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australian rowers profiles and history

Jeff Lawrence

Mercantile Rowing Club (VIC)

Jeff is an esteemed and generous life member, Vice-President and past Captain of the Mercantile Rowing Club. He is also the proprietor of the the great boat building business of Sykes Racing.

He started his rowing at Wesley College where he raced in the school’s first eight in his final year. Whilst at school he added to his rowing skills, by competing as a schoolboy in the winter sculling (Herald Shield Perpetual Trophy) series.

After a year away from rowing, he joined the Club in 1978, allegedly after a few too many 25 cent beers at the Clubhouse!

He first raced in a maiden eight coached by David Douglas but did not win a race. John “Lumpy” Burford took over coaching and still no wins were recorded. However success finally arrived in a junior eight on Albert Park Lake on Australia Day under the coaching of Phil Cayzer.

Success followed rapidly thereafter. His 1979 junior eight with the likes of David Watson and Ian Belot had good times. His great mate Peter Philp took over coaching of this group in 1980 and this was the beginning of a lifetime friendship between the two. Unfortunately Jeff had to help Peter’s wife and family through Peter’s death and funeral in 2017, Jeff giving the main eulogy.

Above: 1981 Champion Junior Eight with Jeff in the two seat

David Palfreyman coached Jeff through the 1983, 1984 and 1985 seasons and finally Paul McGann coached him in his final year of rowing in 1986.

Jeff in the two seat of the Club's senior eight in 1982

Jeff might not have been a great rower but he was certainly a good rower, who prospered under hard work and pressure. His career culminating with being selected as the emergency for the 1982 Victorian Kings Cup state eight. However his greatest contributions to the sport were yet to come. Firstly as a coach, then as an administrator, next as a leading boatbuilder and finally as a benefactor to the Club. He is a great member of our sport.

Jeff started his coaching at Wesley College coaching school kids whilst he was rowing. In 1987, he joined the Mercantile coaching ranks and in 1988 took over from Phil Ainsworth of his successful under 19 program which had produced so many Australian team athletes. After a few years he then coached the under 23 group to great success and finished in the 1992-93 season.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the Club came from other activities – he was a great administrator. He was captain for 5 years from 1989-1994. After years of great recruiting and coaching, the Club was riding a wave of success. However it was lacking in equipment and facilities to match this on-water activity. Jeff set about rebuilding both the fleet and the clubhouse. He purchased as many ex AIS boats as he could and worked on the logistics to make the Club operate at the high level necessary for its continued success.

The 1974 built Clubhouse had served the Club well but needed a rebuild upstairs to the gymnasium, of course the changing rooms – the women’s changing rooms were woefully insufficient, and also the bar, kitchen and function areas to produce another source of income.  Jeff through his own considerable personal endeavours assisted the Club in its  renovations and alterations in 1996 under Malcolm Robertson, a fellow Mercantilian, who was the builder. Jeff spent hours of his own time ensuring that the renovations kept to time, and most importantly, to budget.

Above: An all too familiar scene at the Club – Jeff renovating

This rebuilding served the Club well for another 20 or so years until another renovation was undertaken in 2010. The hall hiring became a major source of revenue for the Club for many years and supported the rowing program well.

To a large degree, the pictures hanging around the Club are as a result of his initiative.

Jeff’s work in these areas were of great significance to the Club and life membership was bestowed upon him.

When asked about this period, Jeff recalls the hard times of the City Link construction, which not only disrupted the river traffic – down to one lane with the open cut tunnel, and also the inability to park anywhere near the Club. Accordingly, it disrupted both the on water but revenue raising hall hirings and the social activities of the Club. The Thursday night barrel went from hundreds attending to none.

He also recalls the hard times when trailer accidents caused grief to the Club’s fleet. In one accident in 1980, with Jeff driving, our poorly loaded trailer came to grief on the way home from Ballarat. Fortunately Jeff was not injured in this significant accident. However he and Ted Sorani rebuilt the trailer at Warwick Hutchins’ factory and it continued in service for many years thereafter, albeit a strongly reinforced and heavier trailer.

Shortly after joining Mercantile, he was “recruited” by fellow Mercantilians away from being an employee of Prudential Assurance to their fledgling insurance broking business. His administrative competencies, which were to prove so beneficial in subsequent years to Mercantile, came to the fore and he greatly assisted in putting that brokerage on a sound financial footing and rose to become a director of that company. He sold his interest in this business in 1996 as he undertook an extended period overseas. Upon his return from overseas he purchased a controlling share in Sykes boatbuilders, increasing the turnover 10 fold to today’s date, while continuing to support Mercantile up to this day.

Why Mercantile? Originally because his mates were there but thereafter for the ongoing friendship, opportunities and enjoyment it provides to him.

Most memorable race? Probably the senior eight at Ballarat in 1982 which was won in a time of 5:49.5, a course record for the original undredged course.

Most memorable times? The challenges of renovating the Clubhouse. It was a massive undertaking for the Club with such a superb end result.

To finish off, two stories which provide an insight into Jeff’s generosity.

At an earlier time when the Club did not have an eight as high priority but Jeff as proprietor of Sykes racing had this boat in stock, he offered to sell it to the Club at “mates” rates. To make the offer irresistible, he offered to donate half the price himself. Two other members, Sean Colgan and Andrew Guerin paid the balance. The Club was able therefore to get this eight without cost and maintain quality eights for our crews.

At another time, an eight was written off after a nasty accident with vandals at the Easter regattas. He arranged for the boat to be fully restored so that the Club retained two large sized quality eights for our rowers.

Jeff is a great Mercantilian.

Andrew Guerin and Martin Owen
May 2017

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