The Ad­mi­ral

If a life well lived is mea­sured by the friends made, the peo­ple touched and the deeds ac­com­plished, Ralf Steitz has earned a five-star rank for his com­mand of the sport of sail­ing.

Sailing World - - Sled - By Sean McNeill, Pho­tog­ra­phy by Paul Todd/ Out­side Im­ages

Ralf Steitz, pres­i­dent of U. S. Mer­chant Ma­rine Academy Sail­ing Foun­da­tion, speaks his mind. His friends say it’s one of his most en­dear­ing qual­i­ties — that and his rep­u­ta­tion as a ve­ra­cious and con­vivial old soul. Yes, Steitz, 55, is quintessen­tially Ger­man: di­rect and clear about his in­ten­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions of those under his watch, of whom there have been many. You al­ways know where you stand with “Ral­fie,” one of Amer­i­can off­shore sail­ing’s most in­flu­en­tial lead­ers today.

Steitz grew up on Heligoland, a Ger­man archipelago of two is­lands in the south­east corner of the North Sea. It’s an area with an ex­plo­sive his­tory, oc­cu­pied by the Dan­ish and Bri­tish, and evac­u­ated during both world wars to avoid mass ca­su­al­ties. From 1945 to 1952, when the is­land was under Bri­tish con­trol, Heligoland was used as a bomb­ing range. The Royal Navy once det­o­nated 6,700 tons of ex­plo­sives in one of the largest sin­gle non- nu­clear det­o­na­tions in his­tory.

By the time Steitz was born in Jan­uary 1963, Heligoland had mor­phed into a tourist des­ti­na­tion for Ger­mans. Steitz’s par­ents owned a restau­rant on the is­land, which en­joyed great vis­i­tor rates as a duty- free zone. Cig­a­rettes, al­co­hol and per­fume were eas­ier to come by than in main­land Ger­many, 30 miles to the east. In the late 1960s, Heligoland was also an idyl­lic train­ing venue for off­shore rac­ers. The tidal cur­rents sur­round­ing the .4-square-mile is­land and its smaller sis­ter is­land of­fered con­di­tions ap­prox­i­mat­ing the English Chan­nel.

Tri­als for the Ger­man Ad­mi­ral’s Cup team were con­ducted in Heligoland in 1969 and 1973, and the One Ton Cup was con­tested off its coast­line twice in the 1960s. The One Ton Cup in 1969, won by Chris Bouzaid’s New Zealand boat Rain­bow 2, whet­ted Steitz’s ap­petite for sail­ing at the age of 6.

“I was fas­ci­nated that th­ese guys from New Zealand trav­eled all the way to freak­ing Heligoland,” says Steitz. “It was guys like Roy Dick­son and Bouzaid, the first guys to leave New Zealand and be dom­i­nant over­seas.”

During the One Ton Cup in 1969, he adds, New Zealan­ders would visit his par­ents’ restau­rant. “They helped pay for my first Op­ti­mist,” he says.

Steitz quickly learned that sail­ing could be a means to “get off the rock,” and by 1975, when he was 12, he was sail­ing on the Dick Carter-de­signed Ca­rina III, a mem­ber of the win­ning 1973 Ger­man Ad­mi­ral’s Cup team, com­mand­ing the bow and earn­ing his stripes. Six years later, Steitz raced the Ad­mi­ral’s Cup for Ger­many aboard a Judel/vrolijk-de­signed 40-footer.

“I did my ap­pren­tice­ship as a sail­maker in a small loft above a boat­yard in Wedel, out­side of Ham­burg,” says Steitz. “It’s the same place where Judel/vrolijk had their first of­fice. I met Rolf Vrolijk, who de­signed Dus­sel­boot for the 1981 Ad­mi­ral’s Cup. It was built where I was work­ing and was easy to get on. I knew ev­ery­body.”

Steitz’s foray into the Ad­mi­ral’s Cup wasn’t his first visit to Eng­land. He went to Cowes Week in 1978, and was there again in 1979 aboard a 40- footer named Cham­pagne, hop­ing to make the Ger­man Ad­mi­ral’s Cup team. Cham­pagne didn’t make the cut, and Steitz was on board for the re­turn de­liv­ery to Ger­many during a Force 10 storm that rav­aged the Fast­net Race fleet. “We made it back in record time,” he says. “It was down­wind.”

