I was born in Mount Isa, a small outback mining town populated largely by Finnish immigrants who migrated to Australia after World War II. My mother was the daughter of a Finnish carpenter and my father was an electrical engineer. When I was still very young, we moved to Townsville on the Queensland coast. It was there, on the edge of the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, that I spent the first fifteen years of my life. I took it for granted back then, but now I realize that I grew up in paradise: a pristine rain-forest area near the Tropic of Capricorn with white-sand beaches, clear coastal waters and year-round warm weather.
The Great Barrier Reef extends more than 1,200 miles and includes some 700 islands and nearly 3,000 individual coral reefs. It abounds in wildlife: dolphins, whales, sharks, green turtles, more than 1,500 species of fish, 4,000 varieties of mollusks and 200 bird species. It is a very popular destination for tourists, especially scuba divers. In fact, there are nearly two million visitors to the Great Barrier Reef every year. For me, it was a childhood playground: I grew up swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating there.
Not that it was without perils. One I remember well was a jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war that occasionally washes up on beaches in the States. In Australia we call it a “blue bottle” because of its color. It has tentacles over thirty feet long and a toxic sting. One day I was spearfishing with my sister, Janis, off Magnetic Island, where my parents owned a small house. Janis was diving at a depth of about twenty feet when one of these blue bottles wrapped its tentacles around her. I had just pulled myself into the boat when she broke the surface in obvious pain. I dived back in the water and dragged her to the boat, and seeing the welts on her legs I rowed back to the beach as fast as I could. My parents then rushed her to the local clinic where she was treated and, thankfully, made a quick recovery.
Another day my father announced to Janis and me that he was going to help us build a boat. For the next several months, our backyard looked like a construction site as we studied our plans, laid out materials and assembled our small sailboat, Peter Pan. We immersed ourselves in the engineering: crafting the ribs, overlaying the planks, making it watertight and, finally, varnishing it. Janis and I joined a sailing club where we learned how to read the wind and race the tiny boat. Little did I suspect that many years later I would help build a boat that was recognized for “highest technical achievement in a motor yacht” by ShowBoats International magazine.
My father taught me well.
Life for me as a kid was all about having fun. If I wasn’t spearfishing, then I was on horseback, galloping along the Queensland beaches with one of my black Labs running alongside. I would ride all day long, sometimes covering twenty miles from sunup to sundown. Occasionally I would camp out and fall asleep under the stars just waiting for the next day’s adventure. My attention was on everything but golf, as the water truly captivated my imagination. In fact, it wasn’t until my family moved from Townsville to Brisbane that I decided to give golf a try. There, it didn’t take long for me to be completely consumed by the game. In fact, I was hooked after my first few swings, and from that point forward I would spend every free moment practicing. And my effort paid dividends: After just eighteen months, I was playing off scratch!