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Vale Lou Abrahams - A profile of the Doyen, (Pt I.)

by John Curnow on 1 Mar 2014
Lou Abrahams in 2007 © Rolex / Carlo Borlenghi
Earlier today, Australian time, the great Doyen of Victorian sailing passed away. Lou Abrahams, the softly spoken ocean racing legend will always be remembered for not only his contributions to the sailing, but dedication to making yachting a more female friendly sport.

In his later years, Lou was supremely dedicated to ensuring the future crop of sailors had the very passion he will always be remembered for. Vale, Lou. There's a special race being held in heaven for him tonight

Below is part one of a special profile John Curnow did on Lou some 16 months ago. We will publish part II shortly.

It's been a long time since the expression of surprise, ‘Goodness, gracious me!’ has passed from common vernacular. It does seem imminently suitable in reference to one, Lou Abrahams however, for he is full of goodness and very gracious. Indeed, sitting down with the man for a long chat is not only a privilege, but you also get to find out many things, ironically, some of which were a complete surprise.

One of these was that well before Lou got into boats, he held the Australian land speed record! Yes. Back in the 50’s when the Australian Grand Prix was running around Albert Park Lake the other way, Lou was heavily involved with Formula One and motorsport in general.

He designed and built his own car, including the engine, which is not altogether dissimilar from another Australian legend, Sir Jack Brabham. Lou then went out and set a then very amazing record of 159mph or 256kph at Coonabarabran and please remember, that this is the best part of 60 years ago! ‘It ran on straight ethanol and was pretty good, but a bit out of control. Fast in a straight line, you know, however you could not stop it. You had to get it into a skid to come to a complete stop, so it was a handful’, said Lou in his oh so customary method of understatement.

Not happy to have something that unsafe, Lou took a trip out to Point Cook air force base and saw the brakes on the Winjeels, which then got applied over to his car, the Tornado. What is also evident with all of this is Lou’s determination and engineering prowess, both of which would serve him well when he got into all things nautical, but that would not be until the 60’s, as it turns out.

Last year, Bruce Legg pointed out another surprising element in Lou’s esteemed maritime career. Lou’s first boat was not actually a yacht, but rather a powerboat that he based at Queenscliff and used for cruising around Bass Strait and its islands, with his wife Joan and their family. ‘I had been doing some sailing in Melbourne and went to Sydney to buy a cruising yacht, but could not find something I liked. There was this ex-US wartime vessel that had never been in the water and did not even have engines then.

As luck would have it, later I was buying a forklift truck at a disposal auction, when I peeked inside a crate labelled parts and bought it. It turned out to be a pair of ex-Army tank diesel engines and so voila, instant power. Ask and ye shall receive. We ended up having a lot of fun with that boat.’

The 60’s, 1963 to be exact, would also mark the beginning of Lou’s long association with one of the world’s greatest events, the Sydney Hobart Race. It was Arthur Warner who took the then 36-year-old Lou on the famed Winston Churchill as his bowman. Again, his determination has an exclamation mark after it, for he would complete 44 consecutive races before retiring from ocean racing in 2006.

In AFL terms, that would put you in there with the likes of the great Michael Tuck at 426 games and the late Jim Stynes at 244 consecutive appearances on the field. Coincidentally, Tuck started playing for Hawthorn in 1972, which is the same era that Lou was becoming known as the Doyen.

Now I was just a little tacker when I first met him in the early 70’s. Lou was incredibly gracious when my mother managed to kiss the bow of our 14 tonne cruising yacht into the side of Vittoria, whilst manoeuvring at the Sandringham Yacht Club (SYC) on the shores of Melbourne's Port Phillip. Mercifully, there was no damage and thank God it was just a kiss really, for our vessel had a two blade folding prop that actually made going astern look more like a stationary stern and as for walking the transom across, well that was about the pace it did under full noise.

Lou was very gracious when my mother went to apologise and this was not out of character. Rather it was very much in keeping with the man’s beliefs, for it was Lou’s vote as the then Commodore that first allowed Ladies in to the Members’ Bar at SYC. ‘They used to be in a separate room outside and order drinks through a hole in the wall. It was very controversial at the time to allow women into the bar proper, and there were a lot of people against it.

