Obituary: Staveley Roberts MBE

Keen yachtsman whose love of the sport led to him judging several high-profile races

Staveley Roberts MBE, international sailing judge and engineer. Picture: Contributed
Staveley Roberts MBE, international sailing judge and engineer. Picture: Contributed

Staveley Roberts MBE, international sailing judge and engineer.
Born: 29 January, 1920, in Glasgow.

Died: 7 January, 2015, in Paisley, aged 94.

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Staveley Roberts was a keen yachtsman from his youth, much of which was spent messing about in boats on the Clyde. He first sailed in his teens in the Scottish Islands Class on the Clyde. In later life he became one of the pre-eminent judges of the sport and his qualities were recognised when he was appointed chairman of the international jury on some legs of the gruelling Whitbread Round the World races. Roberts was given the rare honour in 1993 of the title of Judge Emeritus in recognition of his services to yachting in general and on the Clyde in particular.

Peter Gourd, former Convenor Clyde Dragon Fleet, has written: “In the 1990s, Staveley and I owned the last two classic Dragons to be regularly raced on the Clyde. I held him in huge regard and he was always the most courteous and magnanimous opponent.

“His contribution to the sport of sailing was immense and we remain extremely grateful for his commitment.”

Born Owen Sydney Staveley Roberts in Kilcreggan, Argyle and Bute, he was one of two sons of Henry Staveley Roberts, a chartered accountant with his own business in Glasgow, and his wife Gwendoline.

His brother Arnold was also an avid and renowned yachtsman and together the boys were a formidable team.

He attended Greenock Academy and then read engineering at Loughborough College. Roberts joined the RNVR as a Lieutenant Commander in 1944 and served in Hong Kong supervising the return of civilian prisoners of war – many of whom needed severe medical attention after the torrid years they had experienced. Roberts was then stationed in Sydney, where he met and married Marjory.

They set up home back at Kilcreggan and Roberts worked initially in the Singer factory and then with Glenfield & Kennedy, the Kilmarnock firm famed for manufacturing water hydrants. Finally, Roberts was employed at Weir Construction and travelled the world advising on various aspects of mechanical engineering. He retired in 1989.

Staveley Roberts’ first serious work as a judge on the Whitbread Race jury was something of a baptism by fire.

On the last race, 1993-94, there was considerable controversy surrounding the issue of the Italian Whitbread 60 Brooksfield, which, on the leg to Fremantle, Australia, was holed by her rudder stock and subsequently took on water. It was considered “lost” for 17 hours, and the boat’s emergency position indicating beacon was activated.

Several boats headed in Brooksfield’s direction and latterly claimed a time allowance for their actions.

Three times America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner, running the boat Winston, was awarded what several other skippers considered excessive time and they protested the jury’s decision.

In the intervening protests and counter-protests, which were carried over to the next stopover – Auckland – all but one member of the jury resigned.

Roberts was called in by the race director, Ian Bailey-Wilmot, to chair the new jury.

He was a devoted sailor – he once said: “My racing has been successful; but not brilliant” – but as early as 1980 he was ranked as an international judge, six years after he served on the jury for the UK Championships at his home club, the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club.

His years as an international yachting judge were central to his love of the sport. His own clarity of mind (and the rules) proved invaluable in many contentious situations.

Roberts also chaired the International Jury for the Admiral’s Cup in 1995 and was jury chairman for several years of the Swan European Championship at Cowes.

He was on the jury at Scotland’s biggest annual event, the Tomatin or Scottish Series, for 14 consecutive years, and had been chairman of the jury at three major world championships in Scotland since 1974.

Terence Brownrigg, a long-standing friend who is also an international judge, told The Scotsman yesterday: “Staveley dedicated the last 40 years of his life to the sport. He was unimpeachable and always helped the young starting out in sailing. He was a superb administrator and very hands-on.

“Staveley had a dry sense of humour – after the Whitbread race he whispered to me, ‘I think I got it right. Everyone thought I was wrong.’ Staveley was a man who gave back to sailing in Scotland more than he ever took out.”

His joy in sailing his beloved Dragon Crackerjack on the waters of the west of Scotland was an enduring pleasure for Roberts. He sailed for 70 years and devoted much time and expertise to furthering the sport’s attractions throughout the world and did much to ensure it was professionally administered.

He was an honorary member of many clubs, a founder of the Cove and Kilcreggen Sailing Club (now the Cove Sailing Club) for more than half a century and a past Commodore of the Royal Northern & Clyde Yacht Club – where he had been a member since 1942.

He is survived by his wife and son Leigh Roberts.

There will be a memorial service at Rhu church on Friday, 27 March at 2pm.