The sport of sailing earlier this year lost a life-long advocate whose commitment to growing participation literally touched hundreds, from veteran sailors to movie stars, as well as youth-introduction and skill-development programs. Friends and fellow sailors said Norman Oscar Olsen sailed his last race. He was 91.
Olsen will be memorialized Saturday at Florida’s Clearwater Community Sailing Center and later this spring in Lake Forest Illinois, a testament to his impact on sailing programs from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.
Olsen’s lifelong passion for sharing the excitement of sailing and ocean racing didn’t happen by chance. It was handed down by his parents, who founded the Georgetown Racing Fleet and dedicated years to cruising and building a community of like-minded sailors on the Delaware and Sassafras rivers, in addition to Chesapeake Bay. However, his influence was destined to go far beyond that area.
After graduating from high school, Olsen began writing and managing sales for The Skipper, an Annapolis, Md.-based magazine. It was during this time that he began racing in the Star Class and crewing for legendary Star designer and builder Bob Lippincott. This led to sailing with many of the sport’s top names, including Dick Bertram, Rod Stephens, Stuart Walker, Carlton Mitchell, Steve Colgate and Henry “Bunny” Rigg.
Olsen could capture a crowd whenever he shared his experiences from more than ocean 100,000 miles in such races as the Miami to Nassau, the Lipton Cup, Annapolis-Newport, Miami-Havana, the Kahlua Cup, Carlisle Cup, dozens of SORC events and many others.
Perhaps the most memorable among his four Newport-Bermuda Races was the 1960 edition at the helm of Jubilee II. Conditions were the roughest in the race’s history, with winds to 80 knots for 18 hours. In fact, the wind actually blew the water flat with flotsam and jetsam flying across the surface. The boat finished second, and Olsen was hailed for steering his crew safely through the storm.
The Olsen family was living in the Chicago area when the phone rang and legendary screen actor Gregory Peck asked Olsen for his advice on buying a boat for a movie he would be making about Robin Lee Graham, who at the time was the youngest person to single-handedly sail around the world. Olsen helped Peck buy seven 23-foot Ranger sailboats that were similar to the Lapworth 24 that Graham had sailed and shipped for location filming.
After a few days of shooting in the South Pacific, it became clear to Peck that he needed a boat-handling expert on set. Olsen was named the film’s marine director and was on a flight to Fiji the next day.
As commodore of Crystal Lake Yacht Club in northern Michigan, Olsen developed an enduring sailing school that showed members his vision for increasing membership and growing the sport, making lessons available to junior sailors using Optimist prams. He loved racing C-Scow and E-Scow sailboats with his wife, Gail, and his daughters Kirstin and Freya. (Freya is director of industry relations at NMMA.)
On Lake Michigan in Lake Forest, Ill., Olsen advocated for sailing as a priority of the Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Department. While some doubted a program could be put together, Olsen was undeterred, reaching out to members of the community and raising funds for the acquisition of Optimist prams, Vanguard 420s, safety boats and all the equipment needed to run learn-to-sail and learn-to-race programs.
His efforts garnered a variety of awards, including Outstanding Year-Round Sailing Program from US Sailing, an Outstanding Illinois Park District Program award, and several individual community service awards.
Olsen relocated to Clearwater, Fla., but it wasn’t in his nature to kick back in the sun and just go sailing. He joined the Clearwater Yacht Club and held posts as rear commodore, vice commodore and commodore. He became deeply involved in the development of the junior sailing program, as well as sailing in many local regattas and SORC races.
Olsen was a founding member of the Clearwater Olympic Yachting Committee, serving as its vice president and director. He was also a founder of the Clearwater Community Sailing Center, which produced four Olympic sailors, three of which medaled. And until his passing, it wasn’t unusual to find him sharing stories and teaching basics to junior sailors at the center.
At age 91, Olsen fulfilled a lifelong dream of becoming a published author. He finished a book centered on his childhood dog, titled Ronny Come Home. Ronny was his constant sailing partner. The motivation for the book was to help people turn grief into gratitude by recalling the good times. Olsen was known to say: “If you turn your face to the sun, all your shadows fall behind you.”
In giving so much to sailing, this quintessential gentleman impacted so many lives, and I’m pleased to share a few of his many contributions to the sport.
Sailing needs more Norman Olsens. And while he won’t be at the next race in Clearwater, I have no doubt he’ll be watching and smiling.