At 58, overachiever John Dane never gave up in his quest for the Olympic Games
A jokester leaves a walker in the cockpit of John Dane III’s Star sailboat. Friends rib him about a story on his Olympic ambitions in AARP, the seniors’ magazine.
All in good fun, the joshing is the froth on an Olympic campaign that is very serious indeed. It is so focused, so determined, so well-endowed with money, equipment and manpower that some have dubbed it the Manhattan Project, after America’s World War II drive to build an atom bomb. At 58, Star sailor Dane will be among the oldest athletes at the Olympic Games in China in August, when he makes his first appearance at the games. (Honors for the oldest go to Japanese equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu, 67.)
Star boat skipper Jon Dane and his son-in-law Austin Sperry are an unlikely team bound for Qindao.
Dane’s Olympic aspirations are no flash in the pan. When he and son-in-law Austin Sperry won the Olympic Star trials last October in Santa Monica, Calif., it was the fulfillment of a 40-year-old dream for Dane, former CEO of Halter Marine Group and now president and CEO of megayacht builder Trinity Yachts of Gulfport, Miss.
The old man and “the kid” — Sperry is 29 — are headed to Qingdao, where they will race Aug. 9-23 against 15 other international Star teams in a 22-foot, 7-inch boat whose enormous 285-square-foot sail area, long boom and narrow beam make it both technically and physically demanding to sail. It’s the oldest
Olympic boat and has drawn some of the biggest names in sailing — Paul Cayard, Buddy Melges, Mark Reynolds, Tom Blackaller, Dennis Conner, Paul Elvstrom, Torban Grael, Robert Scheidt, Hamish Pepper.
A New Orleans native, Dane was a callow 18-year-old when he sailed his first Olympic campaign in 1968. He crewed for O.J. Young on a Dragon, winning the North Americans but then finishing second in the U.S. trials to Buddy Friedrichs, a hero of his who went on to win Olympic gold in Acapulco. It was a heady experience for the teenager. “I was smitten,” he says. And it was for life.
Dane has raced in seven Olympic trials and four Olympic classes. He finished second in the Dragon trials in ’68, fourth in the Soling trials in ’72, third in the Finn in ’76, and fourth, seventh, 13th and first, respectively, in the ’84, ’96, ’04 and ’08 Star trials.
“I have a great passion for sailing,” he says, surely an understatement.
Dane’s eclectic fleet back home in Gulfport includes Sunfish, Lasers, Finns, Vanguard 15s, a Flying Scot, a J/22 and a Melges 30 — and those are just the sailboats. Dane loves to sail. He loves to compete. He loves to win. “We used to say that John would race in a mud puddle if there was anyone on it to sail against,” says Billy Smith, a vice president at Trinity, protégé of his at Halter — a commercial boatbuilder — and friend since the sixth grade.
A member of the Southern and New Orleans yacht clubs and past commodore of his home club, Pass Christian, Dane has been a regular on the Gulf Yachting Association race circuit for 40 years. He races his Melges 30, Tiburon, at Key West Race Week, but he also is a member in good standing of the Sunfish Class Association who turns out to race on weekends with his wife, Leslie, herself a women’s world and five-time North American Sunfish champion.
The Danes are a sailing family. When Dane asked Leslie out on their first date, it was to crew on a Luders 16. Dane and his eldest son John are the only father and son to win the Sears Cup, the pinnacle of junior sailing — 20 years apart. Son Schaeffer has placed second in a Sears and, together with his parents, won a Flying Scot national championship. After Qingdao, the four of them plan to regroup as a family and race a Melges 32.
No more golf
Smith, who crewed for Dane on a Penguin when they were kids and sailed with him on ocean racers in the mid-’60s, says if there had been any real money to be made in sailboat racing when Dane was a young man, he might have turned professional sailor instead of boatbuilder. “He was always a prodigy in sailing, even when we were in grammar school,” Smith says.
As Dane tells it, his father, a New Orleans mortgage banker, had taken up golf instead of sailing for relaxation, even though Grandfather Dane had been a commodore of New Orleans’ venerable Southern Yacht Club (founded 1849). Frustrated with his golf game, Dane’s father later recanted his apostasy, and both he and his 8-year-old son learned to sail. “My mother suggested we both go out to the yacht club and take sailing lessons,” Dane says. “The rest is history.”
Like father, like son, his dad became an avid racer and a club champion who competed into his mid-70s. He owned a Lightning, then a Knarr (a Norwegian design), an Alden 36, a Cal 40 and many more. Dane remembers asking him why he named one of his boats “40,” and the elder Dane said it was because he had run out of names. “That was the 40th boat he had owned,” Dane says.
