The lifelong sailor tells Grace Trofa he finds pleasure in building fast, innovative boats
I started sailing at the age of seven when a group of fathers at the Babylon Yacht Club built a bunch of Blue Jays for us. I loved it. By 13, I was working at a sail loft. I did that for years, then was captain of my sailing team at Georgetown University. Basically, I’ve been involved with sailing and competitive racing all my life.
I worked for Citicorp after graduation and once I was transferred to Minneapolis to open a business for them, I didn’t do much serious sailing. I did charter boats for family vacations to get my kids used to blue-water sailing. I kept notes on all those chartered boats so that once my kids were settled, I could build the boat I wanted.
The outcome was Whisper, my forever boat. We launched in 2003 and I’ve been sailing, cruising and Bucket racing ever since. I wanted a centreboard boat. I liked Ted Hood’s design, which really uses the beam of the boat for righting moments. I chose Holland Jachtbouw and they were ecstatic I wanted a classic interior. She’s 35.4 metres, with a 49 metre rig and 6,000 square feet of sail, and races extremely well.
I found the first Bella Mente on a rainy day at a shipyard in Saint-Tropez. Naturally, I liked her name, Sotto Voce (“under your breath”), as I had Whisper at the time. I made an offer I didn’t think the owner would accept, but he did and then we were in the business of racing a more serious boat.
He wouldn’t let me keep her name, so I sat down one night – I’m sure a bottle of wine was involved – and thought about how I feel when I’m on board. She has an Italian character, with a beautiful spirit and mind, so I chose Bella Mente.
We could race Whisper in a casual sense and not get worked up, but this is a whole other deal. We travel with 32 people and three 40ft containers; we’re totally self-sufficient. My favourite race is the Transpac. In 2011, we were the first to finish and I’ll never forget doing 25 knots, screaming downwind into the Molokai Channel. It was awesome. It was about 6am, the sun was coming up, the moon was still out and everything was that pink colour. We did that speed for the last 400 miles.
Regarding the America’s Cup challenge, you know I’m a trustee of the New York Yacht Club, so it was logical that we would be involved; they held the cup for 132 years. Doug [DeVos], Roger [Penske] and I absorbed the bulk of the challenge, but the philanthropy that came out of the club membership was wonderful.
That boat capsize [during AC36] was terrible. This time around, I think the boat is 100lb lighter and will be safer, but let’s face it, doing 45 knots on the water is dangerous. I’ve been on board and it feels like being in a race car. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time. For me, as long as my head is screwed on, this will go on.
I knew you would ask about the name Hap. I was three at a birthday party and they kept calling me by my given name, John. I kept saying, “No, Happy, Happy.” Well, it stuck. Later, Happy became Hap and so here I am, happy Hap.