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Wednesday 23rd June 2021

By Gilly Gobinet for ASW50 in 2017

Sir Peter Harrison is a multi-talented businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist – and yachtsman. Now in his 80th year, he has been coming to Antigua Sailing Week for nearly every one of 23 years, and considers Antigua as his second home and base in the West Indies. Overall winner of Antigua Sailing Week in 2011 on Sojana, such was his delight that he was able to “give back” something to Antigua by financing the restoration of historic Clarence House, much beloved by the British Royal family, with Prince Harry appropriately present for the official re-opening of this stately property in 2016.

Born the son of a bus driver in the north of England, his initial career as a chartered accountant did not provide the necessary stimulation for his highly imaginative mind and driving sense of ambition, so he joined the Ford Motor Co. in Dagenham, Essex in the department of forward planning – a move that was to prove a decisive factor in determining the direction of his working life.

He went on to work for a multi-national company, travelling extensively and rising rapidly in the ranks to Head of Corporate Planning, then joined Crest Nicholson in 1971, to head Mergers and Acquisitions. Crest, however, was less impressed than Sir Peter with the potential purchase of Chernikeeff, a Russian company manufacturing marine instruments, which Sir Peter saw as having great potential. At great personal financial risk, he decided to purchase the company himself. In 1981 he launched his Telex message switching system that was eventually a huge success thanks to his innovative commercial rental scheme. He went on to become Cisco’s first commercial customer in a similar manner, thanks to another imaginative and daring leap of judgment, and this in time led to what we now know as the Internet.

Sir Peter’s first time on the water was on the Norfolk Broads with the Scouts. It wasn’t until Crest acquired Camper-Nicholson in 1972 that his interest in sailing was piqued. Until then he had been sailing as a guest on other people’s boats in various regattas. In 1989 he bought his first boat: a 36ft Swedish boat design, followed by a 53ft Hallberg-Rassy, newly designed by German Frers. Named Russe Noir or Black Russian (the translation of Chernikeeff, his first successful entrepreneurial venture), she was a fast boat and for his first trans-Atlantic trip Sir Peter entered her in the ARC in 1994 and she came first out of 32 boats. This triumph was not least due to Sir Peter’s ingenious use of Metéo-Mer’s programme giving a four days forward picture of the weather to yachts crossing the Atlantic. He added a computer programme, simply using Excel, that allowed him to work out the relative performance of his competitors using their positions and wind conditions, reported to the control boat daily. He also added the TCF and rating, plus distance to a waypoint just outside the St. Lucia harbour destination. He soon realized his position in the fleet was pretty good – lying third – which galvanized him into making the extra effort to gain first place (thereby, Sir Peter says, demonstrating the value of information technology!). Nowadays, of course, the software has evolved into a highly sophisticated form being used in regattas all over the world, including Antigua Sailing Week, with many if not all boats having inexpensive racing tablets.

Sojana by Chris Odom

Sir Peter completed 15 trans-Atlantic crossings and in November 2003 he bought the 115ft Farr ketch Sojana, with which he won the Lord Nelson Trophy in 2011 at Antigua Sailing Week. He fondly remembers his early years at Sailing Week: the Dickenson Bay Party with its giant speakers along the beach, packed with participants and locals enjoying local fare, with the fleet anchored off-shore looking like a D-Day flotilla off Normandy (Sir Peter retains a strong interest in naval history!). Then the next day the races finished at Jolly Harbour, a very jolly venue it was too. There have never been any monetary prizes and yet competition has always been fierce, such is the wonderful experience of racing in Antigua Sailing Week. Those blue Caribbean waters are so beautiful and with winds being fairly constant at 11-14 knots, the sailing conditions are nothing short of ideal. Coupled with Antigua’s 365 stunning beaches, its amazing historic backdrop of Nelson’s Dockyard and English Harbour and its extremely friendly and helpful people, who can resist returning again and again – as indeed Sir Peter Harrison does – for every Antigua Sailing Week and more.

And in the spirit of “giving back”, which is very important to Sir Peter, he has generously contributed to the Antiguan yachting scene by financing the superyacht dock at Nelson’s Dockyard and donating to the National Sailing Academy, as well as being largely responsible for the rebuilding of Clarence House, which is now being used for various sailing events and functions.

On a final note, the word Sojana does not have an oriental origin as one might be tempted to imagine, but is simply based on an amalgamation of his three grandchildren’s names: Sophie, James and Natalie.

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