Katrina survivor’s Olympian efforts win him a berth on US sailing team

John Dane III made several failed Olympic bids before the 2005 hurricane destroyed his yacht manufacturing business. He persevered, rebuilt his business, and is now sailing for gold.

Peter Andrews/Reuters
Team work: US Olympic sailors John Dane III and Austin Sperry approach the finish line of race one at the Games on August 15 in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China.

John Dane III considers the improbability of his story with a suitably far-off look.

The sailor’s first Olympics might have begun today, but the journey to reach them began when he showed up to his first Olympic trials in a borrowed boat 40 years ago.

Since then, Mr. Dane has made six more failed attempts to qualify for the Olympic regatta. He has founded a multimillion-dollar yacht-making company, Trinity Yachts, and then rebuilt it almost from scratch after Hurricane Katrina submerged it in its 13-foot floodwaters. And last month he turned 58, making him the oldest Olympian in Beijing save a Canadian equestrian.

“It is a testament to hard work and a never-give-up-attitude,” says Dane in his best attempt at retrospection.

In truth, he seems to have little interest in weaving his story into the kind of mythology that fuels the Olympics. It is true that he gave half a million dollars of his own money to his employees to help them rebuild their lives after Katrina. But he would much rather talk of the time in the Bahamas that his Olympic crew member and son-in-law, Austin Sperry, was duct-taped to a tree.

Apparently, seven thousand miles is not nearly enough to take the South out of the sailor. Sitting at the breakfast buffet of his hotel in Qingdao several weeks before the Olympics began, Dane flirted good-naturedly with platinum-haired Scandinavian sailors at a nearby table. Laughing, he recalled his words to Mr. Sperry when he first sensed his future son-in-law was partial to his eldest daughter: “This is Mississippi, son. I’ve got a shotgun and a shovel, and you won’t be missed.”

Yet even at breakfast, where the congeniality of his Southern drawl seemed like an audible slap on the back, there was evidence of another John Dane: the CEO and Olympian.

Around him sat coaches and training partners. Some help him with his fitness – 80 minutes of aerobics and weight training daily for a man as sturdy as oak. Others hone his tactics. One even rammed Dane, punching a hole in the side of his star-class boat during a particularly intense training session.

Before this Olympic quadrennial, Dane had not done so much as hired a coach. “This is the most concerted effort I have ever made,” he says. “It’s my last chance.”

In that respect, he adds, his age and experience have been helpful. “I run a business,” he says, “so I understand the planning that goes into a major effort.”

There could be few bigger efforts than recovering from Katrina. “For two to three days after [the hurricane], we didn’t even know if the other was alive,” says Wayne Bourgeois, Dane’s business partner of more than 30 years and cofounder of Trinity Yachts.

Four days after the hurricane passed, Mr. Bourgeois and Dane took a helicopter to survey the damage at their New Orleans shipyard. Thirty-million dollar, 150-foot-long yachts, which were lashed to storm-battered moorings, had bobbed like corks in the rising floodwaters and needed repairs. But the facility was gutted and with much of New Orleans destroyed – lacking power, roads, or phone lines – it would take months to get the shipyard back online.

Despite the scenes of destruction, Bourgeois has only one memory of the flight back to Dane’s home in Mississippi: a determined calm. “We were shocked by what we saw, but we knew exactly what we wanted to do,” he says.

Within six weeks, Trinity Yachts had begun operating again. Dane and Bourgeois bought an old shipyard in Mississippi that had largely escaped damage. Some $4 million in trailer homes were brought in for workers who had lost their houses in the storm. A gift of $1,500 was offered to any of the 500 employees who needed it. And the salvaged yachts were floated down the coast to the new shipyard.

“We had no clothes but what we had on our backs,” says Martin Foster, hull construction foreman for Trinity Yachts, who moved into one of the trailer homes after Katrina. “That was a gift that was really appreciated.”

Today, Trinity Yachts is nearly double the size it was before Katrina, building about six yachts a year with some two dozen on backorder. “After John sets his mind to getting something done, it will get done,” says Bourgeois.

It is this competitiveness that cuts across both Dane’s athletic and business lives. “I get as upset if I lose a boat contract as if I lose a race,” he says.

Son-in-law Sperry had not expected this side of Dane. Over time, he overcame the shock of the initial meeting – “I’d never been to Mississippi. I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ ” Some six years later, in 2005, he found himself engaged to Dane’s daughter and entered into a sailing regatta with the man himself.

“It was pretty awkward,” he says. “I was just planning on having a good time.”

Despite the lack of preparation, they finished second, beating many Olympic hopefuls. Their success can be attributed to the combination of Sperry’s youthful strength and athleticism, Dane’s engineering mind – always calculating angles and the forces of wind, steel, and sail – and no small amount of yelling.

“We do make a good team,” says Dane. “We do get very emotional, but we have learned to keep everything on the water.”

With a new boat designed specifically for the racing conditions in Qingdao, one thing Dane hopes to take from the water next month is a medal. “The initial goal was to win the [US Olympic] trials, but we’ve raised the bar now,” he says. “I will be disappointed if we don’t return with a medal.”

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