Jahn Tihansky had to be cajoled into accepting the job coaching the Naval Academy varsity offshore sailing team. Nearly two decades later, Tihansky is leaving the program in much better shape than he found it, creating an impressive legacy of success on every front.
Last week, Tihansky announced his retirement after 19 seasons. He will finish out the fall season before stepping away
“After countless hours and miles on the water training midshipmen, the time has come for me to step down,” Tihansky said in a statement. “Plenty of challenges lie ahead for the program and having a resourceful and energetic new leader in place will ensure its legacy of developing and producing the best leaders possible continues.”
Tihansky is believed to be the longest-tenured head coach in program history and under his direction the Navy varsity offshore sailing team captured 11 McMillan Cups and four Kennedy Cups, two prestigious regattas contested on Chesapeake Bay.
Tihansky made it a priority to further enhance the development of Navy varsity offshore sailors by having them compete in major ocean races during their summer training blocks. During his tenure, Navy crews consistently posted podium placements in such renowned point-to-point passages as Annapolis-to-Newport, Newport-to-Bermuda and Marion-to-Bermuda among others.
Tihansky estimates that almost 500 midshipmen completed those three primary races to Bermuda, all of which present a stern test of seamanship.
“I’m extremely proud of the high number of team members that raced to Bermuda. All those midshipmen accomplished something a large percentage of competitive sailors never get a chance to do,” Tihansky said.
One of the most memorable offshore passages was the 2012 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, which famously featured gale-force winds and dangerously rough seas. Ralph Duffett skippered a Navy team aboard the TP52 Invictus that completed the 635-mile passage in 53 hours. Invictus was one of six boats in that race that broke the long-standing course record.
“I will never forget that race because the conditions were so extreme. It was blowing 50-60 knots for hours and we were out in the middle of the ocean battling and competing when so many other boats either broke down or withdrew,” Tihansky said.
Navy teams have completed three Bermuda races aboard the high-performance TP52, a grand prix racing machine normally sailed by all-professional crews.
“These midshipmen never cease to amaze me. Most of them come to the academy with zero sailing experience and they leave as very accomplished competitive racers,” Tihansky said.
Navy crews secured overall victory by virtue of posting the best corrected time in the last two editions of the Marblehead-to-Halifax. In total, the Navy varsity offshore sailing team has captured class honors or finished first in fleet for 13 major ocean races.
Navy teams have also competed in such major events as the New York Yacht Club Annual Regatta, Block Island Race Week, Key West Race Week and the Bayview-to-Mackinac Race.
Over the years, Tihansky has become one of the most respected figures in the Annapolis sailboat racing community and his strong connections have benefited Navy in multiple ways. Among those most notable was his ability to attract talented and experienced sailors to serve as volunteer coaches.
Tihansky has leveraged the area racing circuit to enhance the training regimen of his midshipmen. Navy varsity crews routinely participate in numerous notable Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association events such as Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta, Annapolis Labor Day Regatta, Race to Oxford and Hospice Cup.
In a press release announcing Tihansky’s pending retirement, the Naval Academy Athletic Association said it will immediately initiate a national search for a replacement. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk expects the successful candidate to assume leadership of the program prior to the spring season.
“A few words cannot adequately express our gratitude for a leader who has established a legacy forever enshrined in the annals of our distinguished sailing history,” Gladchuk said in a statement. “Coach Tihansky has influenced the character development of hundreds of midshipmen by educating them in a matter that always prioritized personal confidence, determination to learn, safety first and team unity.”
Gladchuk described Tihansky as the “finest offshore sailing coach in the country as well as a gentleman, an accomplished educator and true professional in his sport.”
Making Gladchuk’s task of finding a successor even more difficult is the fact Navy is also losing a respected veteran assistant coach. Pete Carrico, who has been with the program since 2000, had submitted his retirement paperwork several months before Tihansky.
Carrico has worked at the Naval Academy in some capacity for 34 years, initially as a rigger at the small craft repair facility located at Naval Support Activity Annapolis across the Severn River from the academy. The 65-year-old Annapolis resident was promoted to lead the Vandergrift Cutter Shed Maintenance Division before being hired as a varsity assistant by former head coach Brad Dellenbaugh.
Having worked hand-in-hand with Tihansky for the past two decades, Carrico stated flatly that identifying a competent replacement will be challenging.
“Those are going to be tough shoes to fill. JT has brought a high level of professionalism to every facet of the program,” Carrico said.
Carrico recalls many of Tihansky’s favorite phrases used when imparting the importance of personal responsibility whenever aboard a competitive racing sailboat. “You’re not in the backseat of your grandmother’s car” and “there is always a tiger hiding behind a tree,” were among one-liners Tihansky repeated when preaching about such factors as operational risk management and maintaining high professional standards.
