Calling The Originals of Youth Champs

U.S. Youth Champs founder Bob Johnstone shares the story of how it all started and puts all call out for a "73ers" reunion.
29er sailors compete in the 2022 U.S. Youth Championship in San Diego. Youth Champs will celebrate 50 years of top-level junior racing in Bristol, Rhode Island in June. Lexi Pline/US Sailing

Ahead of this summer’s US Youth Sailing Championship in Bristol, Rhode Island, in June, Hall of Famer and Youth Champs founder, Bob Johnstone, is organizing a reunion of sailors from the inaugural 1973 US Youth Championship. To mark the upcoming celebration, Johnstone shares a chapter from his book Maverick Marketer, and at press time, Johnstone confirmed nearly 50 of the 115 original “73ers” have still not yet been connected with and he’s seeking help in one final push to get as many of these sailors together to mark the 50th Anniversary of the youth champs at the opening ceremony where more than 160 youths will be competing 29er, ILCA 6, ILCA 7, Formula Kite, International 420, Nacra 15 and IQFOIL classes. The winners will become the US Youth Team at the World Youth Championships in Brazil.

Witnessing the performance of our kids at ages 13 and 14 in an Olympic class at the Worlds, I thought, “It’s too bad more youth in America don’t have this same opportunity.” 

Team USA would do much better at World Youth Championships and the Olympics by fast-tracking youth in Olympic boats. Another example of America’s youth talent was John Dane, Marc LeBlanc, and crew from the Southern Yacht Club in New Orleans. They won the Sears Cup in 1967, the Soling North Americans in 1969 at age 19, a silver medal in the Soling Worlds in 1970, and finished 4th at the 1972 Soling Olympic Trials.  

Time to Get Creative. The concept of a US Youth Sailing Championship was taking root. In my youth, nobody encouraged me to sail in the Lightning North Americans, even though I was winning many events locally. It was unheard of for 15 to 17-year-olds to compete in Olympic classes at the national level. 

I hadn’t forgotten, 20 years later. Why couldn’t an event be created for young sailors to discover how good they were or what they had to learn? The founding concept of the 1973 US Youths was to scour the country to identify 150 youth, as I’d once been, and invite them for a chance to compete against each other at the highest level. They’d learn quickly by sailing against the best. Let’s not let them get bored and drift away from sailboat racing.

OK, how did we pull it off?

In 1972, the previous year, NAYRU (now US Sailing) had sent the top Florida Optimist sailor, who was about 14, to compete in the singlehanded class, and sent 17-year-olds from the Sears Cup-winning crew from a small rotate-boats series to compete in the IYRU Youth Worlds. They were up against 19-year-old winners of big fleet events. 

We needed a qualifying event for America’s best youth aged 19 and under—not just from Florida and the East Coast but from all over the US, no matter what class of boat they’d been sailing. Like sons Stu and Drake [Johnstone], they needed to be motivated to compete in exciting new 470s and Lasers. We’d bring them all to a central Midwest location like our Sheridan Shore Yacht Club in Wilmette and conduct the event in June 1973, between the end of the school year and when they’d start summer jobs as sailing instructors. 

I called my fellow 470 Worlds judge and friend, Ding Schoonmaker, to get the ball rolling. He was then Chairman of NAYRU’s Junior Sailing Committee. It helped that Ding had witnessed the boy’s performance in a 470 at the 1971 Worlds. 

After describing the event concept and proposing it become the official NAYRU qualifier for the US Youth Team for the 1973 World Youth Championships, Ding agreed to take it up with the board of directors. He replied two weeks later. “Bob, NAYRU doesn’t have the personnel or capability to organize an event of this scale on such short notice. But the board agreed that if you organize and run it at Sheridan Shore Yacht Club, we’ll put the USYRU name on it. You can call it the United States Youth Sailing Championship.”

Being ever indebted to Ding for that administrative coup, I accepted. He had a deal!

We were off. I ordered eight new 470s from Harken to charter and make available for post-regatta sale, saying, “Get ready. You will probably be getting even more orders.” I did the same with Ian Bruce of Performance Sailcraft for Lasers. The Bruce Kirby-designed Laser wasn’t introduced until 1971, so fewer than 5,000 boats existed. Youth all over the count­ry who didn’t own a Laser now wanted to sail one. The US Youth Champs put the Laser on the map. 

