The Frenchman’s experience in the 1977-78 Whitbread was one he would never forget – and not just because at 23, he was the youngest skipper in the race history. It was to prove quite the baptism.
On Leg 3 from Auckland to Rio de Janeiro, 33 Export rolled 140 degrees and the contents of the chart table emptied into the toilet, leaving spanners, files and screwdrivers embedded in the deck head of the galley, floorboards loose and battery boxes smashed all over the floor.
Later, on the same leg the boat broached – water surged across the deck, slamming Eric Letrosne against the life-rails with such force, it fractured his leg. He needed urgent attention but a huge swell prevented Dr Jean Louis Sabarly on Japy-Hermés from coming alongside. So the doctor famous jumped into the sea and swam to 33 Export, where he looked after his patient until the boat docked. Gabbay eventually completed the four-leg race in 133 days, finishing in 10th place.
This was Gabbay’s first of three Whitbread Round the World races. Next came the 1981-82 edition, in which he skippered Charles Heidsieck III. This began promisingly and they were leading the field up until the start of the fourth and final leg home across the Atlantic from Rio de Janeiro to Southampton. Van Rietschoten’s Flyer II needed to cross the Solent 92 hours ahead of Gabbay. In the final days, 560 miles from the Azores, Gabbay was three hours ahead, but was becalmed. Despite off-loading surplus food, water, and beer it was to no avail and they came in five days after Van Rietschoten to finish second.
Gabbay’s third and final race was in 1989-90 as skipper of Charles Jourdan. They finished in 6th place overall. The following year he skippered the Maxi Yacht Safilo, winning the Transat des Alizés, and L'Open Uap but ultimately retired from international sailing.
In 1995 he became technical director of the Mistral Composite shipyard, which led to him setting up his own shipyard in 1998, Sailing Concept near Marseille, which offers refit services for exceptional yachts. In 2011 he was one of several Legends ambassadors who returned for the Volvo Ocean Race Legends Regatta.