Local sailing legend and Olympic gold medalist Robbie Haines (Coronado High School ’72) was one of 9 sailors inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame on Sept. 12, in a virtual ceremony. Introducing him was fellow sailor and 2018 NSHOF inductee Vince Brun, who first met Haines in 1973.
I met with Haines at the Coronado Yacht Club on a beautiful afternoon following his induction, and my first impression of him was that he is an affable, extremely personable guy. Indeed, Brun, in his opening remarks, immediately noted that when he first met Haines, he was impressed with the young flip-flop wearing sailor’s friendly demeanor, at least on land, and was well-liked by many of his fellow watermen. When Haines was on the water, however, he became a great competitor, and Brun was quick to mention that it was “unbelievable how he could make a boat go fast.” Haines possessed an innate ability and skill that Brun admitted that he himself did not have.
As a self-proclaimed landlubber, I asked Haines to describe this uncanny ability. As often happens with people who are born with gifts that even they don’t fully understand, he slightly shrugged his shoulders and finally noted that, at least in part, that he could “feel” the boat through the tiller and the rudder.
While describing his own skills might have made Haines a tad uncomfortable, he was much more at ease with discussing, naturally, sailing, but in particular, the fellow sailors and students of sailing he encountered over his many years on and around the water. His first boat was built by his dad, Robert (locally known as Baines), who Haines credits with having a huge influence on his sailing career. The senior Haines captained research vessels out of Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, and built the small craft by hand on the other side of the world while on a research expedition. Once back in California, the father/son duo sailed the vessel from Shelter Island to the Coronado Yacht Club, and the younger Haines was hooked.
Even as an 8 year old, Haines demonstrated skill at handling the little single-seat wooden Sabot, which Haines laments is probably in thousands of splinters after a few decades. He graduated to a two-man Penguin, followed by bigger, faster boats over the years, developing and refining his innate and learned skills into his teenage years, earning a reputation with well-known competitive sailors.
Haines caught the attention of world champion sailor and 1968 Olympic gold medalist Lowell North, who, recognizing something special in the young man, asked Haines and then-teammate Rod Eales if he could crew for them in 1976. The young team placed second in the Olympic Trials in the Soling Class, and Haines was named as an alternate. In 1980, Haines returned with teammates Rod Davis and Ed Trevelyan, and won a place on the 1980 team, which was, as many remember, boycotted by the United States due to the controversial Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
In 1983, while Davis and Trevelyan were competing in the America’s Cup, Haines and teammates Vince Brun and Robert Kinney won the Soling World Championship, setting the stage for Davis, Trevelyan, and Haines to compete as a team in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The Haines-led United States team came out on top of the 22 competing countries for the Gold, without having to compete in the final race.
With the Holy Grail of medals on his shelf, Haines went on to compete and win nationally and internationally over the years, in both long and shorter races. His accomplishments did not go unnoticed by fellow sailing expert Roy E. Disney, late nephew of Walt Disney. Disney hired Haines to manage and sail his distance racer, Pyewacket, and today Haines continues to skipper the vessel of Disney’s son, also named Roy.
Haines’ connection with the Disney family spilled over into the film industry, when, in 2007, he signed on as Associate Producer and sailing manager of the documentary film “Morning Light.” Haines worked closely with the production crew, and assisted in narrowing down the initial 750 young applicants to 15, including one young man from Baltimore, Steve Manson, who, while a fine sailing candidate, initially couldn’t swim. Recognizing potential and character, Haines sent Manson back to Baltimore to learn that critical water skill, and Manson returned to a role in the movie. Manson went on to sail for SUNY-Maritime.
With so many avid mariners advocating and supporting Haines over the years, it’s no wonder that Haines himself finds great joy and satisfaction in mentoring young sailing enthusiasts, including his own 7-year old grandson, Scotty, who is, of course, starting out in a Sabot, though one of more modern construction than Haines’ original vessel.
Haines recognizes how incredibly lucky he is to have made a career out of his passion and extraordinary skills, and understands that even with his uncanny ability as a yachtsman, he could not have done it without the support of his mentors and his family.
He gives his wife of 44 years, Amy, much of the credit for his success. While he was sailing and fundraising, Amy was instrumental in holding down the local fort and raising the kids, and continues to be the family rock, offering support and encouragement to her family, extended family, and to her four young grandkids.