Sheridan Shore Yacht Club was psyched.

The next challenge was getting the word out so no deserving youth would be missed.

Time to get c­reative. Having been appointed by Class President Larry Lewis as the 470 Class Representative to the United States Olympic Yachting Committee (USOYC), the answer was close at hand. I just had to get my hands on some USOYC letterhead.

The first meeting of the USOYC for the 1976 Olympiad was in March 1973 at the New York Yacht Club on 44th Street. Flying with my friend Dick Stearns, an Olympic silver medalist and the Star Class representative, I asked him, “Out of curiosity, do you have any aspirations for a role on the Olympic Committee…like maybe being the next chairman? 

Dick thought for a moment, brightened, and said, “Well, yeah, that would be great!”  I said, “OK, let’s see how things develop. As a first-time rookie, I can ask some first-timer questions to steer the committee in that direction.”  

The meeting was conducted by Star legend Paul Smart, age 80, who’d been chairman since 1964. I wanted to understand what the USOYC did, thinking how important it was to have the USOYC behind the launch of a US Youth Championship.

My newbie questions started with, “What is the role of the US Olympic Yachting Committee? What are their plans to develop talent?” 

Chairman Smart’s answer, echoed by other old-guard committee members, was, “We have a lot of outstanding sailors in the US. They are so talented we have little we can teach them. Our role is to provide them with financial support for international competition and a good venue for the trials.” 

I asked, “Has the USOYC considered being proactive in offering programs to bring up, develop, and improve on the talent pool?” 

Again, they said, “No, no, we’re not into that. We’re hands-off. We’re not into any programs except to administer the trials.” 

So, I’m rolling my eyes along with other new committee members. A silent consensus was building: USOYC was missing the boat here. They were essentially doing nothing to develop talent or increase the chances of the US winning more Olympic medals … an “it is what it is” laissez-faire posture.  

When it was time to elect officers for the 1976 Olympiad, the expectation was that the old guard would again rubber-stamp themselves back into control. 

I’m thinking, No way! To rattle the cage, I nominated Dick Stearns as chairman to lead a “new, proactive” USOYC. It was seconded and followed by some shocked, back-and-forth emotional responses. 

But the tide had turned, with building support for the more proactive stance. Stearns was voted in as chairman. He then nominated me for secretary-treasurer, figuring, “OK, Johnstone, you got me into this job. Now you’re going to have to help me do it.” Seconded and passed. 

Another Midwesterner and friend, who had crewed for Buddy Melges in the Soling, Bill Bentsen, was appointed special advisor. The Olympic power center shifted to Middle America to begin a new era.

I had my stack of USOYC letterhead and the contact info for all the top sailors in America. 

Before that meeting adjourned, Bob Bavier, editor, and publisher of Yachting said, “Sorry, gentlemen, I’ve got to go; we’re closing the magazine. I have to make sure everything is OK.” 

I raised my hand to plead, “Bob. Please. This new US Youth Championship is coming up in June. It’s key for developing Olympic talent. Can you run an announcement in this issue? The event is just 90 days away. Every second counts to get the word out.” 

He turned to me halfway to the door, saying, “No! Sorry. It’s too late. The book’s done. Just closing up.” 

I was crestfallen. But before Bavier left the room, Dick Stearns said in a stage voice, “Bob, don’t worry about it. Yachting is just for old farts anyway.”  

With that, Bavier mumbled a weak denial and bolted from the room. So much for Yachting’s help. We’d find some other way to get the word out. 

The rest of us adjourned for lunch downstairs at the club. I was seated with Stearns.

About halfway through lunch, Bavier showed up and hustled over to our table with a notebook and a pencil in hand, clearly flustered by the “old farts” jab. He declared, “OK, Yachting will do it. What should we say about this Youth Championship?” 

That’s how word first got out in the national press. Interested youth were asked to apply to the Youth Championship Committee with their resume.

As secretary-treasurer of the US Olympic Yachting Committee, I had a couple of potent weapons: USOYC stationery and contact addresses for all prior and aspiring Olympians. 

