Given the enviable pedigree that Australian yachtsman Luke Molloy has built up over the years – he is an America’s Cup and two-time Volvo Ocean Race competitor and one of the most sought-after sailors on the grand prix racing scene – you would imagine that he would have taken to sailing like the proverbial duck to water.
It didn’t quite happen that way, though.
Despite having pestered his mother to distraction to sign him up for sailing lessons after he spotted a Sabot dinghy while on a fishing and diving holiday on the Great Barrier Reef, when he did finally get his wish, he wanted to quit after the first lesson.
The problem was that as an eight-year-old he was the youngest on the course and always ended up in the crew’s role – and not being in control of the boat did not sit well with him at all.
Happily though, Luke’s mother made sure he persevered with his sailing lessons, and next time out he got to steer.
“I liked it then,” Molloy says with a smile. “After that the competitive side took over. I enjoyed beating my friends, I liked winning races, and I liked the freedom of being out in the boat by yourself when you are so young. It felt pretty good.”
Luke honed his skills at the Port Curtis Sailing Club in Gladstone, Queensland, racing Sabots, 420s, with a bit of Skiff sailing thrown in for good measure.
“We would race whatever dinghies we could – just to experience sailing,” Molloy recalls.
“I did a few short offshore races back then too – which I didn't really like. Being a kid, I just thought: ‘What's all this about?’”
After leaving school Molloy continued his sailing at university in Brisbane, where he had gone to study Civil Engineering.
“I was sailing 420s at first and then I graduated to the 505,” Molloy says.
“I was a student so I didn’t have any money for new sails, so when a friend of mine – Mark Bradford – offered me a part time job at North Sails, I jumped at the chance as it meant I could make my own.”
Molloy soon found himself spending more and more time on his sailmaking and less and less as a student. It was not long before the opportunity for a full-time career in sailmaking presented itself.
“I was about 20 and my life comprised making sails, sailing on customers’ boats, and racing Skiffs or anything fast,” Molloy says. “For me the decision to continue with sailmaking was easy, but I think my mum was less impressed. She was supportive, but I know she must have been wondering what I was doing with my life.”
Molloy spent several years learning the sailmaker’s trade before making the move to Europe as sailmaker with the Reichel Pugh 77-footer Black Dragon – a regular line-honours favourite on the Mediterranean big boat regatta circuit.
“I was really living the dream at that point, Molloy explains. “They needed a sailmaker who could help run the boat and sail on board, so that was perfect for me. We were based in the South of France and we did all the Maxi Med regattas down there.
“There were three or four of us who would deliver this 75-foot race boat from regatta to regatta. All in all, it was a pretty amazing experience for a young kid from Gladstone – and I remember having to pinch myself a few times.”
As much as he was experiencing a dream lifestyle, Molloy made sure he made the most of his total immersion in the professional yacht racing world, taking every opportunity to observe how the professionals did things and soak up as much specialist knowledge as he could.
“It was a period of continual learning,” Molloy says. “I was meeting so many great sailors – many of whom were my idols who had done multiple Whitbreads, Volvo Ocean Races, or America’s Cups – and it should have been really daunting.
“But the really cool thing was finding out that mainly these people were very nice and friendly individuals. Despite all they had achieved, they were easy to talk to and more than happy to unload information to the young guys coming through like me.”
This open style of behaviour is one which Molloy says has stuck with him ever since and has served him well throughout his career as a professional sailor.
“I think the people that make it to the top get there because they are easy to work with,” Molloy said. “No one likes to sail with anyone who yells or screams or blows off their top the whole time. The top people generally keep themselves under control.
“I have always tried to be someone who will pass knowledge on within the crew. In yacht racing it really is true that you are only as strong as the weakest member on the team. So I figure that if you can bring up the level of the weakest people on your crew, then it will be good for the whole team.”
