cole 43 “Bowtie Lady”. Here’s an excerpt: “A man I much admire is Hugh Treharne who, amongst other achievements, was the tactician on Australia II which won the America’s Cup in 1983. I told Hugh of my plans to solo sail around the world, to which he replied: “Get yourself a fast yacht. Who wants to sail slowly across an ocean?” So, what type of boat should I get? Hugh’s response: “Get a Cole 43.”
In late 2006, Peter Barker found his Cole 43, buying the same round-the-world boat from Tony Mowbray, and renaming her, before sailing across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, and ultimately on to Turkey. A great boat indeed.