Lawrie Smith has two unique distinctions in Whitbread history – he’s the only sailor to have skippered two different yachts in the same race and is the only skipper to have been the subject of a football-style transfer to another boat.
His first race was aboard the Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon’s yacht Drum in the 1985-86 edition, skippered by Skip Novak, which came in eighth.
Three years later he was back, this time as skipper of Rothmans, which finished the race in fourth place. It was in the 1993-94 race that he went from disaster to triumph. He originally started as skipper of Fortuna, which had undergone multiple modifications. But within 24 hours of the start, it’s keypiece carbon fibre mast broke, as did its replacement and Smith limped back to the Hamble, humiliated.
He was then thrown a lifeline. One of the other boats, Intrum Justitia, was having a lacklustre performance and when its skipper returned to Sweden for knee surgery, Smith was offered an opportunity to come on board and turn things around. And that’s what he duly did.
He joined the boat three days before the start of the second and hardest leg from Punte del Este to Freemantle and cracked the whip. The result was a boat that had been well off the pace was suddenly transformed. Not only did they win the leg, but they broke the 24 hour record. Ultimately, the boat finished the race in second place.
Friends and crew members said at the time it was his ability to get the most out of people that lay behind the transformation – that and a natural instinct for reading conditions. “It's a mixture of charm and aggression. And he knows exactly which buttons to press to motivate people,” said one Intrum crew member.
Some of his methods were unorthodox. During one stop he made his crew play a round of golf. Despite some never having held a golf club before those who missed shots were forced to replay with their trousers and underpants around their ankles.
Smith’s last outing in the Whitbread was in 1997-98. Originally, he was due to skipper EF Language but – in the first and only type of transfer in the race history – he was sold to Silk Cut for $1 million to spearhead a British team. They came fifth.
Famously outspoken, Smith once complained that offshore racing rewards endurance and lacked the skills that close-quarter racing demanded. After an 11 year hiatus from competitive sailing, that’s where he returned in 2011, competing in and winning the World Dragon Championships. His name has rarely been absent from the series leaderboard since.