University of Hawaii sailing coach sails into the history books

By Ann Miller, Special to the Star-Advertiser

You could just say all three coaches are members of the College Sailing Hall of Fame and leave it at that. It speaks of something rare and special.

But there is so much more to University of Hawaii sailing, celebrating its 50th season this year, and its trio of celebrated coaches.

The latest is Andy Johnson, now in his 30th year. He sailed for UH in Charley Dole’s first year as coach.

Andy Johnson, the University of Hawaii Sailing Coach, at work coaching the UH Sailing team during a practice session in the waters off the UH Maritime Education and Training Center, Sand Island, Tuesday, February 26, 2019.

Graduate student Ted Livingston founded the program in the fall of 1969. He put up signs on campus asking students interested in joining a sailing team to send a note to the history department.

The rest is remarkable sailing history, driven by three diverse guys who kept the atmosphere much calmer than Hawaii’s legendary tradewinds — and just as kind.

Livingston, who coached the opening decade, was inducted into the Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association Hall of Fame in 1982. Dole followed in 1995.

Johnson was honored in 2012, and the story of his impact is still being written. He turns 60 next year and has coached UH more than half his life.

He probably could not have predicted that while growing up playing ice hockey and sailing on White Bear Lake in Minnesota, where his father coached both sports.

“Sailing all summer until the lake froze,” recalls Johnson, “then skating and playing hockey when the water got hard.”

It led him to the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. After one season of college hockey, and “after getting pretty beat up,” he decided to give college sailing a shot and wrote some letters.

Livingston responded, and Johnson sailed for Dole at UH from 1981-83. He served off and on as Dole’s assistant until taking over in 1989 for a salary similar to what legendary volleyball coach Dave Shoji earned early on: about $5,000.

Johnson initially had five sailors. Now there are more than 20 on the roster, with a fully funded women’s program, a dedicated sailing center and no scholarships. Those aren’t allowed by the ICSA.

Johnson’s full-time gig is in Student Recreation Services, part of the school’s Student Life &Development Program. On the side, for trivia buffs, he played in Hawaii’s first organized hockey game at the Ice Palace.

He is also the only coach at UH, aside from Shoji, to coach a national championship team.

UH claimed the women’s sailing national championship in 2001. The coed team won the ICSA dinghy national title in 2004.

“When you look now at the mountain needed to climb to make that happen, you kind of step back and ask yourself, How did we pull that off, how did we make that happen?” Johnson concedes.

Today, UH sailing has made more than 60 national championship appearances and featured 34 All-Americans and five Olympians. Johnson coached two-time Olympian John Myrdal heading into the 1996 Olympic Trials.

He also mentored 2012 Olympian Molly (O’Bryan) Vandermoer. The three-time All-American was the 2002 Jack Bonham Award winner and anchored the 2001 national championship team, guiding UH to the win on the last leg of the final race.

Asked about how she would remember her UH career, she once said, “Sailing here, every day, is so much better than anywhere else you’ve ever sailed.”

Johnson has been the one constant the last 30 years, aside from those tradewinds. Former UH All-American Jesse Andrews has been his assistant since he graduated in 1997.

“I am truly blown away with what Andy has done with the team during his tenure,” says John Higham, one of Livingston’s original team members, who apologizes for his pun. “Without Andy’s constant drive and vision, the sailing team wouldn’t be what it is today.”

University of Hawaii sailing coach Andy Johnson and Hayden Lahr rigged a Flying Junior sailboat Feb. 26 before a practice session in the waters off the UH Maritime Education and Training Center at Sand Island.

That consistency and dedication— from Livingston, Dole and Johnson — clearly have made their mark and helped Hawaii make its mark in a sport dominated by East Coast schools.

Sailing here is different, from our isolated tropical location to those wild tradewinds and the close-knit spirit of pretty much every team that has competed, and remained friends. Lately Johnson has run out of boats at alumni regattas.

“Having consistent people keeping track of long-term goals and ideas is important,” he says. “Trying to keep things like a family and have the sailors on the team look after each other and become lifelong friends is important.”

So is school, and for every All- American and Olympian, there are many more doctors, engineers, teachers and other successful professionals off the water.

“I think what I get out of it after all of these years of working with the students,” Johnson says, “is seeing them grow as people and then seeing where life takes them. There were lots of new babies at our 50th alumni regatta.”

In less than 20 years, those kids could be on the team. Recruiting sailors is not an exact science, especially here.

“Like most other sports at UH, you have to find the athlete that has a spirit of adventure and wants to embrace Hawaii and UH,” Johnson says. “We have been able to do that by bringing in top skippers from junior programs throughout the country, but mostly from the West Coast.

“All these skippers need crew, and sometimes we need to find students who are on campus that fit the profile of what we look for in a good crew. Good athlete, the right weight, they must like the water and be willing to learn. The percentage of the sailors we find on campus is maybe 20 percent.”

He had no idea this adventure would last so long when he came here searching for warm weather nearly 40 years ago. This year’s senior-laden team wants its last college race to be at the National Championship in Newport, R.I., in three months.

After that, Johnson doesn’t sound like he is going anywhere.

“Looks like we have a really good recruiting class for next year,” he said.

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