“JT basically was explaining that you cannot be a passenger on these boats. Every sailor has a role with responsibilities and they all need to be alert and proactive while aboard,” Carrico said.
Carrico mentioned that Tihansky routinely remained in his office on the second floor of the Robert Crown Sailing Center until 9 p.m. or later during the season. Members of the team stopped by the office at all hours of the day seeking advice or wisdom.
“I think all the midshipmen that came through the program under the watch of JT respected him immensely,” Carrico said. “He was always very dedicated to the mission.”
Tihansky, who was born and raised in Tampa, Florida, worked for Johnson Sails while in high school. That summer job led to a 17-year career as a sailmaker with Hood and Sobstad. During that time, Tihansky became one of the top skippers on the J/24 racing circuit, competing in major class events against such future National Sailing Hall of Fame members as John Kostecki and Kenny Read.
Tihansky left the sail-making business to become owner of the J/World franchise located in Annapolis. He operated the J/World facility in Eastport for 12 years and was content doing so when the Naval Academy started searching for a coach to replace Dellenbaugh.
Commander Gerard Vandenburg was the deputy director of Naval Academy Sailing at the time and received multiple applications from candidates that listed Tihansky as a reference. Vandenburg conducted some research and discovered that Tihansky transformed beginner sailors into competent racers capable of competing at grand prix events.
Vandenburg arranged a lunch meeting, ostensibly to get Tihansky’s opinion of those applicants that listed him as a reference. However, Vandenburg’s real motive was to convince Tihansky to accept the job.
“I declined right then and there. I told Gerard that I owned a business and it just was not going to work,” Tihansky said. “He would not take no for an answer and told me to figure out what it would take to make this happen.”
Later that day, Tihansky received a stern message from renowned sailing ambassador, author and lecturer Gary Jobson demanding a meeting first thing the next morning. Jobson, a longtime member of the Fales Committee that advises the Naval Academy Sailing Foundation, did not pull any punches,
“Tihanksy, you would be a complete idiot to not take this job,” Jobson said.
Tihansky promoted some of his employees to manage J/World Annapolis and provided what oversight he could for the next 10 years while remaining as owner.
Tihansky’s first day in the new position was August 1, 2005, and Vandenburg left his position three days later. Navy varsity offshore sailing had been without a head coach for a year and a half since Dellenbaugh departed and there was much work to be done.
Team captain Greg Storer and Lieutenant Chris Perry, the program’s operations officer, deserve huge credit for getting the Naval Academy newbie up to speed, Tihansky said.
“I was a complete fish out of water at first. I knew nothing about how this place worked. Greg and Chris helped me learn the ropes and get up and running,” he said.
Navy enjoyed tremendous success during the 2005 fall season, winning the McMillan Cup, Kennedy Cup and U.S. National Offshore Championship for the Lloyd Phoenix Trophy.
“Winning greases many skids around here, so it helped immensely that we got off to such a strong start,” Tihansky said.
Tihansky was 42 years old at the time and his experience teaching novices from all walks of life how to race sailboats at a high level proved invaluable. He merely needed to adjust his approach in order to make the transition to coaching.
“The big difference is that midshipmen are not my clients. They are my students. You clean up after clients. You cut clients slack when they don’t behave the way you hope,” Tihansky said. “With midshipmen, my job was to be the disciplinarian and compel them to learn their responsibilities. That was a big shift in my mentality.”
Tihansky is grateful for the many supportive people during those early years whose assistance allowed him to focus on what he did best: team building and teaching individuals how to operate as a functional unit on a competitive sailboat.
“I know how to teach someone how to sail from the ground up. Knowing how to impart the fundamentals and techniques, that’s a skill set you really need to push these mids uphill quickly,” he said.
Tihansky quickly realized that he also needed to train team members how to handle the unexpected. Being able to respond appropriately in moments of crisis is imperative while racing in the middle of the ocean.
“We teach the procedures and routines and these midshipmen learn how to do them very well. When all of a sudden something goes wrong and you’re off script, how do you react?” he said. “I’ve learned how to see those types of things coming and prepare sailors for those instances.”
For Tihansky, the best aspect of the job has been building relationships that last. He stays in contact with a large number of offshore sailing team alums and enjoys following their military careers. It is gratifying to hear those graduates attribute their success to the lessons learned and experience gained as members of the program.
Matt Recker, captain of the 2008 Navy varsity offshore sailing team, is currently a Marine Corps major and helicopter pilot stationed at Quantico. He described Tihansky as the type of person “any midshipman would want to emulate.”
“JT is very good at developing a personal connection with every member of the team. I for one am incredibly grateful for the influence and impact he made on me,” Recker said. “On the way to transforming us into good sailors, he gave us a chance to make good mistakes in a controlled environment. We discovered in this little leadership laboratory what our strengths and weaknesses were. We learned how to capitalize on our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses.”