Steitz came of age in a time when Ger­man rac­ing yachts were mak­ing an im­pact on the global rac­ing scene. The Ad­mi­ral’s Cup and the South­ern Ocean Rac­ing Con­fer­ence were pop­u­lar, and the Ger­man yachts Con­tainer, Diva, Dus­sel­boot, Out­sider,

Pinta and Sau­dade made head­lines. They were ground­break­ing yachts that pushed the hand­i­cap rules of the day, and Steitz, nick­named the “Bionic Baby” be­cause of his stout build and full head of blond hair, was smack in the mid­dle of it all. “I could kick any­one’s ass,” he says boast­fully, fol­lowed by a chuckle.

He sailed the Ad­mi­ral’s Cup three times, rep­re­sent­ing Ger­many in 1981, Aus­tria in 1985 and Aus­tralia in 1987, and has since crewed on a stag­ger­ing va­ri­ety of yachts. He has raced the four ma­jor ocean races and the world match-rac­ing cir­cuit. He also has three Amer­ica’s Cup cam­paigns under his belt, with Team Den­nis Con­ner in 1992 and 1995 and Paul Ca­yard’s Amer­i­caone in 2000. His for­tunes have been plen­ti­ful in the sport, a re­sult of his work ethic and sheer strength.

Steitz came of age in a time when Ger­man rac­ing yachts were mak­ing an im­pact on the global rac­ing scene — the Ad­mi­ral’s Cup and the South­ern Ocean Rac­ing Con­fer­ence.

“Sail­ing brought Ral­fie from Heligoland to the United States via the world,” says Ca­yard. “He was the pro­to­typ­i­cal young sailor who would do any­thing on a boat for the right of pas­sage to a for­eign land.”

Every­one he sailed with back then worked hard, Steitz says. “Doors have al­ways opened up for me when­ever I trav­eled, and I’ve al­ways wanted to give that back. I’ve been treated un­be­liev­ably nicely through the years, and I have to pay that for­ward.”

He’s reached that point in his life, he says, where he’s more in­ter­ested in ad­vanc­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties of oth­ers rather than his own. He’s dis­cov­ered the means to do so with War­rior Sail­ing, a pro­gram of the USMMA Sail­ing Foun­da­tion. The foun­da­tion solic­its ves­sel do­na­tions to be used for education and train­ing pro­grams, and since 2007, more than 150 yachts have been do­nated. The yachts must be re­tained for three years be­fore the foun­da­tion can sell them, and the con­tin­ual turnover of the do­na­tions helps fund the foun­da­tion’s pro­grams, in­clud­ing War­rior Sail­ing and the USMMA’S off­shore sail­ing pro­gram.

Steitz coached the Kings Point off­shore team as a vol­un­teer in the early 1990s af­ter set­tling in Port Washington, New York. Today, he’s taken it upon him­self to help teenage and 20-some­thing-year-old aspir­ing sailors find suc­cess­ful rac­ing ca­reers.

As a coach for the Morn­ing Light project in 2007, he saw a group of sailors from the ages of 18 to 23 race the Transpac aboard a TP52. He was also the driv­ing force be­hind the All- Amer­i­can Off­shore Team, an­other ef­fort that put young sailors in charge of a 65- footer for the Rolex Transat­lantic Race of 2011. Each time, the crew in­cluded Char­lie En­right and Mark Tow­ill, both prod­ucts of the Brown Univer­sity sail­ing team, and Chris Bran­ning, a USMMA-BRED nav­i­ga­tor.

Bran­ning, 32, en­rolled at the USMMA as a suc­cess­ful Laser sailor from high school af­ter hav­ing won the 2004 Cressy Tro­phy, the sin­gle­handed cham­pi­onship for high school­ers. Bran­ning says he never thought about sail­ing be­yond the Laser un­til he met Steitz, who helped him se­cure a year off from the ser­vice academy to par­tic­i­pate in the Morn­ing Light project when he was 22 years old.

