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Innovation – Robie Pierce

The competitor as innovator

The competitor as innovator

The sailing trophies Robie Pierce has won in six decades of racing are, for the most part, gone, discarded like worthless trinkets. There was one for the J-30 North American Championship, another for the 1993 World Disabled Championship (a perpetual trophy), and many PHRF cups.

Innovation continues to drive all facets of the marine industry, everything from the design and construction of boats to new products and accessories. In these stories you will meet four very different companies that embody this creative, entrepreneurial spirit. Think big. Innovation – Harken   Innovation – Mystic River Foundry   Innovation – Weems & Plath

“Sailors by and large don’t have big trophy rooms like track stars or football stars,” says Pierce. “It would be conceited if you did.” And so he gives the hardware to his children or throws them out. Mementos, apparently, are not him.

Which is a bit odd, considering Pierce’s new business: personalized time and tide clocks. Send him a photo of your yacht or any other subject you’d like to preserve, and for about $80, in no time you’ll always know what the tide is doing, all the time.

At 67 Pierce could content himself with cruising through retirement in his wheelchair, contemplating the seasons as they flow by Newport, R.I. But he admits that even in sailing, he has never been much of a cruiser. “I’m very much a competitor. It’s very difficult for me to cruise,” he says. “I was always getting somebody to adjust the sails just right. If the jib was a little heavy [on a cruise] I’d say, ‘Do you mind letting that out a little bit?’ ”

There is a connection, a thread that runs between Pierce’s sailing and his clock-making. It takes knowing something about his boating life to unravel that thread. His zeal for the race is in his blood. When he began sailing at age 6 on Buzzards Bay, he had his father, Russell Pierce, as a model. “In his day in the ’30s to ’50s, he was a legend in southeastern Massachusetts,” Pierce says. “He raced Herreshoff S-boats and 12.5-footers.”

And he didn’t keep trophies, either. “My father had hundreds of them,” Pierce recalls. “My mother threw them away. She didn’t want to polish them.”

By his late teens Pierce was aboard the legendary Swamp Yankee when, in the 1960 Bermuda Race, having apparently won the overall trophy, Carleton Mitchell nipped ahead in an even more storied yacht, Finisterre, to win for the third time in a row. Two years later, Swamp Yankee, a Block Island 40, was first in class and third overall.

By this time, Pierce was going into his senior year at the University of Vermont. “I also loved to ski,” he says. UVM had no collegiate sailing, but “even then, I did a lot of offshore racing, Southern circuits [SORC]. I started sailing on bigger boats. Then I graduated and started working in [the] marine industry.”

Pierce became vice president of sales for O’Day Corp. and Allied Yachts. He was an executive with J/Boats for several years and then moved on to C&C. “One of my assets was I could go out [with a customer] and race a boat and do well, and we’d come back and translate that into sales,” he says. “Then I had my own company a few years and then in ’86 to ’89, I was marketing director for Carroll Marine.”

Before he started his own business, however, Pierce was diagnosed in 1985 with chronic, progressive multiple sclerosis. By 1991 he was in a wheelchair. By 1992 he had started entering races for disabled sailors. And in 1993, he won the Disabled Worlds in a regatta at Marblehead, Mass,. in an International 210.

“We had 21 boats from 19 countries,” he recalls. Returning to the dock following a win in the next to last race, Pierce and his crew — jib trimmer Rusty Sergeant and main trimmer Nick Bryan-Brown — realized they had won the championship without having to compete in the final race. “I don’t think anybody’s ever won the World [Championship] with that kind of margin,” Pierce says. “We beat strong horses from all over the world. When I was on the podium and they played the national anthem in honor of our team, that was pretty moving — a standing ovation and yelling and screaming. You sure forgot you had a disability then.”

“As a person,” says Sergeant, “he’s very generous and a gregarious guy. As a skipper, he’s intense but not in a negative way. His personality changes; he puts his game face on. But he’s not screamer. You know, you’re in competition. Football coaches get worked up. And other guys like [New England Patriots coach Bill] Belichick just stand there. A lot of ways I’d say he’s a lot like Belichick — thoughtful and knowledgeable and he focuses.”

“He’s very good,” confirms Jim Hunt, former president of O’Day, who began sailing with and against Pierce when they were young. “I’ve also sailed with him since he’s had MS. I just marvel at the guy. I would say his style is he’s an aggressive, smart sailor.”

Adds Sergeant: “He’s always a salesman. He’s a hustler.”

Once diagnosed with MS, Pierce began hustling to make sailing available to other individuals with disabilities. His first effort came in 1989 when he joined Shake-A-Leg, a Rhode Island non-profit corporation whose mission is helping individuals with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities. The organization, which used sailing among other activities as therapy, was 7 years old.

“I used my expertise and contacts in the sailing world to really bring the program from what I’ve always called an agricultural program to a world-renowned program,” says Pierce. “They had a couple of boats, and theydidn’t know what to do with them. I got my friends in the advertising business to put a brochure together. We put ads together for boating magazines, did public service ads. Between that and getting more boats in the programs — and I started the national championships called the Independence Cup — we go through a couple thousand sailing opportunities a year here.”

In 1991, Pierce says he conceived an event called the Wall Street Challenge, a fund-raiser that has generated more than $3 million for spinal cord rehabilitation programs that Shake-A-Leg runs in the summer and for the charity’s other programs. “It started out in the investment world. We got Bear Stearns and Credit Suisse and the American Stock Exchange” along with other firms to participate, he says. “My idea was to re-create an America’s Cup weekend in the 12 Meters. The entry fee is $30,000, and they can bring along 10 associates, whether it be clients or vice presidents or maybe a top performer for a certain department.”

The corporate competitors are each given a leased 12 Meter to race and are housed in a leased Newport mansion for the weekend. When those costs are deducted, the balance goes to the charity, he says.

“I’m still with Shake-A-Leg as director of sailing,” says Pierce. “I [was] chairman of the Sailors With Special Needs Committee of US Sailing for four years in the 1990s. Until 2004 I was on the executive committee of the International Federation of Disabled Sailors, a subcommittee under ISAF [International Sailing Federation].”

Pierce has given to disabled sailing, and he has been a beneficiary. “In 15 years I won the world match racing champs in Tokyo in ’94, and in ’92, which was America’s Cup in San Diego, I put together the disabled match racing championship in San Diego. I won in ’93 in Marblehead and defended in ’94 in England. From there, I’ve been to Spain, Germany, Sweden. I’ve done many more miles in a wheelchair than I ever would have done on my own two feet because of the opportunities I saw in disabled sailing. The story of my life is if you keep moving ahead you’ll find opportunities.”

Now Pierce moves around Newport on motorized tricycles he designed, and he moves a cursor around on his computer screen, creating his tide and time clocks. The business, EMA Clockworks ( ), is one more opportunity he has found by continuing to look forward.

“You always look for something people don’t have,” Pierce says. “Not many people have tide clocks, and not many people would say they don’t want one if you give it to them. I found that they make great commissioning and Christmas presents and great gifts for crew.” With his yacht club contacts, he has found a way to market his clocks.

The quartz mechanisms come from California. The redwood frames come from Missoula, Mont. Pierce creates graphics — burgees or code flags, for example — on his computer and places them with the artwork selected by the customer.

He has branched out from yachting and produces clocks for corporations, Red Sox baseball fans, and the like. Ironically, he’s been producing a lot of sailing trophies. “That’s where my market’s going to be,” Pierce says. And he expects his clock trophies to reverse a trend. “You can’t throw away a clock.”