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Human Interest

This Article Last Updated: Oct 14th, 2010 - 15:13:49 

Seahorse Magazine Article on Dane/Sperry
By Lynn Fitzpatrick
Jan 12, 2008, 19:56

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Reprinted with the permission of Seahorse Magazine.


Bill Buchan – crewed by a young Steve Erickson – won the 1984 Star gold medal in Los Angeles at the age of 49. Now John Dane III is attempting to go one better; crewed by his son-in law, Austin Sperry, Dane recently won the USA Star Olympic selections at age 57. Lynne Fitzpatrick talks to the man whose eighth Olympic campaign has finally netted him a cherished shot at the big prize

Dane/Sperry family. Photo by Fried Elliott.
John Dane and Austin Sperry’s quest to win the 2008 US Olympic Trials in the Star class took on such proportions competitors nicknamed the program the Manhattan Project, after the $2 billion dollar, 130,000-person effort by the United States to build the first atomic bomb.

John Dane, 57, sailed his first Olympic Trials in 1968 as a Dragon crew, and he has been campaigning Solings, Finns and Stars ever since. Austin Sperry, John’s 29-year old son-in-law, sailed the 2004 US Star Trials with the team’s principal sailmaker, George Szabo of Quantum, and has been working and sailing with John for the past two and a half years.

But in addition to a wedding (Austin married John’s daughter, Sally) and an Olympic campaign, the pair have at the same time orchestrated the recovery of Trinity Yachts, a substantial New Orleans yacht building, brokerage and service business that was annihilated during Hurricane Katrina.

As Trinity’s CEO, Dane quickly decided to relocate his devastated business from New Orleans to Gulfport, Mississippi. He purchased 100 ‘kit homes’ plus a boatyard and invited all his employees to move over to Gulfport with him. Since those first faltering days Trinity has doubled in size and the company was the poster child of the Gulf Coast recovery; President Bush stops in to showcase Dane’s industriousness whenever he is in the area…

John Dane: Certainly the project’s nickname worked in some people’s heads. Of course, some of the youngsters sailing the trials didn’t have a clue what the Manhattan Project was. I did a little research myself. Do you know what they named the first test of the atomic bomb?

SH: I don’t know. P-Star?
JD: Trinity. That’s right, Trinity was the test name. In one sense it was perfect. We blew them out of the water. And we left no stone unturned.

SH: You certainly had a big team and tested out a lot of equipment. When did you and Austin start sailing together… before or after the wedding!
JD: We decided to sail the Spring championships in the Bahamas about two and a half years ago. Sally and Austin were engaged and got married that summer. It was a windy regatta and we were nipping at Cayard’s heels. It was us and Cayard and then the rest of the fleet. We talked about it after the regatta and thought that sailing together toward the next trials could work…

SH: How easy was it to adjust your personalities to work together in business and in the Star?
JD: Austin is young, enthusiastic and athletic. We complement each other. It’s like in business, where you don’t want everyone around to be an engineer or accountant. Obviously there are some nuances to the father-in-law/boss relationship. We had one or two races where things got tense… We came away from one regatta where we just didn’t have fun and I thought, ‘Either we’re going to figure out how to have fun and do well, or we’re just not going to do it.’ We each did a detailed self-evaluation on paper, so that there would be no confusion. That’s why at some events you’ll see us staying at different hotels. At times there can be too many personalities to keep centered so it’s best to give each other a little space.

SH: You and Austin have overcome a lot during your campaign. Did the loss and melodrama that accompanied Hurricane Katrina set you back with the plans for the trials?
JD: We had just sailed the North Americans out in California and come home. There wasn’t going to be much sailing until the winter circuit. Katrina hit two weeks after we returned. So in one sense it didn’t interfere… After Katrina we had 13 of our people living on Showdown [Dane’s powerboat]. And then we had 400 workers plus their families living in 100 mobile homes on-site at the new yard. One of Austin’s first jobs was to get the infrastructure and utilities built for the mobile homes. It was definitely a learning experience for him. But he also saw what it takes to be successful and he saw me working hard day and night. Austin Sperry: Trust me, the Olympic campaign was child’s play compared to rebuilding the business.

SH: How much of the whole ‘big project’ thing was calculated… was there a lot of psychology at play at the trials?
JD: All of it was calculated. It started with setting a goal. Our goal was to win the trials, so our longterm plan became how to execute that goal as efficiently as possible. We had to plan it right because we had family and business concerns. That’s why our training was so different. All the other guys went to Vancouver for the North Americans. Our goal was to win the trials against 20 boats in the Pacific, not win some silverware against 70 boats on a lake. We had chartered a boat in China that was not fast off the wind but we were pretty good uphill. That was also our first regatta with a Q1, a new mainsail design from Mark Reynold’s Quantum loft where George Szabo works. In China Robert [Scheidt] noticed our upwind speed and wanted to improve his so we made a deal with him: instead of going to Vancouver we sailed against Robert for 10 days straight out in Southern California. There we also got used to the conditions that we would have at the trials and worked on our downwind speed. He is phenomenal downwind. We had six-hour days on the water with Scheidt and then went back to work just as everyone else was returning from up north and getting all worked up about the conditions in California…

SH: Tell us about the equipment that you used.
AS: We have three boats. The first is Folli 8230. It’s a special, special boat. It’s won everything: the Masters, the Levin, the Bacardi.

