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 onboard the Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon’s yacht Drum, skippered by Skip Novak in the 1985-86 edition, when he sailed part of the race. 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 Ketch-rigged Fortuna, which had undergone multiple modifications. But within 24 hours of the start, she was doubly dismasted and the team limped back to the Hamble.
Intrum Justitia, a Swedish entry in the race had a lacklustre performance on Leg 1 and when Roger Nilsson, her skipper returned to Sweden for knee surgery, Smith was the role as skipper. He joined the boat three days before the start of the second and hardest leg from Punte del Este to Freemantle.
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 monohull world record. Ultimately, the boat finished the race in second place.
Friends and crew said at the time it was Smith’s 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 member of crew.
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 lacks 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 Dragon World Championships. His name has rarely been absent from the series leaderboard since.