Louis Smyth who has died at the age of 81 was an inspirational figure in dinghy racing in Ireland. Born in Birmingham in 1937 Louis first went to sea with his father at the age of eight in a torpedo boat which his father bought cheaply from the British Navy who were decommissioning and selling off vessels in the immediate aftermath of the war. As fuel rationing was still in force Louis assisted his father who jumped from ship to ship draining the other boats tanks to fill their new purchase before sailing away to Boulogne-sur-Mer for a spin. It was an early lesson in frugality and opportunism which stood Louis well throughout an adventurous life in sailing and in business. Louis’ father Ralph Reginald Smyth was something of a serial entrepreneur who made and lost small fortunes in a mixture of businesses as diverse as manufacturing hydraulic parts for Spitfires during the war to running a pleasure boat the Larsen in Dublin Bay. When his father finally went absolutely bankrupt Louis had to leave St Columba’s College where he was an Irish scholar (and first fifteen rugby hooker) and was sent to sea at 16 as an apprentice merchant seaman. In that tough environment, Louis rose up the ranks over 13 years at sea to become a ship's captain.
On shore leave home he met Rosemary Chapple on a blind date and proposed to her on their second meeting. In fact, Rosemary had first noticed Louis with his father on the Larsen aged 8. They married six years later in 1963 and he returned home where the couple set up Le Gourmet in Dun Laoghaire, one of the first delicatessens on the southside of Dublin. The venture grew from Louis’ great interest in food and food ingredients during his travels. The business flourished through hard work by the couple and their willingness to source exotic ingredients from around the globe. A parallel catering business became a major part of the enterprise and they found themselves at times coping with three wedding receptions on a Saturday. Louis would pop up for a time back and forward to each reception which left the impression that all clients had his exclusive attention. The business became the caterers of choice for significant diplomatic and government events including a reception for the Princess Grace visit. In time, however, with increasing competition from supermarkets, the retail business in Dun Laoghaire closed and the larger wholesale business was developed in Tallaght into the modern operation it is today.
Louis dinghy adventures started in 1975 initially with a Heron but then in 470s initially coached by Alistair Rumball of INSS and sailing with his son Hugo and daughter Anna. When the 470 class faded away in Ireland Louis’ attention turned to the Fireball which he described as initially terrifying but ultimately exhilarating. An owner of a succession of Fireball designs Louis became the spiritual father of the Fireball fleet in Ireland. From his early Fireball days where he shipped the boat alone in a box to worldwide venues, he became deeply involved with the International Fireball organisation and spent six years as commodore of Fireball International and was later elected as an honorary member of Fireball International. A key figure in the growth of the class in Ireland it was Louis’ expertise in shipping which ultimately saw containers with 8 or 9 boats stacked in frames travel from Ireland to world championships in exotic locations around the world. With his son Hugo, he trailered to many events and enjoyed great company and adventures on an off the water. At one event in Weymouth, the pair stayed in a guesthouse where Louis’ luggage included a bag of live crickets as a gift for his sister Janet who kept reptiles. When the pair returned from their day’s sailing the landlady was extremely apologetic – the guesthouse had been struck by a mysterious plague of insects. Hmmm noted Louis to her, “..we sometimes had that kind of problem in the tropics”. And when in the bedroom shouted out the door “…yes, they’re in here too I’m afraid…” Louis won many trophies but was most proud to win the coveted Travellers Trophy and (with Joe O’Reilly) to carry away the National Championship trophy in 2002. His best international result was a third at the World Championships at the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Thailand. In his role as FI Commodore, he worked tirelessly with the then secretary to make the event a success and it went down in class history as one of the great events, setting the standard for future Fireball International championships.
As a competitor, Louis was fierce and unforgiving on the water but unstintingly generous in every way ashore. French sailor Frank Juin described him as a small man with a big heart. His tough upbringing and years at sea led Louis to become extremely self-sufficient and somewhat frugal. As a personality, he was stoic and could appear austere but behind the dry sense of humour beat a warm and generous heart. The “Elder Statesman” of the Fireball Class in Ireland and internationally, wise and canny, Louis was the go-to person for advice on every issue. With an open and incredibly curious mind, he read widely from a range of sources to get a balanced view of politics and international affairs, including a daily reading of Arab News and Al Jazeera. Permanently curious he was never quite satisfied until he understood how everything worked. While he had a firm grasp of email and the internet he never quite understood or trusted social media such as Facebook, perhaps with good reason.
Despite declining health, Louis continued to work on behalf of the local community tending to the public park near his home in Dun Laoghaire. He raced on into his 81st year in his beloved Fireball, his latest boat named “Licensed to Thrill” inspired by the sail number IRL15007. Louis remained stoic to the end which came on Sunday 24th June in palliative care at the Beacon Hospital in Sandyford with his beloved Rosemary by his side. Louis is survived by his wife Rosemary, son Hugo and daughter-in-law Annica, grand-daughter Louvisa, and sisters Rhona, Jennifer, Janet and Sandra. His loss is deeply felt by his very many friends in the Fireball fleet in Ireland and around the world.
A humanist event to celebrate Louis’ life is planned for July, details to follow.