Every time I potter down the Medina River in Cowes, my eye is drawn naturally to the old GBR Challenge boatyard where the hulks of the IACC’s ‘Wight Lightning’ (GBR 70) and ‘Wight Magic’ (GBR 78) lay exposed to the elements and an uncertain fate like two old lushes that have seen better days. They are shorn of their lead winged bulb keels but they still enthral me and the memories come flooding back of those heady challenge days out on the Solent when a real golden generation of UK sailors, led by the incredible Ian Walker, worked their socks off to mount a credible challenge for the Cup in Auckland in 2003.
Funding the syndicate was Peter Harrison, a former accountant for Ford who collected over £300m through the sale of his company, Chernikeef Networks, when he sold it to Dimension Data in 2000. Not bad for a company that he took control of in 1979 for just £133,000. Chernikeeff Networks was, at the time, the UK’s largest privately owned network integration services company and by linking up with California-based Cisco Systems in 1987, was one of the earliest computer services groups in Britain to become involved in the internet revolution.
Having made his money, Peter set about ploughing it into grand prix and grass roots sailing by his involvement with the America’s Cup, a string of 50+ footers all emblazoned with Chernikeef and his mega-maxi Sojana but also feeding a huge sum of money through his Peter Harrison Foundation.
Peter’s long held belief was in opportunities for self-development through participation in sport – particularly the socially disadvantaged and disabled and for the care of children with special needs. He placed education high on his grant list with Harrison Scholarships and support of Reigate Grammar School (and Reigate Rugby Club!). In short, he was a thoroughly decent man and he was rightly knighted and awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Nation in 2013.
So it’s with great sadness to hear of Sir Peter’s passing but what I found so touching was to see on Facebook today that the members of the GBR Challenge team – the likes of my old pal Andy Green, Simon Fry, Ian Walker and others – adjusting their profile pictures to replace them with their official shots from the GBR Challenge in 2003. My goodness time has been kind to some…
But the messages of thanks to Peter were genuinely grateful for the opportunities that he provided to that outstanding group of sailors who had every ounce of talent to win the Cup – I still maintain that Walker had the intensity and sheer intellect required to win and that Green was the best, most aggressive, nailed-on starter I’ve ever seen in the Cup. In Adrian Stead, someone who I grew up with through the dinghy Youth Squads, they had possibly the most gifted natural sailor and high-technician that the UK has ever produced – and he’s still winning everything on the big boat scene today. Ado is a sailing genius, believe me.
The GBR challenge very nearly had it all but fought with design and came up against the might of Team New Zealand disguised as Alinghi at the very peak of their Cup powers. But in their super boss, Harrison, they had someone who was larger than life, generous to a fault and down-to-earth who took their ultimate defeat with enormous good grace. That said a lot about him – magnanimous in defeat and reflective on a thoroughly enjoyable campaign. He never lost his enthusiasm for the sport as so many do when the Cup bites.
Sir Peter’s legacy will live on with his Foundation through his family, Nick and Joules, who the sailing community send their deepest condolences to and I’d like to think that Peter lived the dream that most of us have – make a ton of money and then plough it squarely into our passion whilst doing everything to help those less fortunate or disadvantaged.
There are so many people who his largesse benefitted and his spirit of kindness and generosity will be greatly missed by all. They don’t make them like Peter Harrison anymore. He will be remembered fondly and I shall always think of him as I pass those IACCs on my way down river. How Peter would have loved to see a Cup in Cowes.
What a man. What a life. Sail on Sir Peter. Sail on…