Teethed on prams, Penguins, Lightnings and Luders 16s, Dane raced his first Star at age 17, went on to win the Sears Cup in 1967 and the Dragon North Americans the year after that, followed by collegiate All-American honors (three times) at Tulane University, Intercollegiate Sailor of the Year, a Soling North American championship (in 1969) and a Windmill world championship. The young sailor from New Orleans streaked across the radar at Sports Illustrated, which touted him as the “best young match-racing sailor in the United States” in a November 1970 story about his perfect record in a weekend of collegiate match racing off Long Beach, Calif.
SI called him “cocky and loose,” and noted that Dane’s sailing resume included crewing on the “converted 12 Meter sloop American Eagle with Ted Turner, a man he resembles in voice and sailing passion” — and maybe irreverent humor, as well. The collegians had some fun decorating the transoms of their Columbia 26s with goofy graphics and silly names. Dane taped on his boat’s transom “H. Munroe’s,” a brothel famous in New Orleans lore, SI reported.
Dane grew up sailing in the reflected glory of some legendary sailors at Southern. He counts among his mentors Gilbert Gray, winner of the first Olympic gold medal in sailing, in the Star class, in 1932. “I am following in his footsteps sailing in this event,” Dane says now. “He was still active in 1960 when I started sailing and, in fact, I crewed for him a number of times in one-designs.”
Dane’s first high school job was working for New Orleans sailmaker “Click” Schreck, who crewed with Barton Jahnke on Friedrichs’ Dragon at the ’68 Olympics. Friedrichs and Jahnke were mentors, as was Young, a Finn champion and the Dragon sailor for whom Dane crewed in the ’68 trials. Dane worked at Young’s yacht yard in college and crewed on a number of his boats, including Munequita, a Ranger 37 that won the 1973 SORC with six first-place finishes.
“I got to compete against all these guys at our club,” Dane says. They set a high standard for him. “Dream big, work really hard,” he says, as video rolls on a Miami dock for a motivational piece for Shake-a-Leg, a sailing program for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders. “It’s amazing. The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
That could be the story of Dane’s life.
A “20-year overnight success”
A civil engineering student in college, Dane graduated from Tulane as one of its youngest doctoral students. “I don’t like to waste time,” he says. He sets goals, then turns a laser-like focus on achieving them.
Fresh out of grad school in 1974, he already had a job lined up at J. Ray McDermott, an international offshore engineering firm, but Harold Halter, of Halter Marine, snatched him away. “He told me, ‘I need you to come work for me,’ ” Dane says.
Dane tried to tell him he already had a good job, but Halter, who built supply and crew vessels for the offshore oil industry, wouldn’t listen. He picked Dane up at his house, drove him to Halter’s New Orleans yard, showed him around, asked him what McDermott was going to pay him, and matched it. “That’s how I ended up in the boat business,” Dane says.
Halter had assured Dane that he planned to sell 12 boats to Burt Keenan, owner of oil supply company Offshore Logistics and an ocean racer who owned a string of fast raceboats named Arcadia. Halter dangled the project before the ambitious young engineer and told him he would manage it — if he came aboard.
“I took a gamble and went to work for Harold Halter,” he says.
The gamble paid off.
Six years later, in 1980, Dane — an experienced shipbuilder now — struck out on his own and bought a shipyard in Moss Point, Miss., starting his own shipbuilding company, Moss Point Marine. Trinity Marine, a shipyard group that had bought up Halter, acquired Moss Point in 1987 and named Dane president. The rising star rode a wave of U.S. shipyard consolidations, spinning Halter Marine Group off from Trinity as a public company in 1996 and transforming it into one of the nation’s largest builders, with 22 small- and medium-sized yards and 8,000 employees. Altogether, the Halter yards had built 2,600 vessels.
Dane retired from Halter in 2000 following a 1999 merger of the shipyard group with Friede Goldman International, a company that designed, built and refurbished oil-drilling rigs and production platforms. Dane — vice-chairman, president and chief operating officer of the merged company, Friede Goldman Halter — oversaw operations of a conglomerate that designed, built, repaired and upgraded offshore production platforms and drilling rigs; designed and built oceangoing research, oceanographic survey, military and offshore construction and supply vessels; and designed and manufactured heavy marine equipment.
