22 October 2018

Canberra loses a true local hero

| Tim Gavel
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Champion sailor Matt Owen passed away last weekend. Photos: Supplied.

This is one of the hardest, but in many respects, probably the easiest columns I have ever had to write.

Matty Owen seemed to be omnipresent in my life, and I’m sure, in the lives of many over the past 15 or so years.

Matty or “Pillow” as he was known in the Canberra sailing community or “Moose” among the yachting fraternity in Victoria, succumbed to gallbladder cancer almost four years after being diagnosed in 2014.

He was given a year to live at the time, but it would appear his life had been prolonged by a drug developed to fight breast cancer as well as his glass-half-full approach to everything.

In fact, he was possibly the most positive person I have ever met.

Talking to him on the phone or down at the yacht club over the past years, you have no idea that he was battling this life-threatening disease. In mid-August this year he competed in the Hamilton race week. He will go down as one of the most successful skippers in the history of the race week.

His record in sailing is impressive. With his great mate Andrew Reed, he won the Elliott 7s national titles five times, the Flying 15s three times, and they were fifth at two World Championships in Hong Kong and New Zealand.

But it was his work behind the scenes that endeared him to many. His enthusiasm for the sport reinvigorated the sailing school. His drive ensured the success of the Buoyed Up Program and ensured the club set up facilities to assist the disabled.

He took particular pleasure in witnessing the success of the Buoyed Up Program, with its aim being to take vulnerable at-risk children out onto the water. They were out of their comfort zone and needed to work with each other to make sure the boat was operating as efficiently as it should.

Speaking to some of the kids involved, not only did it build confidence and self-esteem, for many it was a life changing experience.

He was a pro-sailor willing to teach others. This is a theme that resonates through many conversations I have had within the sailing community over the past fortnight.

Andrew Reed told me about his impressions of Matty when they first met; “He was this long-haired, fit pro-sailor. He was one of the people you looked up to in sailing.”

And he was very persuasive. He convinced me many years ago to buy an old defence force Tasar, virtually re-built it through a sailing club program, then learnt to sail it through one of the Yacht Club’s competitions. This was no mean feat given that I really didn’t know how to sail and had even less ability when it came to re-building a boat. But in the end, I did it, although some will challenge the notion that I am yet to learn how to sail, including Matty, particularly as I managed to crash into his Elliott going around a mark.

That is my personal experience with Matty, but similar encounters can be heard consistently echoed through the club.

We spoke about many things, but mainly about our families, as he always included his wife Karen and son Will in our conversations. Other topics including the fate of the Brumbies in Super Rugby, resurrecting the media sailing challenge and the vagaries of sailing on Lake Burley Griffin.

As I said at the start, it was one of hardest columns I have ever had to write because of the influence he has had on my life in our always too-brief encounters, but in contrast it is easy to put words together because he did so much in his life and had an incredibly positive influence on so many.

Vale, Matty.

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