Goodness. Gracious. A profile of the Doyen, Lou Abrahams. (Pt II.)
by John Curnow on 28 Feb 2014
In Part One, we got to see how Lou Abrahams made a start in boating and then racing, becoming one of the sport’s most iconic figures in the process. He joined a very select group of souls as a result of his long association with another Australian legend, the Sydney Hobart Race. As that particular event looms ever closer on the calendar once more, we pick up the story with Lou and that ill-fated year of 1998.
Lou Abrahams - Sydney Hobart Yacht Race Crosbie Lorimer http://www.crosbielorimer.com
This experience curve has also provided Lou with proof for one of his theories, ‘The 40 footer goes over waves in Bass Strait differently. You can get in between the big ones and you are not going too fast. You can slow them down.’ In his time, Lou has seen many a race to Eden. ‘In 1998, it was sad to see sailors perish and also to have Winston Churchill go. We completed the ‘98 through prudence and we stopped racing to go in to survival mode. It was going to be a milestone race because of what it was, so I said ‘Let's try and finish it!!!’
‘It almost frightened me that we lost a man and I am so proud that we got Garry (Schipper) back. We went back on the course we had come from and he was there, in the pitch-black night. Col Anderson put the boat right up next to him. I am sure he was the best man for the job, as he brings his own boat up to its swing mooring with no auxiliary power.’
As part of that testament to seamanship and considered approach to boat preparation, Lou insists on extra halyard length, which means it can reach the water. ‘We could not have got Skip on otherwise. Saved his life as we could then winch him on.’ You see, Garry was not a slight man, which is why Lou smiled when he said, ‘…getting bulky Skippy (140kg+) on board was a major feat in itself.’ Years later, Garry would finally succumb to his battle with cancer, but in the intervening time he put to use his brush with death and became a much loved speaker about safety at sea.
At the time, they all thought it was ‘The longest 20 minutes of their lives.’ Alas, from MOB button being pushed by Lou, to then being cancelled, only 10 minutes had elapsed. ‘It was great work by the crew and we were very proud, but I did have an empty feeling afterwards. It was a precise, considered, calm and methodical display by the terrific sailors we had on board. We knew where the gear was and it was reasonably organised. Safety gear has certainly come up a couple of rungs after that’, said Lou.
One of the other souls that has been part of it all for such along time is Rowan Simpson, who would have to be the best Aide de Camp, ever. ‘Back in the early 80’s, Lou had Hood sails on board and I had a connection with Norths. Lou asked me when I was coming for a sail and I put it off for four weeks. After I finally went out, Lou asked me what I was doing next month and added, ‘come to the Kenwood Cup with me.’ And again we find out another surprise, for Lou was part of the board that incepted the Clipper Cup, as a way to get crews from the USA, Japan and Australia to compete with each other.
As Rowan says, ‘Yes Lou is fiercely determined, iron willed, but also iron stomached, for in his latter years, Lou did all of the navigation from down below!’
Of all his many and varied international exploits and successes, Lou comments ‘It was a lot of good racing. Sailing over in the UK and English Channel was different with the tides and putting the anchor out to stop going backwards. They’re great sailors and it was a whole new navigation exercise, too.’
Of the seven Fastnet races he competed in, Lou said, ‘It’s not quite as tough as the Hobart, as half of it is OK – if you beat there, you run back, but it does fog up a lot. He was the Australian Team Manager during the tragic 79 Fastnet, which he says was ‘pretty exciting’. Syd Fischer was very strong willed, but we got on well after a rocky start. It was good racing with Police Car and Sir Jim Hardy on Impetuous there, too. Exciting times, but you wondered why you did it when you saw the bills!!!’
So what does a man who’s seen the Gentleman's era of sailing, with roast meals cooked under any conditions, cravats, past oilskins, through greasy wool jumpers and PVC wet weather gear and on to polar fleece breathable fabrics, as the transition from inside to outside took place, have to say of it all. ‘I enjoyed the early era with the camaraderie, but those canvas slicks (oilskins) let as much water in as kept out.
Koomaloo, the original Ragamuffin and Salacia II, these were magnificent vessels. IOR has gone, IMS arrived and did the same, but cordage and sails have had a major difference in the intervening time, with no fraying of wire and lighter, stronger better, sails. Keeping up with the technology was a bit of a problem’, said Lou paying reference to how he got a bit disillusioned with IRC and chose to get out of the arms race with his decision to move in to One Design. ‘Cheapest sailing I've ever done. Since 2000, we’ve had two thirds overall on handicap, which is pretty good value.’
Out of it all then, what does he say of boating and sailing. ‘It’s relaxing and I like doing the long voyages, where you have a real sense of being away and in charge of my own destiny. Vittoria was great. We’d cruise the Pacific, do races in Noumea and we’d have the family on board - lots of fun and a good era.’ Somehow he even seems to take it in his stride when Rowan mentions the picture of Lou in a drysuit on the floor of Ultimate Challenge, which he wore for the whole of a Fastnet race that included his 60th birthday.
Today the boats have changed markedly and there are more pro sailors than ever before. ‘We were happy to be full time amateurs and pretty chuffed about that. It’s a bit hard to replicate it today, but back then was possible. Rowan says of his fellow crew members, ‘We’ve been sailing so long together because we have an owner who’s one of the crew, got an immaculately prepared boat, and we want to do it for Lou.’ Indeed there are lot of people who measure themselves by how near they are to Lou and Challenge, even if they are nine feet longer.
‘We go around track correctly and consider our options, said the wily Lou. At 85 he tends to pick and choose his sailing days based on the weather, which is more than fair enough. ‘It gets a bit harder these days, but its never been enough to turn me off it. I’ll go for a yacht anytime.’
These days, Lou is very much dedicated to doing what he can to ensure the Off The Beach facility at SYC, appropriately named the Lou Abrahams Centre, is getting as many kids out on the water as can be achieved. ‘The young ones have too many choices, too many sports to do and so commitment is hard for them. We have more junior girls than boys currently, which is great. There is not as much time as when I was young, first getting about in dinghies. Boating is getting expensive, but the cadet fleets opens it all up for those who need it to be affordable. Club boats to keep more people actively sailing.
'The Olympics are absolutely great, but that is more than one in 100, so we need to offer other sailing opportunities - the promotion of sailing for sailing's sake, if you will. There’s got to be some competition, but at the intermediate level.
This is how we’ll keep people in it, ensure it stays vibrant and a supply of people ready to crew.’ It certainly makes sense to have figureheads like Lou there for everyone to come in behind him and do what they want to do with the sport, and after 40 years I still think he is the greatest and most considerate gentleman on the water. I very much appreciate all that he has done.
Finally then, in 2002 Lou was presented with the Commonwealth Medal for Services to Sailing. He completed his last Sydney Hobart Race back in 2006, the year he received a Services to Yachting award. Whilst the octogenarian’s body may now be frailer than he’d like, his mind is not and his sense of humour is as omnipresent as ever. Lou was always known as a quietly spoken man and this is even more so today, but as a measure of the level of goodness contained in him, people have flocked to him over the years. His crew has stayed together for a long time too (they reckon they’re up for long service leave) and everyone is heard to say, ‘Ah yes, Lou. What a guy!’ So cheers to you, Lou. May your good and gracious nature keep us all inspired.