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The Rise and Fall of John Kolius

Professional sailor John Kolius was at the top of the game when the game became too much.

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John Kolius
John Kolius at the helm of America II. The syndicate was an early favorite of the 1987 America’s Cup, but it came up short, a failure that came as a hard blow to Kolius. Daniel Forster

On June 21, 1976, there was a report buried deep on page 54 of The New York Times; the results of the US Olympic Sailing Trials. The standings in the three-man Soling keelboat competition might have come as a surprise to some; the winner was a 25-year-old Texan by the name of John Kolius, with his crew, Walter Glasgow and Richard Hoepfner. They had beaten (among others) Robbie Haines (with Lowell North aboard), Buddy Melges, Dave Curtis and Bill Buchan.

Kolius recalls the experience 44 years later: “The day after the trials, Melges said, ‘Come to Zenda, Wisconsin—let’s get you really going fast.’ That’s how it was. I was so lucky with mentors, so lucky. I beat this guy at his own game—barely in the last race—and the next day he says, ‘Come to Zenda… How’s that?’ That’s awesome!”

Most of the top Soling sailors had a few years on Kolius (the younger Robbie Haines being the exception), and given the age gap and their stellar reputations, it would have been easy to have been over-awed.

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“It’s part self-confidence, it’s part arrogance, and it was part naivete because I was too young to be scared,” Kolius says.

There were no mind games?

“If there were, I was too stupid to figure it out,” he says. “I was just racing sailboats. I really was fast and really could get the most out of a boat.”

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The boatspeed was enough for a ­silver medal in a desperately tight Olympic regatta, with less than a point between the top three boats at the finish. Kolius had come a long way in a short time, but none of it would have happened if his two older sisters hadn’t tried sailing at a Girl Scouts camp.

“I’m thinking my father must have had a bad day at the golf course,” Kolius says. “All of a sudden, he just decided to take up a different sport. As soon as they finished that camp, my dad said this looks like a great thing for the family and bought an O’Day Day Sailer. And that’s kind of how we all started together. And I really took to it. I just loved it.”

The family joined the Houston YC, and after a year of sailing the Day Sailer, Kolius’ parents bought him a Sunfish to start racing. He had the kind of sailing education that doesn’t happen so much in these days of junior fleets and intensive coaching.

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“I was a yacht-club rat. I would hang out at the club, and if anybody was going sailing and we weren’t, I was begging for a ride. And there were a lot of wonderful people.”

He crewed on everything he could and raced Sunfish in mixed fleets of juniors and adults. “So, you were getting your butt kicked by grown-ups from the get-go. You got your training through the adults that decided to take you under their wing.”


RELATED: My Class, My Story: The Sunfish

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Success came early in the local classes, and with the support of his parents, Kolius entered the Sears Cup and qualified for the finals in San Francisco Bay. Racing with Jay and Dan Williams, the team didn’t have a good first day; they struggled to cope with the current, hit a mark in one race, and were dead last in the other—at which point, his father intervened. “He just came down on us that night and said: ‘You guys need to start really sailing or we’re going to go home. I’m not going to sit here and have to watch this.’”

The boys took it on board, and the next day it blew hard. “It was perfect for our experience, where we came from,” Kolius says. They walked out winners.

Kolius went on to win the Mallory Cup in 1971 and then quickly moved into the Olympic Soling class, coming ninth at the Olympic trials a year later. On the way home, Kolius and his crew made a commitment to do it properly for 1976. “We trained five days a week, basically out of the yacht club, for the last two years before the trials.”

After Olympic silver, Kolius kept up the momentum on to the biggest stage of all: the America’s Cup: “I immediately went into the sailmaking industry. I’d already dabbled. I worked for Buddy [Melges] for a season. I worked for Hans Fogh in Toronto for a season.”

Kolius then started the first of his businesses—an Ulmer Sails franchise, eventually becoming a partner before leaving—and won the J/24 World Championship in 1979 and 1981.

