Ian Kiernan, Aussie Legend And Clean Up Australia Founder, Has Died Aged 78

A passionate environmentalist, the man known as Australia's "king of the clean up" co-founded a global movement and became Australian of the Year.

Ian Kiernan AO has died after his battle with cancer.

Known for his trademark moustache and Akubra hat, the 78-year-old's passion for the Clean Up Australia cause he co-founded inspired millions around the world to clean up rubbish.

But it's a campaign that may never have come about if it wasn't for his first passion: sailing.

Photo: AAP

For 35 years, his day job was as a builder, specialising in historic restorations. But yachting was his true calling, and he long harboured a dream to compete in a solo around the world competition.

He fulfilled that ambition in 1987, representing Australia in the BOC Challenge, sailing solo from the US east coast to Cape Town, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and back to North America.

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Passing through the Caribbean, he was shocked to find the Sargasso Sea teeming with rubbish, and decided to do something about it.

After his return, he got together with friends and organised a community event he dubbed "Clean up Sydney Harbour".

Kiernan thought he'd have just a couple of thousand people take part. But it was a phenomenal success, with 40,000 people pulling 5,000 tonnes of rubbish from the water and shore.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and Ian Kiernan Chairman Photo: AAP Image

The first Clean Up Australia Day took place the following year, and attracted 300,000 people.

A movement was born. There were jingles, TV ads, and Kiernan embarked on a media blitz, invigorating the nation, and inspiring a new national consciousness about rubbish and the environment.

In 1991, it went global. Eighty countries and an estimated 30 million people participated in the first worldwide event, which was sponsored by the United Nations. The number of countries involved now numbers 130.

On Wednesday, Clean Up released a statement, farewelling their "beloved founder".

Kiernan said his drive to expand the event was mainly motivated by a fear of failure.

He was honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1991. Four years later, the honour was upgraded to an AO (Officer of the Order).

READ MOREThat Time Ian Kiernan Tackled A Man To Save Prince Charles

But it was his Australian of the Year award in 1994 which grabbed headlines worldwide.

It was Australia Day, and Kiernan was seated on a podium at Sydney's Darling Harbour, as Prince Charles took to the stage to speak.

A young student, David Kang, who was upset about the plight of Cambodian refugees, rushed the stage and fired two shots from a starting pistol.

Ian Kiernan and Prince Charles during a reception at Government House in March 2005. Photo: Getty

Kiernan rushed to the Prince's aid. Together with the NSW Premier John Fahey and other dignitaries, he pounced on Kang, and subdued him.

"As I took him down, I saw that he'd dropped the firearm, so I thought 'well that's gone, but he might have a knife', so I cranked up the headlock a bit more",  Kiernan later told Network Ten .

"I didn't think about it. I just knew we had to get this bloke, and we got him."

He described the award as "an incredible honour".

But Kiernan's public service was far from done.

He became an ambassador for the Great Barrier Reef, and patron of the Central Coast Mariners Football Club, Men's Shed, and Mosman Rowers, among many other community organisations.

And, he kept sailing. His beautiful 50-year-old Huon Pine yacht was named Maris, and Kiernan pushed it hard.

He competed in 14 Sydney-to-Hobart races, and faced 770-footwaves in the Southern Ocean.

"I'm an atheist", he told ABC radio in 2010, "but I have certainly had a good look down the jaws of death a few times".

Kiernan appeared repeatedly in the Readers Digest top 10 list of most-trusted Australians.

He is survived by his wife Judy and two daughters, Sally and Pip.

His legacy is not so much what he leaves behind. Rather, it's the millions upon millions of tonnes of choking rubbish which was removed at his behest.

Kiernan was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in July 2018, according to Clean Up and he died at his Sydney home.

His death was announced on Wednesday.