Owen Parker: Edward Heath's sailing master

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The Independent Online

Owen Parker, best known as Sir Edward Heath's sailing master, was one of the best-known yachtsmen of his generation and managed all of Heath's Morning Cloud yachts and their crews.

In 1969, this partnership became the first foreign entry to win the famous Sydney-Hobart Classic. They went on to represent Britain in the winning Admiral's Cup team with Morning Cloud II in 1971, won Burnham Week with Morning Cloud III in 1972, represented Britain with Morning Cloud IV in the 1973 Admiral's Cup and again in 1979 with Morning Cloud V. The team continued racing right through to that year's infamous Fastnet Race when 15 lives were lost. Morning Cloud V finished the race, but Heath took such a buffeting during the 605-mile race to the Fastnet Rock and back to Plymouth that he never raced again.

Attending the recent relaunch of Morning Cloud II, now named Opposition, at the Clare Lallow yard in Cowes that had built the yacht, Parker recounted how Heath had woken him during the Sydney-Hobart yacht race saying that the boat was surrounded by killer whales. "What should I do?" he asked. Parker answered "Pray, sir, pray", then rolled over and went back to sleep. Parker wrote about his experiences sailing with Heath in his book Tack Now Skipper (1979).

Ronald Cecil Maurice Victor Parker was born in 1932 in Netley, Southampton. His father, Owen Parker, was a fisherman, shipwright and professional sailor who crewed on Sir Thomas Sopwith's J Class America's Cup challenge yacht Endeavour. Ronald left school at 14 to follow in his father's footsteps, picked up the name "Young Owen", and when his father died playing football at the age of 42, the name "Owen" stuck with him.

Owen got his first paid hand post in 1946 aboard the 96ft luxury yacht Leander, then jumped ship to Clover the following season "for better pay", earning the princely sum of £1 a week. His first racing experience came under the command of Mrs Drayfus in her 6m yacht Thistle, competing in the Solent and Cowes Week.

During the 1950s, he became the paid hand aboard a yacht owned by John Miller, the aircraft component manufacturer, and spent time in America where he became an expert at varnishing. In the late Fifties, Miller became involved in a yacht fittings company on the South Coast and employed Parker. He went to work for the winch manufacturer Lewmar in 1960 and then moved to the Southampton-based chandlery Montague-Smith, where he graduated to managing director.

Parker continued racing, acting as the paid hand aboard Guy Bowles' Camper & Nicholson yacht Gay Gauntlet. Bowles later commissioned a series of highly successful race yachts all named Sunmaid, which Parker oversaw and campaigned.

In 1964, Owen Aisher, the Marley tile magnate, persuaded Parker to join his crew on the 12m Kurrewa, a British contender for the America's Cup. Shortly after, the skipper Stan Bishop died, and Parker took over the captaincy. They were beaten in the British trials by Sovereign.

Parker rejoined Guy Bowles and commissioned Sunmaid V for the 1965 season, which proved the boat to beat for the next four seasons. At the tail end of the 1969 racing season, Parker was invited to join the crew of East Coast sailors that Ted Heath had pulled together to race his first Morning Cloud at Burnham Week. The yacht did well and Heath decided to have it shipped to Australia to take part in that year's Sydney-Hobart race, starting on Boxing Day.

Parker remained as Heath's right-hand sailing man for the next 12 years, taking responsibility for his five Morning Cloud yachts and crews. When Heath became Prime Minister, Parker was given the task of liaising with the Security Services to work out a way of repatriating Heath should a government emergency arise. When a helicopter airlift was discussed, Parker asked: "What the hell are we supposed to do when all this is going on?" When told that the crew would be required to take down the sails and heave-to, he answered: "What? And lose precious seconds? Not bloody likely! If you want the skipper, we'll push him off in a dinghy and you can pick him up from there while we continue racing."

Barry Pickthall

Ronald Cecil Maurice Victor Parker (Owen Parker), yachtsman: born Netley, Hampshire 19 May 1932; married 1984 Christine Wales (two sons, three daughters); died Southampton 9 July 2008.