Dane left Friede Goldman Halter as it struggled to rebound from a downturn in the oil industry and from troubles with a couple of big oil-rig contracts. But both he and old friend Smith — whom he had brought aboard 12 years earlier to head up Halter’s new Trinity Yachts division — landed on their feet. In 2002, they and Felix S. Sabates Jr., owner of a half-billion-dollar Charlotte, N.C.-based consumer product distribution company, bought Halter’s megayacht division, which had languished in the builder’s commercial ship culture.
Buying it for a bargain $5 million, the partners parlayed Trinity into a company that, six years later, is one of the world’s most successful megayacht builders. Dane had caught another wave. Megayacht sales to a cash-gorged market of multimillionaires and billionaires around the world were booming. Megayacht yards could not keep up with demand.
Dane himself had founded Halter’s megayacht division in 1988 to try to keep his yards busy during down cycles in the oil business, but it was tough selling wealthy buyers on your luxury yachts when your main business was building patrol boats, and research and supply vessels. “We are a 20-year overnight success,” Dane says now.
After breaking away from Halter, Trinity went gangbusters. With yards in Gulfport and New Orleans, Trinity now builds luxury yachts to 330 feet. In April, the builder was riding high on a three-year backlog of contracts for 24 yachts averaging 170 feet and costing $36 million to $40 million and more apiece. “It’s a great business,” Dane says.
He could go back to shipbuilding if he had to, but why would he? “I get to go to Monaco, St. Barts — nice, beautiful places all over the world — and meet really nice people,” he says. “Do I want to do that or go to Brownsville, Texas, or Pointe a la Hache, La., and wear steel-toed shoes and a hard hat?” Really, it’s a no-brainer.
The road to TrinityVillage
Yet the road to success as a yachtbuilder hasn’t been all polished stainless and varnished mahogany. Hurricane Katrina threw an enormous wrench into Dane’s business plan for Trinity and his campaign plan for the Olympics.
Aug. 29, 2005 — the date is indelibly etched in Dane’s memory. He and son-in-law Sperry, who works for Dane at Trinity, had just returned from the Star North Americans in California two weeks earlier when Katrina slammed the Louisiana coast with 130-mph winds. The deadly hurricane left Trinity’s yard on New Orleans’ IndustrialCanal under 14 feet of water. Dane’s home and those of his parents and children on Bay St. Louis, Miss., were less than 50 miles from Katrina’s eye as it churned northeastward into Mississippi. “I lost my house. My parents lost their house. The kids lost their homes,” he says.
Downed trees and power lines blocked the family’s way home, so they launched a flats boat and made their way to their neighborhood by water. “When we came into the Bay of St. Louis and saw all the destruction, our hearts sank,” Dane says. “Then when we turned the last corner to where our house had been, we realized all but two homes on the entire peninsula were totally destroyed.”
At the Trinity yard in New Orleans, the picture was just as bleak. “When we got into the city, it was a complete disaster,” he says. “We knew we wouldn’t have electricity or facilities for at least six months.” He could have given up. He could have collected the insurance and moved on. He didn’t. The partners agreed: Trinity wasn’t finished. “I love a challenge,” Dane says. “I saw it as a challenge.”
Helped by friendly bankers and very good insurance, Trinity’s management spent $20 million buying and rehabbing a shuttered 38-acre yard in Gulfport, gave each of their employees $1,500 to move to Gulfport (if they wished), and spent another $4 million on 110 two- and three-bedroom prefabricated homes that became employee housing (“Trinity Village”) on the new yard’s grounds. Meanwhile, Dane and his extended family moved aboard his 86-foot houseboat, Showdown, which became the Dane family estate for the next four months.
Dane oversaw the moving operation and startup. Sperry oversaw buying, transporting and setting up the homes, and took charge of installing electricity, water, sanitation and roads for TrinityVillage. (One of his business interests now is developing mobile home parks.) “In 60 days we had 100 people living there, and we were able to start again,” Dane says. “Within six months of Katrina our backlog of orders had doubled.”
Trinity was back on track, as was United States Marine, another New Orleans builder of which Dane owns a majority interest. Founded by Tom Dreyfus, U.S. Marine built high-tech ocean racing boats in the 1970s and early ’80s and now builds high-tech military, patrol and special-warfare boats.
Dane and Sperry also were back on the Olympic campaign trail. Katrina hadn’t derailed that, either. Dane already had accomplished a lot in his life. He and Leslie had raised seven children. He had gone from Ph.D. graduate to successful shipbuilder to world-class yacht builder. He had come back from the brink after Katrina. And yet his Olympic dream remained unfulfilled.