“All I knew of Ral­fie be­fore I got to Kings Point was that he was the mys­tery bow­man from the Amer­ica’s Cup and a man to be re­spected,” says Bran­ning. “He’s a fa­cil­i­ta­tor, an ed­u­ca­tor. He doesn’t spike any­one in a pub­lic set­ting. His in­ter­est is in see­ing peo­ple grow, and no one grows that way. He praises you in pub­lic and tells you how to im­prove in pri­vate. He’s a guy who cares. Every day is the best day when you’re hang­ing out with Ral­fie. He’s like the coolest uncle you’ve ever had.”

En­right, Tow­ill and Bran­ning are among Steitz’s most prized pupils. The trio recorded a third-in-class in the 2007 Transpac Race, sixth place over­all in the 2011 Transat­lantic Race and third over­all in the 2011 Rolex Fast­net Race. Bran­ning has also nav­i­gated the su­per-maxi Rio 100 to Barn Door hon­ors in the 2015 Transpac Race and the elapsed­time record in the 2016 Pa­cific Cup (San Fran­cisco to Hawaii), while En­right and Tow­ill have gone on to twice rep­re­sent the United States in the Volvo Ocean Race with Team Alvimed­ica and Ves­tas 11th Hour Rac­ing.

“Ralf is the most benev­o­lent guy in all of sail­ing,” says En­right. “He pro­vides op­por­tu­nity to any­one with am­bi­tion. There is no way, ab­so­lutely no way, we would be where we are with­out Ralf’s help and the help of the USMMA Sail­ing Foun­da­tion.”

For his part, Steitz is hap­pier when he’s shar­ing his knowl­edge of sail­ing, es­pe­cially with younger age groups. Ca­yard says the most im­por­tant race the two did to­gether was the 2008 Pa­cific Cup, with six kids aboard the Ca­yard fam­ily’s Santa Cruz 50, Hula Girl. “Ral­fie was in his el­e­ment, shar­ing his sea­man­ship with the kids in a way that few adults can,” says Ca­yard. “He was in­struc­tive, mo­ti­vat­ing and nur­tur­ing all at once. He’s the most en­thu­si­as­tic per­son in sail­ing; up­beat, pos­i­tive and com­pe­tent.”

He’s now lend­ing those tal­ents to the bet­ter­ment of vet­er­ans of mil­i­tary ser­vice. One of his goals wher­ever he’s teach­ing is to in­crease par­tic­i­pa­tion in sail­ing. With War­rior Sail­ing, he’s also giv­ing vet­er­ans cop­ing with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der an al­ter­na­tive to sit­ting at home alone, strug­gling to in­te­grate with so­ci­ety.

“Ral­fie loves to be hands- on,” says Jen French, co-founder of War­rior Sail­ing. “He’s been coach­ing at the clin­ics from day one be­cause he loves work­ing with the

vet­er­ans, but the great thing about him is that he’s a vi­sion­ary. He can take a step back and see a di­rec­tion for­ward, and he turns his vi­sion into re­al­ity.”

War­rior Sail­ing grew out of Steitz’s de­sire to work with vet­er­ans. He had been a part­time coach for JP Creignou and French in their run- up to the 2012 Par­a­lympic Games, where the duo won a sil­ver medal in the two- per­son SKUD 18 class. Af­ter the Games, French, a quad­ri­plegic due to a snow­board­ing ac­ci­dent in 1998, sat with Steitz, and they put to­gether a frame­work for a sail­ing pro­gram that would ben­e­fit vet­er­ans.

“We had two premises,” says French. “We didn’t just want to take peo­ple for boat rides; we wanted to teach them sail­ing to ex­pand the sport.”

War­rior Sail­ing has ac­com­mo­dated more than 250 vet­er­ans since its first ba­sic sail­ing camp in Novem­ber 2013. Vet­er­ans, male and fe­male and with vary­ing dis­abil­i­ties, come from many parts of the United States for the week­long ses­sions that are com­pletely funded. Whether or not they’ve suffered the loss of a limb, nearly each one of them copes with some de­gree of PTSD. The more se­vere cases might pre­clude them from en­joy­ing com­mu­nal set­tings. Vet­er­ans miss the ca­ma­raderie of their brothers in arms, and War­rior Sail­ing helps find a way to ac­cli­mate to life again.