JD: I’ve been very successful in that boat.
AS: Then we have the Mader that Scheidt used in the pre-Olympics this year in China.

It didn’t take Dane and Sperry long to hit their stride once they had teamed up, winning the 2006 Bacardi Cup and the Western Spring title in Annapolis the same year. Their USA Trial success was a prime example of applying a precise focus to regatta preparation based on the expected environment

Dane and Sperry approach the weather mark at the 2007 Rolex Miami OCR in a new Lillia Star, before switching back to magic Folli 8230. As in all competitive one designs where small tolerances are allowed, now and again a ‘magic’ boat pops up... it’s just that in keelboat classes they tend to stay magic longer! Photo by Dan Nerney
SH: Wasn’t that the out-of-the-box new Mader that they wanted to put a different keel on, but couldn’t get measured in for the Olympic Test Event in Qingdao?
JD: That’s right, but Juan K has now come up with another keel that will be even better in light air. John Koopman [the class measurer] should be in Germany this week inspecting full-scale drawings of the new keel. If it gets approved, we’ll put it on our boat. So far we’ve only had 10 days in the Mader.
AS: And we also have a Lillia. We had all three to test out in California before the trials but in the end we used the Folli.
JD: However, we took the backstay arrangement off the Lillia and put it on the Folli. That makes it easier for the helmsman to gybe in light air as it runs more smoothly with less friction than the below-deck system.

SH: And what about the much-rumoured ‘P-Star’…
JD: It exists! The P-Star is the special Star boat that Marc Pickel built in Germany. Marc has been backed by Illbruck, who put serious firepower into the boat’s development. It has now received its measurement certification and Marc has sailed it with some success but he has not gone wild with publicity.

SH: If you wanted to use the P-Star at the Olympics, would Pickel let you?
JD: Yes. We have an exclusive arrangement with Pickel to use the P-Star at the Games if we want to. We’ll focus on testing it in December and January and see what happens. There will be a lot of speed sailing to test out the boats.
AS: Leave no stone unturned, boss!

SH: Is it true that you also had an exclusive arrangement with Commander’s Weather at the USA Trials?
AS: Yes. They worked with us exclusively. We’d get the forecast every day and Commander’s had a couple of people onshore locally working for us as well.

SH: Tell us about the rest of your team. You have worked with Eric Doyle, Marc Pickel, Freddy Loof and Robert Scheidt. You have coaches, boat captains, trainers…

JD: I did not set a budget, I set a goal. Austin focused on the campaign and I concentrated on running the business. Fortunately the business is doing well and I can afford to write the cheques.
AS: But we made some really good choices.

SH: What do you mean?
AS: In personnel. And in going with the Folli in California.

SH: Who did you have helping you out?
AS: We had Hans Wallen, a champion sailor from Sweden who is very experienced in the class. He makes more of the calls during the racing. We had Rodney Hagebols, the Australian coach. Pickel was good at keeping me mellow at night… Commander’s Weather. Scheidt. Hamish [Pepper] wanted to be involved, but we told him he couldn’t. He had just had a baby! We kept a team house for six months in California. We had a personal trainer, Chris Herrera, out of Miami. He started working with us well before the trials and gave us a tailored programme to peak before the big regattas.
JD: This is the first time I have ever had a coach. I never went to those lengths before, but it is amazing what you can learn. It came down to not second-guessing yourself. For instance, we’d sit down with the weather forecast and see that it was going to be less than 14kt and everybody at the table knew that we were going to go with the Q1... no doubts or questions.

SH: What is special about the Q1?
AS: It’s a sail that George [Szabo] developed over a year ago. We used it in 15 out of 16 races and no one else chose it. Incredible, but that sort of thing often happens where people are being very conservative. We spent a lot of time going back and forth getting the proper tune. With a bigger tender and more equipment we could do a lot. We could have someone driving the boat, someone taking pictures, someone printing them off down below. We could look at them and make the changes immediately when we were on the water. We achieved a lot of progress and that gave us the confidence and knowledge to go with the sail.
JD: Going forward, we won’t be spending much more time on additional sails. You can do so much testing that it gets confusing. We were the only ones who had the Q1 and were surprised that even Szabo wasn’t using it. The Q1 is a little fuller. The concern was that if the wind picked up it would be too full. There are some nuances to adjusting it. It’s not like the Z4 where if the breeze picks up you just pull on the outhaul to flatten it.
SH: What about your boom… that was also a bit special?
AS: We had a nice Wilke composite boom. It’s larger and a couple of kilos lighter than the others. We tarted testing it about halfway through the training sessions with Scheidt and it worked for us.
JD: It’s bigger and lighter, which should be good for light-air sailing. Good for Qingdao. It has more surface area, which also should be good for downwind speed. It makes it harder for the skipper to get under the boom, but after looking at the America’s Cup boats, going back to the old days with Dennis Conner, who used to pull the
boom down to the block to ensure his end plate effect, I thought that it made a lot of sense. Actually, we had a big debate over it but it paid off. It all adds up.

SH: And your plans leading up to the Olympics…
JD: We’ll be spending a lot of time on the water and in the gym. We need to peak for the Miami OCR, the 2008 Star Worlds and then the Olympics. Pickel will be our training partner through the Games and we will be working with two other coaches as well. We’re fortunate… the business is going well, so now we have a lot of time to sail



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