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Robert Oatley (1934-2022): St George’s firefighter and sailor

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Robert "Bobby" Oatley, a former firefighter with the St George's Fire Brigade, sailor and head of the Godet & Young hardware store (Photograph supplied)

A veteran St George’s firefighter nicknamed “Captain Smokes” also ran a popular East End hardware store and sailed several times in the Newport Bermuda Race.

His family said Robert Oatley, who died earlier this month, was “a St George’s man through and through”.

Son Michael added: “Bobby’s work life can be summed up in the name of one shop — Godet & Young Ltd — where he worked for 60 years.”

With his wife, Verna, Mr Oatley kept the hardware store open late before hurricanes as a service to East End residents — and opened it again as soon as the roads were declared safe.

Mr Oatley also served in the St George's Fire Brigade with his brother, Bernard.

He stepped down as lieutenant of the service in 1995 after more than 40 years.

His devotion to duty was acknowledged in the House of Assembly that November.

Mr Oatley, then 61, told the Mid-Ocean News he had not retired earlier because he was one of just two remaining staff able to drive the truck.

Mr Oatley added: “I enjoyed it. It was always interesting — the fires, the comradeship with the men was fantastic at all times.

“Obviously when you run into buildings there is a bit of danger, but reinforced and constant training provide you with a degree of safety.”

As a young firefighter during the massive 1958 blaze at the Bermudiana Hotel in Hamilton, he drove the last old-fashioned pump truck from St George’s.

He was one of the first on the scene in 1962 when an aircraft crashed on to the Astor estate at Ferry Reach just after take-off, killing all four people on board.

Mr Oatley was also a firefighter during the riots of 1977, which he said was “the only time that I really thought people's lives were in danger”.

He added: “We were in a situation where we were fighting a fire and there were about 200 people coming out at us and we had to pick up everything and get out quickly.”

At the helm (Photograph supplied)

Mr Oatley began work aged 15 as an apprentice electrician.

He spent four years as a merchant navy seaman and then worked as a dispatcher at the Esso Tank Farm in Ferry Reach until he started at Godet & Young in 1961.

Mr Oatley was managing director for 40 years and continued to work at the store until January 2020.

The company bought a wharf near Tiger Bay to use as a warehouse and renamed it Captain Smokes Marina to commemorate his nickname.

Mr Oatley often made special visits to the shop after hours to help a customer in need.

Robert Oatley at Godet & Young (Photograph supplied)

His sea career began alongside his grandfather, Charlie Christianson, who ran a ferry from St George’s to St David’s.

He racked up about 100,000 nautical miles in a lifetime of sea voyages as well as dinghy and yacht racing.

He earned the sailor’s title of “shellback” — one who has crossed the equator — while serving on a research vessel aged 17.

Mr Oatley started Bermuda dinghy racing in 1946 as bailer on the Victory I and ended 40 years later on the Victory III.

The Victory name is a longstanding St George’s dinghy-racing tradition.

Mr Oatley sailed in the Victory II for her entire life and skippered the vessel for ten years.

He was a repeat winner of the Jubilee and Coronation cups in dinghy racing and led plans to modernise the construction of the boats.

On the Victory II: Robert Oatley and team (Picture supplied)

He also raced Snipe class boats and represented Bermuda in the 1959 Pan Am Games in Chicago and the 1962 Western Hemisphere Championships in Argentina.

Mr Oatley’s Snipe career included a Bermuda Championship.

His ocean yacht-racing career spanned 40 years, from the 1964 Newport Bermuda to his final Bermuda race in 2004.

Mr Oatley competed in more than 15 Newport Bermuda races as watch captain or navigator.

Yacht racing (Photograph supplied)

He took part in the 1994 Bermuda Race in the double-handed category — and competed in ten other races to the island as navigator and skipper — from Marion, Massachusetts; Annapolis, Maryland; and in the TransAt Daytona-to-Bermuda race.

Mr Oatley enjoyed delivering yachts and motor boats around the Atlantic.

He also raced and his own 30ft vessel, Thistle Dew.

A keen farmer, Mr Oatley supplied Somers Supermarket in St George’s with bananas until recently.

Robert Oatley with a crop of bananas from his farmland near Ferry Reach, St George’s (Photograph supplied)

He also worked as a volunteer ambulance driver and was commodore of the St George’s Dinghy & Sports Club.

Mr Oatley is survived by his wife, Verna, stepmother Winnie, sisters Joan Blee and Virginia Atkinson, brother Bernard, son Michael and daughters Leatrice Oatley, Gina Bradshaw and Mandy Smith.

Robert John Oatley, a sailor, fireman and East End shopkeeper, was born on May 11, 1934. He died on January 19, 2022, aged 87.

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Published January 29, 2022 at 7:59 am (Updated January 29, 2022 at 7:59 am)

Robert Oatley (1934-2022): St George’s firefighter and sailor

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