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News > Pangbournian Stories > Book Reviews > SUPERDOCIOUS! by Rodney Pattisson (57-61) with Barry Pickthall

SUPERDOCIOUS! by Rodney Pattisson (57-61) with Barry Pickthall

There can be no doubt, in my view, that Rodney Pattisson is the foremost sportsman to come out of Pangbourne. It is perhaps legitimate to ask why it has taken so long for his story to be told. 

There can be no doubt, in my view, that Rodney Pattisson is the foremost sportsman to come out of Pangbourne. His record speaks for itself: two Olympic gold medals and a silver, as well as 14 World and European championships. It is perhaps legitimate to ask why it has taken so long for his story to be told. 

Some of it is already the stuff of sailing legend. Rodney’s first Olympic games, racing his Flying Dutchman Supercaligragilisticexpialidocious (commonly known as Superdocious) at the age of 24, crewed by an equally young Cambridge graduate, Iain MacDonald-Smith, is a story of meticulous, exhaustive and innovative preparation which led to complete domination of the opposition. 

In those days the Olympic regatta consisted of seven races, with your best six to count. Controversially, Rodney was disqualified from the first race, leaving him no discard and putting him under immense pressure. Undeterred, he went on to win the next five races on the bounce. “In the final race, we had only to finish to secure gold. This we did, starting last from the leeward end of another heavily biased line, and carrying a spare rudder and genoa on board for safe measure. Such was our speed advantage that Superdocious pulled right through the fleet and would have won this race too had a wind shift on the final beat not relegated us to second.” They ended the series with a DSQ, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, to finish the regatta with the lowest recorded score in Olympic history – a record that has stood for over 50 years.

The second Olympic gold is an equally fascinating story, partly because of the trials and tribulations along the way: a revolutionary new boat that turned out, in sailing parlance, to be a ‘dog’; a frantic scramble to build, fit out and tune a second new boat which was disguised to look like the discarded one, in order to confuse the opposition. This was followed by a catalogue of mishaps in the British Olympic selection trials which Rodney and his new crew, Chris Davies, only won by the narrowest of margins. In the Olympic regatta at Kiel all came good and again. After a shaky start, Pattisson and Davies utterly dominated the Flying Dutchman fleet, winning the event with a day to spare with scores of 11th, 3rd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st. 

There was a twist in the tail: the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, paid an unexpected visit to the regatta centre hoping to congratulate the winners. Rodney was not there but Chris, busy celebrating two years’ abstinence from alcohol, “was a little over familiar in addressing the Prime Minister as ‘Ted’, who turned his back and walked out.” Since 1968 it had become customary for gold medal winners to be awarded MBEs, but in the next New Year’s Honours List Chris Davies’ name did not appear. This was the catalyst for one of Rodney’s tenacious campaigns to overturn an injustice. 

Pangbourne only merits one paragraph but it is clear that Rodney’s years sailing on the Thames played their part in his development: “At the age of 11, I was sent off to board at Pangbourne and was allowed to take my Cadet dinghy with me to race on the River Thames. I loved it, and before long became captain of the College sailing team, which remained unbeaten in inter-school championships throughout my two years’ tenure. I was sailing at every opportunity and absorbing new knowledge all the time, learning how to get the best from my boat in the fickle shifting winds that any tree-lined river provides.” 

Later, as a young Royal Navy submariner, another Pangbournian, Rear Admiral Sir Ian McGeoch (28-31), played a pivotal part in Rodney’s sailing history. The year was 1967, 18 months before the Olympics, and Sub Lieutenant Pattisson, already focused on winning gold in the Mexico Games, wa in a quandary back in the days when Olympic sport was amateur. 

“My next task was to negotiate sufficient time off to get both the new boat and me and my crew in a competitive position,” he writes. “Life within the submarine service was proving difficult because, even when I did get special leave, this only increased the workload on my four fellow officers on the sub. Very soon it became clear that I had to do something drastic, and so I requested a transfer to another branch of the Navy. That came as quite a shock to my CO, Charles Baker, who though a keen sailor himself, realised my reasons for wishing to leave submarines. 

Baker sent Pattisson to see McGeoch, then Flag Officer Submarines. McGeoch was an imposing figure and also a keen yachtsman. “As I put my case for leaving the submarine service, he listened, then decided to bargain with me. ‘I’ll do a deal with you, Pattisson. If you pass your submarine exams, I’ll allow you the time off that you need.’ When I did pass those exams a few weeks later, I immediately slapped in a request for time off to compete in various pre-Olympic regattas. 

Charles Baker, who knew nothing of my bargain, blew his top and stormed off to confront Admiral McGeoch, explaining that he couldn’t run his submarine without me. McGeoch stuck to his side of our deal: ‘I’ve given him my word, so we’ll have to find a way round this,’ he said. And he did – appointing a series of part-time Royal Navy Reserve officers to take my lace when I was absent. This still put a huge strain on my fellow officers who had to carry these short-term appointees and I certainly owe them a huge debt of gratitude for the extra work they did in my absence.”

This book is a treasure trove of stories and narrow escapes, covering half a century of competitive yacht racing. Those who know Rodney are aware that he is always alert to miscarriages of justice, or unfairness, and in the latter part of the book he launches a series of quixotic attacks on a range of topics. Some of these are perhaps more questionable than others, but the readers are always free to weigh the evidence and make up their own minds. 

What is not in question in this memoir is the heart of the narrative, which is an inspiring, single-minded, indefatigable quest for Olympic perfection before the days of sponsorship, elite coaching or squad systems.  

Crispin Read Wilson

 

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