“What I love about this pro­gram is that it’s holis­tic,” says Corey Kapes, a cer­ti­fied ther­a­peu­tic re­cre­ation spe­cial­ist who joined War­rior Sail­ing af­ter work­ing with the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, help­ing vet­er­ans tran­si­tion back to home life. “It’s 100 per­cent group ther­apy; it’s oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy, phys­i­cal ther­apy, recre­ational ther­apy. We have the same goals and strive for the same out­comes whether it’s phys­i­cal, so­cial, emo­tional, you name it. We achieve ev­ery­thing achieved in a typ­i­cal re­hab set­ting; we’re just go­ing sail­ing to do it.”

War­rior Sail­ing has grown to of­fer ad­vanced clin­ics for vet­er­ans and also helps the vet­er­ans ad­min­is­tra­tion with its an­nual one-day sum­mer sports clin­ics in San Diego. It also has taken an­other 20 vet­er­ans di­rectly into off­shore races.

Sammy Lugo, one of the pro­gram’s first sailors, might be its great­est suc­cess story. Lugo served in the U.S. Army and lost his right leg in Iraq in 2007 during a rou­tine pa­trol. “We got a few hun­dred yards away from a check­point and got hit by a road­side bomb,” Lugo says. “I was the gun­ner in the ve­hi­cle, and I suffered my phys­i­cal ca­su­al­ties in the legs.”

Lugo’s left leg is am­pu­tated below the knee. He also broke his right leg in three places during the same in­ci­dent. He has par­tic­i­pated in as many sports as pos­si­ble as a means of ther­apy, in­clud­ing cycling, dragon- boat rac­ing and sail­ing, but stuck with sail­ing and has raced the J/ 22 Worlds, the Sonar Worlds, the Blind Sail­ing Worlds ( crew­ing for a friend), 12- Me­ters on Nar­ra­gansett Bay and the Mi­ami- Ha­vana Race on an 83- footer. Now he helps as a coach at the ba­sic sail­ing clin­ics.

“Sail­ing can be as easy as you want it to be or as hard as you want it to be,” says Lugo. “There are small boats and big boats, slow boats and fast boats. It de­pends on what you’re up for. In sail­ing, you get to­gether, eat to­gether, party, so­cial­ize. It’s a great group set­ting. Sail­ing has lifted me from be­ing home, do­ing noth­ing. Now, with coach­ing, I get in­vited back more of­ten. It’s fun.”

Steitz, French, Kapes, pro­gram di­rec­tor Ben Poucher, whom Steitz plucked from the ranks of Class 40 sail­ing, and the cadre of vol­un­teers that as­sist the pro­gram, depend­ing on its lo­cale, say the pro­gram is work­ing to put many peo­ple in sail­ing that might not oth­er­wise have the chance. Due to those ef­forts, and those of Dave Scott, a pro­fes­sional sailor, sail­ing is set to be a medal sport in the 2018 In­vic­tus Games in Aus­tralia in Oc­to­ber. The games are for wounded vet­er­ans of mil­i­tary ser­vice around the world, and sail­ing will be a fea­tured sport.

For his ef­forts, Steitz has been the re­cip­i­ent of nu­mer­ous awards, and whether he’s at a lectern de­liv­er­ing a key­note speech or teach­ing a fig­ure-eight knot to a vet­eran, he al­ways has every­one stand­ing at at­ten­tion, fig­u­ra­tively if not lit­er­ally. Q

Steitz is more in­ter­ested in ad­vanc­ing the op­por­tu­ni­ties of oth­ers than his own. He’s dis­cov­ered the means to do so with War­rior Sail­ing.

Ralf Steitz, who has spent his en­tire adult life on and with other peo­ple’s off­shore race­boats, sa­vors down­time at home in Trea­sure Is­land, Florida, play­ing in his own fleet of car­bon out­rig­ger ca­noes and as­sorted wa­ter toys.

On a rare Sun­day at home in Fe­bru­ary, be­tween the Rolex Syd­ney Ho­bart and the Caribbean 600, Steitz launches foil­ing pad­dle­boards with his wife, Jamie, and the adopted fam­ily hound.

Many of today’s top young Amer­i­can off­shore sailors credit Steitz for ad­vanc­ing their ca­reers.

From his home of­fice in Florida, Steitz man­ages more than 80 dif­fer­ent as­sets of the U.S. Mer­chant Ma­rine Academy, from RIBS to race­boats, sail in­ven­to­ries and crews, track­ing their every move­ment.

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