'Altering the by-laws. The very first thing to occur after we altered the by-laws was that a couple of ladies sat in the corner where these old guys used to always be and even put their handbags on the bar. What a stir it caused’, said Lou with a wonderful wry smile. Interestingly, the 101-year-old club will have its first female Commodore in the form of the delightful Kate Mitchell in the next couple of years. As Lou says, ‘She’s very good.’

So the impending 68th edition of the Sydney Hobart Race has had crews preparing in the freezing cold or under the tropical sun and the qualifying passages are just about upon us, too. As an example of how far Lou’s goodness extends, when I mentioned to another person quite synonymous with the great race, Richard Bennett, that I was preparing this piece on Lou, he very quickly supplied his wonderful shots that you see here.

Lou was the sixth man to join the 40+ club and it was a little surprising to learn that there are now currently just the 10 souls in it, with the late John Bennet to being the only one to be no longer plying the seas. At the time, Lou was the only Victorian in this most illustrious of clubs and has since been joined by Bernie Case. Shortly, New South Welshmen, David Kellett and Lindsay May will make it an even dozen.

When the latter gets there, he will also be the only one to have held the Tattersall’s Cups aloft three times and that will make him one of the most special members amongst this already über-exclusive club. ‘It was a good thing to do and certainly a tick in the box’, said Lou of the milestone. ‘The hardest part was stopping. I really enjoyed getting ready, the prestart and for that matter, the whole thing, then there you are, sitting at home. TV just isn't the same and the coverage doesn’t talk about all the boats.’

After his first run South on Winston Churchill, Lou moved all the way to the back of the boat when he purchased Odin. ‘It was too wet for me and it was a long way out that bowsprit. Time to head aft’, commented Lou. The Halvorsen penned, canoe stern vessel was a sister ship to three-time winner, Freya, but built in steel. ‘She was not too sophisticated, but a good sea boat. We broke the mast off Tasman Island that year, unfortunately in a good position to win at the time’, said Lou.

After five years, Odin gave way to the Sparkman and Stephens 42, Vittoria, which certainly has a soft spot with Lou, as he remembers all her wonderful timber. She was cold moulded, crosscut Oregon with a dinyl skin and had a fit out to match. ‘I think she is still in Sydney. That IOR era provided magnificent boats and you could look at them as art in pen.’

Vittoria was used a lot as part of the Victorian Southern Cross team and was certainly a reason for Lou getting behind team based events as the years went on. Challenge, nee C2 or the Big Red Boat, was next. The S&S 45 was campaigned from 79 to 83, and provided his first Hobart win in that last year. Challenge III was from 84 to 87, with the carbon fibre Frers going off to do the Admiral's Cup and also part of the 1986 winning Kenwood Cup team in Hawaii.

Ultimate Challenge, which proved to be far from true, took Lou and the crew from then until 1995, with many an overseas trip and a close second in the 1991 Hobart, included. Importantly, the Ed Dubois IOR one tonner of Carbon/Kevlar provided Lou’s second win in 1989. Another Challenge, the Sydney 38 came next, and then just good old Challenge would follow shortly after, as he committed fully to One Design. They have won that particular title many a time now and indeed are the reigning champions, as well.

Lou commented, ‘In the Ultimate Challenge era, the one tonners were dominating the scene. To me, the win in 1989 was the most exciting. We had a Farr one tonner in Sagacious, right there with us. It was unbelievable. You came on watch looked under the boom and you could see their instrument lights. We pushed each other on, which made it good fun. They were great campaigners and that made it even better. I see it as one of my pinnacles. My goal was to win a Sydney Hobart and the second win was better, as we 'won' it. The Big Red Boat got suitable conditions and had it won after reaching across Bass Strait, whereas we were spent after 89. We were pushing it to its limits and I came on deck and said to the crew, ‘Before you win, you've got to finish.’ Once again we see Lou’s experience, engineering prowess and general seamanship coming to the fore. A couple of years later and in a similarly tight race to Hobart, Sagacious actually lost the top of their rig.

Now it is not all over yet. We have many more items to cover, as you would expect with a man of Lou’s calibre. Alas, that will all have to wait for Part Two, which begins with that ‘wonderful’ year of 1998 and finishes with the Doyen’s thoughts on participation in sailing.

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