John Kolius: The way it was

Published on March 9th, 2022

As a Texan, John Kolius had a big personality which was allowed in the early days of professional sailing. There was nothing boring about Kolius, and he pushed the top end of the sport en route to an Olympic medal and America’s Cup campaigns. Here are two excerpts from a profile in Sailing World:

How to learn
“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.

“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.”

Sport as entertainment
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.”

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