He had pursued it after college, when he says he didn’t have a “pot to piss in.” He kept the dream alive for four more decades even as he took on responsibilities as a father of seven and an executive at Moss Point, Halter and Trinity. The dream endured, though after the ’04 trials, when he jumped in at the last minute to make his bid, he thought it might be his last hurrah as an Olympic aspirant. “I thought I’d missed it,” he says.
That was before he teamed up with Sperry, a crew in the 2004 Star trials for 10th-place finisher Andy McDonald. Dane and Sperry had met at a 2000 regatta at the Pass Christian (Miss.) Yacht Club, but they hadn’t hit it off all that well. The Californian had taken Dane’s daughter Sally out a couple of times during the regatta, but — by both men’s accounts — that stopped after Dane confronted his future son-in-law.
“Boy, are you taking my daughter out?”
To which the surprised young man stammered, “Oh, no sir. I’m not.”
“Well that’s good,” Dane told him, “because I’ve got a shovel and a shotgun.”
Sperry didn’t talk to Sally for the rest of the regatta, but they ran into each other several years later in Miami and started dating again, after Sperry explained why he hadn’t called her. In April 2005, with the couple engaged to marry that summer, Sperry and Dane set out to get to know each other better racing a Star in the Western Hemisphere Championships in the Bahamas. They finished second behind Paul Cayard, a fifth-place finisher in the Athens Olympics the year before.
What had started out as a lark quickly evolved into a serious Olympic bid. “At that point, Austin said, ‘Maybe this guy isn’t so old and so out of shape after all,’ ” Dane says. “We thought we could compete.”
Next stop, Qingdao
After six unsuccessful attempts, Dane decided this Olympic effort would be different than the rest. It would be a no-holds-barred, spare-no-expense, full-time, full-on campaign. He says he’s embarrassed to say how much he is spending on it, but he doesn’t disagree with the sobriquet “Manhattan Project” to describe it. “My son [John F.] says, ‘I’ve never seen my father so focused on achieving something in my life,’ ” he says.
The Sperry-Dane team rented a house for six months in the Los Angeles area to train for the trials. Sperry lists the resources at their disposal there: four Star boats, two tenders, a weather team (usually Commander’s Weather), a strength coach and trainer, massage therapist and three sailing coaches – Swedish ’96 silver medalist Hans Wallen, German Star boat champion Marc Pickel, and Australian coach Rodney Hagebols. Steve Erickson, a 1984 Star gold medalist and America’s Cup racer, also is listed as a coach on their Web site (www.danesperry2008.com ).
Top teams, drawn by the intensity and resources of the Sperry-Dane effort, train with them. The Americans have sparred with such luminaries as Swedes Freddy Loof and Anders Ekstrom and Brazilians Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada.
“This is the first time in my sailing career that I’ve ever hired a coach,” Dane says. He even has a nutritionist on staff, but being a Southerner, diet is where he draws the line. Sperry heeds the nutritionist. Dane watches his weight, but he won’t skimp on the fine dining. He just opened a waterfront restaurant, The Dock, in Gulfport. “I love the good food,” he says. Star crew are restricted to a combined weight of 440 pounds, and Dane — the skipper — should weigh less than Sperry for best weight distribution and speed. He says he has been doing his part and making weight, though it’s a fight.
He says a booming megayacht market has given him the financial wherewithal to underwrite the program, and the support of his wife and his partners at Trinity — Smith and Sabates — enables him to free up the time to travel and train and race to have a real shot at a medal. “Yet at the end of the day, Austin and I have to be on that starting line alone and make the right decisions,” he says. No amount of coaches, no amount of money, no amount of equipment can take the place of a talented and determined crew.
Going into the October 2007 U.S. trials, five American teams were listed in the top 25 in the world ISAF (International Sailing Federation) rankings: Dane and Sperry (10), George Szabo and Andrew Scott (11), Andy Horton and Brad Nichol (17), Mark Reynolds and Hal Haenel (21), and Rick Merriman with new crew Phil Trinter (23). Dane and Sperry won the trip to Qingdao in the 16th and last race, edging out Merriman and Trinter by seconds.
Dane’s mom and dad, his wife and kids, and the Sperry family were there to see them win the last race and a berth in the Olympics. “We were whooping it up, yelling and screaming,” Dane says. Their rooting section threw them a bottle of Dom Pérignon as they sailed back in. The two popped the cork and drank the champagne with family.
