Seven years ago, if you had told Jahn Tihansky, owner J/ World Annapolis, that he would be the head coach of the U.S Naval Academy (USNA) varsity offshore sailing team, he would have told you that you were nuts. With a sailing school to run, he wasn’t exactly looking for work – certainly not the kind which would consume 60 or 70 hours per week in sailing season. But, opportunity knocked. After much debate, as well as some prodding from Annapolis sailor Gary Jobson, (who’s a “rainmaker,” says Tihansky), who assured him that it was the opportunity of a lifetime, the business owner had to quickly find a way to make his school run without him and immerse himself into his new challenging post. Six years later, Coach T, as the midshipmen call him, is still surprised at his good fortune and how well the pieces have come together.
A native of Tampa, FL, Tihansky’s family joined the Davis Island YC “because it had a pool.” Curiosity and courage enough to hitch a ride on a Cal 27 at the age of 12 led him deep into the sport. “The crew figured out that I’d do anything on the boat from open beers to set the spinnaker, so they taught me to sail,” he says, which opened the door to yacht deliveries and many years of interesting racing experiences such as the 1978 Key West to Cuba Race.
After having run his own Sobstad loft as a young man and a stint at Sobstad’s corporate headquarters in Connecticut, Tihansky moved to Annapolis where he worked for Sobstad for four years before his opportunity to run J/World Annapolis and in 1993, to buy the sailing school. It was his brainchild, the J/World big boat winter training program – during which students would train for and successfully compete in big regattas such as the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race and Key West Race Week – that fit the type of coaching experience USNA was seeking.
What makes the USNA offshore sailing team unique is that beyond winning sailboat races, participation on the team counts as professional leadership development. “Other sports just can’t compare to a kid leading a team of seven to prepare a big boat to go to Bermuda or even down the Bay,” says Tihansky, who says that coaches are on the boats as mentors, but the team runs the boat. “It’s a huge responsibility to learn to take care of an asset and take care of teammates. In the tough situations, that’s when your character comes out – you’re puking and cold. It’s 2 a.m., and you’re called on watch. The crew must perform. They have to drive, trim sails, navigate, and compete. We do sail to sail well. In early November, Coach T’s USNA varsity offshore sailing team clinched top honors in the Kennedy Cup, which serves as the intercollegiate Sailing Association’s Offshore National Championship. The team, led by senior skipper Dillon Foster, won five of nine races and beat the nine other teams that qualified for the event; among them were SUNY-Maritime, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, and St. Mary’s College.
Has anything surprised you about working at USNA?
The rate at which these kids climb the ladder is very high. We will take five or six boats to Bermuda next summer and 40 percent of those kids will only have sailed for nine months. They are on a fast track…I also hadn’t considered how this job and the kids’ level of fitness would keep me young. I am fitter now than I used to be by just keeping up. It’s a perk.
What’s your favorite place on the Bay?
I sail my A-Cat out of the West River SC in Galesville. That’s a neat little part of the world down there.
What are your non-sailing passions?
I fly. I have a pilot’s license and don’t get out there nearly enough, so sometimes I take lessons. I also have a work bench and like fixing stuff.
What’s on your iPod?
I like old rock and roll: Eric Clapton, the Neville Brothers, even something like Lynard Skynard. Some Jimmy Buffett.
Have you read any good books lately?
I just read John Adams by David McCullough. Adams was instrumental in getting the U.S. Navy started. I also read some fiction, The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth.
What sailing gear do you depend on?
A Skiff/Wet Suit, a smock top, Musto offshore top and bibs, Offshore Boots, quickdry undergarments, rash guard-type stuff – and Gill wet socks. Someone recently turned me on to Atlas $5 garden gloves. Awesome grip.
What’s your advice to a young racing sailor?
Don’t get frustrated by not winning. You have to have patience. Keep your ears open. There are a lot of great people in this sport willing to share information. Find those people. Don’t give up.
Article and Interview written by Molly Winans, published in Spinsheet December 2011.