Along with sailmakers across the country, they got a letter requesting help identifying the top two or three young sailors in their area, age 19 or under. 

We ended up with a couple of hundred names and addresses for Bill Bentsen and me to sort through and decide whom to invite. Once we’d selected those to invite, we sent them the following “Uncle Sam Wants You” style letter of invitation on US Olympic Yachting Committee stationery: 

You have been identified as one of the top youth sailors in the country who represent the future of the United States success in the World Youth Championships, as well as Olympic and International classes. 

We are therefore pleased to invite you to compete in either Lasers or 470s in the inaugural NAYRU US Youth Sailing Championship at the Sheridan Shore YC in Wilmette, IL. See the attached Notice of Race.

You may use this letter with your yacht club or YRA to help secure sponsorship and travel funding. The top 3 finishers in each division shall receive USYOC funding to the Youth Worlds or for World and National Class Champs. 

Be assured that everyone will return home as a winner. Buddy Melges, Dave Ullman, Bruce Goldsmith, Bruce Kirby, and Manton Scott are some world-class sailors who will be there to observe, video, critique, and discuss your performance and convey their racing experience every evening after racing. 

Housing and food are arranged at no charge for all contestants. 8 new 470s are available for purchase. Other 470s, as well as Lasers, are available for charter.

We had 100-pecent acceptance. Two of the 117 wanted to attend but were denied the chance. A doctor told a New Jersey Laser sailor who had broken his leg that he couldn’t sail with a cast. The other was the top single-handed sailor in New England, a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. 

On a phone call with the academy’s commandant, I couldn’t convince him

the event would be better for the cadet and the academy than a week on the Eagle

That’s how it all came about. The Sheridan Shore YC membership pitched in.

Tragically, Manton Scott, who was going to be a seminar leader, was electrocuted while putting up his 470 mast a month beforehand. 

The 115 youth in that 79-boat fleet (36-470s and 43-Lasers) are credited with unifying the sport under the US Sailing banner, putting America’s best young sailors together for the first time. Previously, NAYRU had an East Coast bias. Sailors from this first 1973 event, like Dave Perry, Mark Reynolds, Peter Commette, Augie Diaz, Greg Fisher, Alison Jolly, Carl Buchan, and the rest, became leaders in the sport. 

US Sailing named the single-handed US Youth Championship trophy the Robert L. Johnstone III Trophy in honor of my founding of the event and my contribution to one-design sailing.  The US Youth Champs dramatically raised America’s level of success on the world stage. The USOC funded the top finishers in each fleet to the World Youths and 470, 420, or Laser Worlds. 

Augie Diaz won the 1973 World Youth Championship in Lasers. Terry Neff and Kevin Lofstedt finished a close fourth in the doublehanded Youth Worlds in 470s.

Peter Commette wanted to sail the Laser Worlds, but the first Worlds weren’t until 1974, which he attended and won. In 1973, he went to the 470 Worlds and took silver with Mike Loeb. 

Here’s a sampling of how that first 1973 US Youth Championship event has impacted US sailing. 

  • 4 Olympic Gold Medals (Allison Jolly, Mark Reynolds, Carl Buchan)
  • 5 National Sailing Hall of Fame Inductees (Diaz, Buchan, Reynolds, Perry, Jolly)
  • 2 National Sailing Hall of Fame Nominees (Commette, Fisher).
  • 4 Rolex Sailors of the Year ( Diaz, Reynolds, Jolly, Jud Smith)
  • 14 ICSA All-Americans
  • 3 ICSA Sailors of the Year (Diaz, Stu Johnstone, Buchan)
  • 1 inductee in the ICSA Hall of Fame (Nina Nielson—Princeton)
  • 13 World Championships in Laser (Commette), 420 (Whitehurst), Snipe (Diaz), Star (Reynolds, Buchan, Diaz), J/24 (Charlie Scott, Johnstone), J/70 (Smith), J/22 (Fisher), FD (Buchan), Etchells 22 (Smith), International OD (Smith). Within two years, the US swept the 1975 World Youth Championship. Bob and Tom Whitehurst won the double-handed, and Carl Buchan won the singlehanded. 

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