Soon after the Black Dragon campaign concluded Molloy got a surprise opportunity to try out for the ABN AMRO 2 youth team for the 2005-06 Volvo Ocean Race around the world.
“I had filled out an online application” Molloy recalls. “I really wanted to do the America’s Cup because I still didn’t really like offshore sailing that much. But the application took ten minutes to complete, so I did it – and then pretty much forgot all about it.
With the European summer over Molloy was enjoying some time back in Australia when he got a phone call asking him to fly to Amsterdam for crew trials with ABN AMRO. Even at this stage he had few expectations of being selected.
“I was really just doing it for a bit of experience,” he says. “I knew that the chance to get on a Volvo Ocean Race boat – even just to try out – was too good to miss.”
The first part of the trials took place in the middle of winter in freezing conditions on the North Sea, before Molloy and his fellow aspiring around-the-world racers were flown to Portugal for a week of IMOCA 60 sailing.
“We had two judges/coaches who were helping select the crew,” Molloy remembers.
“They didn't give much away, but I knew they had their bowmen and grinders and so they were only really looking for trimmers and drivers.”
To his incredulity, Molloy received word that he had been selected as part of the crew of young up-and-coming sailors – including the likes of Sebastien Josse, Simon Fisher, Nick Bice and Simeon Tienpont – who were to race around the world.
Molloy remembers finding the whole concept hard to take in.
“Primarily, I couldn't believe that they were going to give a state-of-the-art Volvo Ocean Race boat to bunch of under thirty-year-olds. But they literally did. I don't think anything like that has happened again – I think we kind of broke the mould.”
The race itself was a tumultuous experience for Molloy and his crew mates.
There were high points, like setting a new monohull 24-hour distance record and finishing in fourth place overall, but also the crushing blow of losing crewmate Hans Horrevoets overboard in the Atlantic during the seventh leg of the race. Despite his crewmates managing to find him and get him back aboard, sadly the 32-year-old Dutch sailor could not be resuscitated.
“Losing Hans was devastating to us all and it is a memory/experience I will never forget,” Molloy says. “It was a tragic loss and shows just how dangerous ocean racing can be.”
After completing his first lap of the planet, the following year Molloy got his chance to be part of the America’s Cup, working as a mainsail trimmer for the Swedish syndicate Victory Challenge.
Following that experience he spent several years plying his trade as a pro-sailor in a range of one-design owner/driver classes like the Mumm 30, Farr 40, and Melges 32 together with well-run Grand Prix campaigns including eight years of TP52 MedCup/ Super Series.
A call-up from ABN AMRO 2 crew member Simeon Tienpont to join his team AkzoNobel campaign saw Molloy return to round-the-world racing for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race – in which he finished fourth once more.
After the race Molloy has moved his family – wife Sally and two young children Ted and Alice – to the Spanish Mediterranean island of Palma, Mallorca, where he has taken on the role of grand prix sail consultant at the Doyle Sails Palma loft there which compliments his busy professional sailing career.
Molloy says his new role centres on his ability to communicate effectively with his clients to enable them to get the best out of their sails and their boats.
“I’m drawing on thirty years of racing experience, but that doesn’t count for much if you can’t create the right dialogue with the owner,” he says.
“These days the owners are generally the helmsman and often my role as trimmer is as much about coaching them on the most effective way to sail the boat.”
As Molloy has found, there is sometimes a fine line between feeding someone the appropriate information without overwhelming them.
“While you are doing your job trimming and feeling the boat you are also trying to act as a guide. Everyone is different – some people thrive on lots of information and with others you can’t complicate things with too many technicalities.
“It took me quite a few years to nail down my own patented technique and to find out what works and what doesn't.
“I've got a lot of experience in a wide range of boats it’s good to be able to get on any boat and be able to bring some sort of improvement – whether it’s with sail shapes or designs or even just the way you sail a boat.
“I believe you can always add something, which is really satisfying. I'm happy that I've got the experience to be able to do it.”