The J/24, he says, was a stepping stone to bigger boats, which then led to some of the first IOR 50-footers, and from there to the biggest show of all. It was 1983, and Dennis Conner and Tom Blackaller were locked in a battle to win the New York YC’s America’s Cup defense trials. Blackaller had built a new boat and was sailing it in Newport against the two-time Cup winner Courageous, using the old boat as a trial horse.

“Blackaller felt like Courageous wasn’t pushing him hard enough, and he invited me to come up and do the mainsheet for starters. I was doing the mainsheet, and the gentleman that was steering the Courageous got sick. And so, they put me on the helm, and he put [Paul] Cayard on the mainsheet, over from his boat. And basically, for a week we kicked Tom’s ass. And once again, I was just too young, too stupid to know that I wasn’t supposed to be there.”

When the program moved to California for winter training, Kolius was made skipper of Courageous. He got to choose some of his crew, and the boat was promoted from trial horse to stablemate. “I got to bring John Bertrand with me,” he says. “John and I, we sailed a whole lot together. It was a lot of fun. He’s as calm as I am uncalm.”

And then they were back in Newport for a Cup summer that will probably never be surpassed.

“We surprised a lot of people. We did a lot of work to that boat, the boys. We longboarded the Courageous. The whole team got up there in the wintertime, but that made us even closer together. We ­overachieved, there’s no question of that.”

The overachievement attracted a lot of attention, particularly in the light of Conner’s failure to hold onto the Cup. Kolius was appointed skipper of America II, the New York YC’s challenger in Fremantle, Australia, in 1987. After an excellent start in the first two round robins, the boat missed the cut for the semifinals by a point, after a desperately narrow defeat to New Zealand.

“It was horrible; it was a very, very quiet tow-in,” Kolius says. “I did not achieve what I wanted to do in the America’s Cup in the end. It seemed like I had a very difficult time managing the fundraising and the sailing. We had really good teams. We had really good sails. We were not ever very fast. We just couldn’t get the right platform no matter how hard we tried. Unfortunately, the America’s Cup is pretty much all about the platform in the end. And I got nobody to blame but myself; it just didn’t work out. We had a whole bunch of people give us a whole bunch of money, and we did not win. So, it was not a ­wonderful experience.”

While it was a setback, the 1988 Deed of Gift match and prolonged subsequent court action gave Kolius an opportunity to resume his sailing career outside the Cup. During this period, his name was rarely out of the sailing magazines. He won the Bermuda Gold Cup and the New Zealand open match race title in 1988, the IOR 50-footer World Cup title in 1990 with Abracadabra, and again in 1992 with Champosa VII, along with an Admiral’s Cup win in 1997.

A lot of this racing was funded by private owners, particularly Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the most feted sports surgeon in the United States. “I sailed on Abracadabra for years, and Dr. Andrews would open his checkbook. He wanted to win. He knew if he wanted to play the game in the [IOR] 50-foot class, he had to pay the boys, pay the boat captain, pay the sailmaker. He spent a lot of money.”

Kolius recalls a day in San Francisco when a Sports Illustrated reporter asked Andrews why he paid for the program but didn’t drive the boat.

“We had never spoken about that, ever,” Kolius says. “I thought I was providing him with what he wanted, and maybe I was, and sometimes maybe I was providing him what I really wanted… I’m not really sure. But bless his soul, he said, ‘I have enough money that I could probably buy a Triple-A baseball team, but they’re not going to let me play second base.’ That was his philosophy.

“[The owners] are part of the team, and I think that’s the way a lot of those people were feeling. Now, did we burn them out during that time? There’re a lot of people out there that are willing to put up the nut to get a team started, but the vision has to be realistic. There has to be alternate methods of income for the owners. How are you going to make your money back? That’s what it needs, being an investment instead of an expenditure.”