“I’d been pursuing this dream for 39 years,” Dane says. “Our goal now is to win a medal in China. We’ll be racing against 16 boats in light, sloppy air.” That’s what they’re training for, and Dane — who at midlife is no Arnold Schwarzenegger — believes the light air expected in Qingdao evens the playing field for a team like his, which is a little less physical than some of the younger ones.
The Star is a challenging boat to sail in heavy seas, so Star sailors usually are big, very fit and very strong. Dane says he is in the best sailing shape he’s ever been in. He is out of the house and in the gym by 5 a.m. five days a week without fail for a 1-1/2-hour workout, usually with Sperry. He does aerobics and works on strengthening his legs and abdominal muscles, his arms and shoulders. Although the crew on a Star is the more athletic position, the skipper also has to hike out.
“John hikes really hard,” Sperry says. But Dane gives his son-in-law the credit for whatever brawn they muster against their rivals.
“Austin pulls us around the course athletically,” he says.
Dane says the two are well-matched. “He tempers my experience with his youth and enthusiasm,” he says. Sperry has been racing Stars since he was 14, and he was a training partner for Cayard in Athens before the 2004 Olympics. “Very physical,” Dane says. He runs the front of the boat.
As for his own age, Dane is fond of quoting Ronald Reagan, who when asked at 69 if age would be an issue in the presidential campaign answered, “I don’t plan to use their youth and inexperience against them.” Dane describes himself as “wily,” and he does plan to use his rivals’ “youth and inexperience” against them. He expects the sailing in Qingdao to be a lot like the summer regattas on his native Lake Pontchartrain: “98 degrees, 100 percent humidity, light, fluky air … I think it plays to my advantage having grown up sailing in New Orleans.”
At first blush, it might seem a lot of fun campaigning full time for the Olympics, but a super-seriouseffort like Dane’s is a hard, hard grind. He and Sperry sailed 150 days in 2007. That doesn’t mean he took a flier from work for five months. He says he has
always been adept at juggling a lot of balls, and he has had to do that in this campaign. “When John is off sailing, he’s sailing all day,” says Smith. “Then he’s up all night with specs and contract negotiations, and up at the crack of dawn the next day doing e-mails, going to the gym and fielding phone calls.”
Smith says Dane’s capacity for work is prodigious. “He’ll flat outwork you,” he says.
Sperry was away from home 35 days straight this spring, training in Miami, sailing in the Star Worlds, and loading two Star boats, two RIBs, eight masts and four booms into containers for shipment to China. He went home to Sally in Gulfport for six days, then packed up for another round of physical conditioning at the U.S. Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif. After that, it was on to Chicago for training in being an “Olympic ambassador.” He says time away from Sally is hard. So is training, racing and living day in and day out in the Olympic pressure cooker with a skipper who is both family and your boss at work.
“John is a great sailor,” skilled at wringing out the last knot of boat speed, Sperry says, and a talented training manager. “But we are both Type-A personalities.”
“In my youth, I was definitely loud and very intense ala Buddy Friedrichs and Ted Turner, the real ‘Mouth of the South,’ ” Dane says. “When I started sailing with my wife, she got very upset, so I promised to reform.”
And he says he has, for the most part. Yet Sperry says he and Dane do have to be careful what they say to each other when the heat is on, and he has learned not to take his grievances on the water home to Sally. “You can’t go home and bitch about her dad,” he says. “That’s not going to go anywhere.”
He says navigating the in-law and boss-employee relationship has been hard on both of them, yet their conviction that they can win in Qingdao is unwavering. “I think we’ve reinvented the Olympic campaign model,” Sperry says. “John has done a real good job [with that]. We went into this thing to win it.”
It paid off at the trials in Santa Monica, though they didn’t do as well as they had hoped at the Worlds in Miami. But Dane had said before the race that they would use it mainly as another opportunity to test a light-air boat and equipment against the world’s best, and continue their preparations for Qingdao, where they will face 15 boats, not 279. Winding up 22nd among 280 teams, Dane-Sperry finished in the top 10 in three of the five races they completed but were disqualified for a starting violation in a sixth race.
“We are still very comfortable with our program development and feel good about our chances in China,” Dane says.
The Star class has incredible depth. Six of the 16 Star teams in this year’s Olympics have won world championships. “The level of competition is so tough there is probably any one of 10 teams that can medal,” Dane says. He includes himself and Sperry among them.
Win, lose or draw, “I love to compete in everything, from business, sailing, ping-pong, pool, you name it,” he says. Of course, Dane would much rather win, and that is exactly what he has been preparing for. “I … will certainly leave no stone unturned to try and bring home a medal.”