Ian Kiernan, Clean Up Australia founder and yachtsman, dies aged 78

By Michael Troy

Ian Kiernan, a true Sydney identity who grew to international fame as an environmental campaigner and yachtsman, has died aged 78.

He was diagnosed with cancer in late July. Kiernan is survived by his wife Judy and two daughters Sally and Pip.

Born October 4, 1940, Kiernan grew up in Sydney’s harbour and beaches where he learnt to swim, fish and sail.

Educated at Scots College and The Armidale School in northern New South Wales, he went on to work in the construction industry, specialising in historic restorations.

But it was his love of sailing that led to his remarkable career as a global environmentalist founding the “Clean Up Australia” and “Clean Up the World” campaigns.

In 1986, the then-44-year-old represented Australia in the BOC solo around-the-world yacht race. He finished sixth out of a fleet of 25 yachts from 11 nations, but set an Australian record for a solo circumnavigation of the world.

During nine months at sea, Kiernan was appalled by the amount of rubbish he had seen choking the world’s oceans.


His environmental campaigning efforts were recognised with numerous Australian and international awards, most notably:

  • 1991 Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM)
  • 1993 United Nations Global 500 award for the Environment
  • 1994 Australian of the Year.
  • 1995 Officer of the Order of Australia (OAM)
  • 1999 World Citizenship Award
  • 2001 Centenary Medal

On his return, he set out to do something about it, and with the support of his friends organised a community event, “Clean Up Sydney Harbour” on Sunday January 8, 1989.

It was a huge success, with more than 40,000 volunteers lending a hand.

The next year, the first Clean Up Australia Day took place, with more than 300,000 Australians volunteering their time to pick up rubbish and help make a difference to the health of their local environment.

In 1991, Kiernan started Clean Up the World. In its first year, more than 30 million people from 80 countries participated.

It has since grown to involve over 40 million people from 120 countries.

Ian Kiernan and former ACT environment minister Simon Corbell with a group of students ready to clean up. Photo: Ian Kiernan and former ACT environment minister Simon Corbell with a group of students ready to clean up. (Kathleen Dyett)

A life at sea

A passionate yachtsman all his life, Kiernan competed in more than a dozen Sydney-to-Hobart races, including the ill-fated 1998 race in which six sailors died.

He also represented Australia at the Admiral’s, Southern Cross, Dunhill, Clipper, Kenwood and Trans Pacific Cup.

While he sailed on many yachts, one has become synonymous with his name, MARIS. He bought the classic timber yawl in 1971 from famous marine artist Jack Earle on condition he teach him how to cross oceans on it.

Kiernan said on reflection: “He certainly did that. I became a celestial navigator; Jack taught me to practise with my sextant bringing the sun down in a dish of oil.”

For nearly 40 years, Kiernan and MARIS were inseparable as he cruised around the Pacific Ocean, competed in Sydney-to-Hobarts, Lord Howe Island races and the single-handed Trans-Tasman race in 1978.

In that event he won Division 1, sailing through Cyclone Hal which sank three other craft.

Kiernan’s legacy on Sydney Harbour hit headwinds last year though when the NSW Government cited two drink-driving convictions as the reason for not naming a Sydney ferry after him — favouring Ferry McFerryface and later May Gibbs.

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