There has been no shortage of sailing events seeking a paying audience to make it an investment. In that period of the late 1990s, it was the Ultimate 30 class of which Kolius was a part. Now an almost forgotten footnote to the long history of professional sailing circuits, it had all the usual trappings: prize money and short-course racing; in this case, in dinghy-style 30-foot boats with an open-design rule. The Ultimate 30s were like magnesium—they flared brightly when they hit the water, and then went out quickly.

“We keep shooting ourselves in the foot—I think, personally—by continuing to push the design program. If you’re going to have true professional sailing, pick a boat and let the crews fight it out. Sailing continues to try to sell the design of sailing boats—sell the concept of sailing—when it should be selling the team aspect of sailing and selling the characters that are in the sport. It’s cheaper. I can tell you that for sure.”

When the America’s Cup did come back to life in 1992, Kolius was a part of it with Paul Cayard’s Il Moro de Venezia challenge. They were defeated in the America’s Cup final by America Cubed. “I helped Paul, did some coaching, more or less crew coaching and crew-management-type coaching, and also sailed the second boat,” Kolius says. He then worked with the America Cubed Foundation to coach the Mighty Mary team in 1995.

“I did a better job, I feel like, of being a coach when I was with Paul—and I coached the women’s team a little bit. I felt like I did a better job doing that than I did being the skipper and fundraiser, whatever, of the America II program and the Hawaii program.”

The Hawaii program was Aloha Racing, also backed by Andrews and sponsored by HealthSouth. They came ninth in the round robins of the 2000 Louis Vuitton Cup, and it was Kolius’ final Cup appearance. “I was pretty well burned to a crisp after 2000,” he says. So, he returned to his roots, the place where his love of sailing had started.

Kolius went Sunfish sailing—the boat had been a big part of both his and his wife Joanne’s life, and he came in second at the Worlds in 2002. (Joanne’s best result is seventh.) He also did some J/80 sailing with Caleb Borchers and three members of the sailing team from La Porte High School in Texas, where Joanne was principal. He then got together a team of his old Cup crewmates. “It was fun, but then all of a sudden it was too serious because ‘we gotta win.’ The girls [from La Porte] always kept you level,” he says.

It felt like something had fundamentally shifted in his relationship with the sport. “I think my horizon was shortening after the America’s Cup in 2000,” he says. “I got mentored by a whole bunch of wonderful people; it’s the only reason I got where I was. And so, after 2000, I thought, well man, maybe I need to do a better job of doing the same thing. And so, that’s kind of where that led into having the kids crew [the J/80], and into teaching sailing at the high school level, down here in Florida.”

In 2011, he sold the sailing business he had started in Texas in the 1990s and took a year off with Joanne to go fishing in the Bahamas. “And then, it was just like there’s no going back…”

There was one thing that might have got him back into a topflight boat. “I loved, love, love offshore racing,” Kolius says. “That was actually more fun to me than the buoy racing or the match racing, to be honest. What I should have done, I should have gone into the singlehanded around-the-world stuff because I would’ve had a great time doing that, but I didn’t do it.”

He says he did try to get on Cayard’s team (EF Language, Whitbread winner in 1997-98), however. “I didn’t beg, but I hinted a couple of times, and he didn’t take the hint, so I dropped it. I should’ve begged because I would’ve loved to have done it. I’m not sure he would have taken me, but maybe, and by that time the America’s Cup came up and I had to choose, and I did what I did. I think if those type of events (Admiral’s Cup) were still happening, I would have hung around for longer than I did. I was tired of being a manager. I wanted to be a sailor again.”

These days, Kolius has found a new outlet: “My wife and I like sport fishing. We got into sport fishing because when I retired from sailing, the odds on my wife—who is also extremely competitive and also a good sailor—the odds on us retiring to a sailboat was zero. We would be at each other’s throat the whole time, but we both love the ocean. So, what are you going to do? We’re not trawler people, so we decided to try sport fishing. It’s just like back to the same mentor thing; the boys that were really good would take us—because we’re just mom and pop sport fishing—but they would take us under their wing and teach us their techniques.”

While John Kolius might have wrapped up his sailing career, he did find the good life, or perhaps the good life finally found him.

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