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No underdog, Rudiger was atop his game

The champion navigator, who died at 53, leaves a life of acclaim on the professional sailing circuit

The champion navigator, who died at 53, leaves a life of acclaim on the professional sailing circuit

Mark Rudiger, one of modern sailboat racing’s best loved and most highly regarded navigators, died recently from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 53.

“Rudi,” as he was known, a champion ’round-the-world racer and navigator on 14 Transpacs, battled blood cancer since 2004. He returned to racing after chemotherapy, navigating for the Ericsson team in the last two legs of the 2005-’06 Volvo Ocean Race, and in the 2007 Transpac and 2008 Vallarta races on Brack Duker’s Santa Cruz 70, Holua. He had been undergoing alternative treatments at home in Auburn, Calif., after a sudden relapse.

Rudiger died July 17 at Kaiser Hospital in Roseville, Calif., as e-mails from sailors around the world poured in with words of encouragement for him; his wife, Lori; and young son Zayle. “We will go on and live the most important lesson out of this,” said Lori Rudiger, in a memorial service webcast from the San Francisco Yacht Club. “Do not take any moment for granted.”

In 35 years of professional sailing, Rudiger raced in three Volvo (and Whitbread) ’round-the-world races, winning with skipper Paul Cayard in 1997-’98 and taking second as co-skipper on Assa Abloy with Neal McDonald in 2001-’02. He was a masterful Transpac navigator, finishing first across the line in five of the 14 races from Los Angeles to Honolulu that he crewed in. He also was navigator on first-to-finish entries in two Sydney Hobart races and the 2007 Daimler-Chrysler Transatlantic race.

“Mark was just so damn good at it,” says longtime friend, oftentimes crewmate and sometime rival Jeff Madrigali, of Langley, Wash.

Friends since their late teens, the pair skied, mountain-biked and rode motorcycles together as young men, but mostly they sailed with each other. They met while Madrigali was working at a chandlery, Rudiger at a marine electronics shop. They started crewing Moore 24s together and learned ocean racing on Rolf and Judy Croker’s Santa Cruz 50, Hana Ho, on two Transpacs and races to Mexico. They graduated to the “big leagues” as crewmembers aboard John Delaura’s Santa Cruz 70, Silver Bullet; raced on Hal Ward’s Cheval, the first “turbo sled”; and crewed for Larry Ellison on his maxiboat, Sayonara.

“Mark was such a talent at the navigation role,” writes Madrigali in an e-mail from England, where he was competing in Cowes Race Week. That wasn’t Rudiger’s only strength. He also was a marine electronics expert and “had a great feel for the weather and could read all of this information better than anyone I have ever sailed with,” Madrigali says. “But he could also drive a boat real fast, trim the sails real well.” He was the all-around racer/sailor.

Tall and rangy, Rudi was imposing from afar but quiet, thoughtful and soft-spoken up close, says Stan Honey, of Palo Alto, Calif., another of sailing’s great navigators. Following the example of legendary navigator Ben Mitchell Sr., Rudiger was generous in sharing what he knew with others. “Mark and I often would get together after races and talk tactics and strategy,” Honey says. “Mark was a big help to me when I did the Volvo [on ABN Amro One in 2005-’06]. He had all the time in the world for me, and we won it.”

Today’s navigators aren’t just human chart plotters. They gather weather data, analyze it, run computer programs to pick routes, and they know how to use and fix electronics. “You’ve got to work really hard,” Honey says “Preparation is really the biggest thing.” Rudiger put in the time.

Jim Swartz of Park City, Utah, owner of Moneypenny, a Swan 601 that Rudiger crewed on until his relapse, remembers his navigator chartering a plane in Malta to take wind readings before a race and taking a boat out before a race off Sardinia and diving on the rocks at all the turns. “He wouldn’t trust the charts,” Swartz says. “He wanted to see for himself how close we could cut the corners.”

Rudiger was quiet but effective in dealing with people, and “very, very empathetic,” Swartz says. He could integrate difficult personalities into the team. “He had a way with people.”

Cayard, skipper of EF Language, winner of the 1997-’98 Whitbread, says much of what he knows about ocean racing he learned from Rudiger on that 27,000-mile race. Rudiger was a veteran ocean racer, Cayard a champion around-the-buoys sailor, but both were novices at racing around the world. Rudiger joined the team just three weeks before the start. “He really had to dive in headfirst into the job,” Cayard says.

He credits Rudiger with saving the life of EF Language’s bowman, Curtis Blewett, when the boat broached as

Blewitt unsnarled a wrapped spinnaker at the top of the mast. A crewmember, in the heat of the moment, cut the halyard Blewett was attached to instead of the one attached to the spinnaker, leaving Blewett hanging on for dear life. Realizing Blewett probably had clipped the spinnaker halyard to his belt, Rudiger wrapped that halyard around a winch, giving the bowman a new lifeline.

“He was a good partner and a good teacher,” Cayard says.