In an angry San Francisco Bay, amidst swelling tides and wind speeds reaching 28 knots (roughly 30 miles per hour), skipper Joel Ronning not only sailed his 23-foot boat “Catapult” to a first-place finish in a world championship race but also captured moments of Zen as his boat cruised through some of the most extreme sailing conditions in North America.
Ronning, 60, started sailing as a 16-year-old at his family cabin in northern Minnesota. He was enticed by the quiet and the concept of cooperating with Mother Nature to push his 16-foot Mutineer around. Now, after nearly 50 years of sailing, the Burnsville, Minnesota, native feels more peaceful the faster his boat is going.
“If you are really in tune with the boat, with your feet and your whole body, you become super conscious of the air and everything around you,” Ronning said. “When we are going really fast and somebody says, ‘You’re in the groove,’ I hardly ever hear it because that’s when I’m in my Zen.”
In 1980, Ronning began sailing competitively for the University of Minnesota Sailing Club in the club’s inaugural season. The team practiced on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis and had to find its own boats, coaches and athletes before competing against established programs from Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Ronning sailed collegiately for three years and served as the club’s president.
His tenure as club president inspired him both as a sailor and a leader. He joined the Wayzata Yacht Club on Lake Minnetonka where he started sailing larger boats and became head coach of the Minnetonka Yacht Club sailing program. He eventually graduated to larger boats and lakes, sailing a trans-Superior race from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Duluth, Minnesota.
As his sailing resume grew so did his business portfolio. In 1990, Ronning entered the tech-world, founding MacUSA, Inc., where he served as Chief Executive Officer until 1998. In 1994, he founded Digital River, a Minnesota-based e-commerce company and served as CEO until 2012.
As he divided his time between business and sailing, Ronning discovered that several personality traits served both of his passions.
“Motivation, organization, structure, process, team building – virtually the same skills apply to both arenas,” Ronning said. “So much of both is just communication. It’s figuring out how to communicate and motivate.”
Name: Joel Ronning | Age: 60
Job: CEO of Open Road Ventures and chairman of ASI-DataMyte
Ronning grew up in Burnsville, Minnesota and began sailing at his family’s lake cabin when he was 16 years old. In 1980, he sailed on the University of Minnesota’s inaugural sailing team and later presided over the club. After college he began a career in technology, founding MacUSA in 1990 and Digital River in 1994. He joined the Wayzata Yacht Club on Lake Minnetonka and challenged himself by sailing longer races on larger bodies of water, including Lake Superior and the Caribbean Sea. After taking second in 2015, Ronning finished first in the 2016 Alcatel J/70 World Championships held in the San Francisco Bay. Currently the CEO of Open Road Ventures and chairman of ASI-DataMyte, Ronning purchased a 68-foot ocean sailboat which he used to finish second in his division in a July trans-Pacific sailing race from Los Angeles to Hawaii.
Wayzata Yacht Club member and former Digital River employee Odell Tuttle said much of Ronning’s success in business and sailing can be credited to his competitive nature.
“I sailed with and against him a lot, and one of his strengths is he is always learning and growing,” said Tuttle, SportsEngine’s Senior Vice President of Engineering. “On top of it, he’s very competitive and aggressive. A lot of people are laid back, especially if there’s contact or close calls. Joel stays aggressive, tends to turn it into NASCAR on water.”
Tuttle said about five years ago an aggressive Ronning went overboard – literally – and joined an exclusive club within the Wayzata Yacht Club. After a race on Lake Minnetonka was canceled due to the wind and rough waters Ronning decided to push his crew and sailed anyway. A strong gust of wind tipped his boat into the lake and earned Ronning a place on a trophy that travels with club members who have sunk their boats.
Tuttle currently has the trophy after sinking his boat in 62 feet of water in the summer of 2016.
“All you can do is climb up on the keel and stay dry until someone comes to pick you up and the crane comes,” Ronning said. “Everyone laughs back at the club; it’s all in good humor.”
In regards to sailing, Ronning abides by the theory “If you’re not having fun in the boat, you shouldn’t be in the boat.”
The San Francisco Bay has got to be the most extreme conditions in sailing. The tides are strong and the waves are enormous."
- Joel Ronning
Over nearly half a century of sailing, Ronning discovered a direct correlation between speed his of the boat and fun. In order to fulfill his need for speed, Ronning recently has undertaken more competitive and challenging races, including the Alcatel J/70 World Championships in September 2016. The J/70 model keelboat was invented in 2012 and there are currently around 1,000 boats of its kind worldwide. The 2016 race in San Francisco Bay was just the third J/70 World Championship and included 68 boats from 15 nations.
“The San Francisco Bay has got to be the most extreme conditions in sailing,” Ronning said. “The tides are strong and the waves are enormous. You can end up with a really confused sea. The wind starts off very low throughout the day and picks up as high as 28 knots at the end of the day. That’s considered survival conditions in a lot of places I’ve sailed, but in San Fran, that’s pretty regular.”
After placing second in the 2015 J/70 World Championships, Ronning and his crew trained even harder for the 2017 race. The crew docked two boats on the San Francisco Bay four months before the race and sailed more than 70 days during frequent four-day trips. Using two identical boats, including his 23-footer named Catapult, the crew studied the unpredictable bay and tuned their vessels accordingly. Ronning credited winning the championship to training for more than 1,000 hours in the months leading up to last year’s race.
“We went out there to do well and win and at the end of the day, I think we spent more time focusing on details than anyone else. After a while we were going so damn fast I couldn’t help but have a good time,” Ronning said. “To have a crew to discuss with and come up with better ways of approaching the race, that’s magic.”
Ronning and his crew (John Kostecki, Chris Stocke, Patrick Wilson, and coach Grant Spanhake) sailed the Catapult to a 17-point victory over 2015 champion Julian Fernandez. The Catapult finished in the top ten in 11 of the 12 races held over a five-day span and placed first in race six (click here for standings).
Perhaps the most exciting part of the world championship happened on land before the race even began. Fernandez noticed that Ronning had installed a metal roll bar to the cockpit of the Catapult and submitted a protest. While there are several versions of what actually happened in the protest room, they all include Ronning revealing his prosthetic leg to justify the pre-approved modification.
“I actually just felt sorry for the guy,” Ronning said. “That’s no way to win the world championships, to win on a rule. The judges felt the same way.”
After becoming the first skipper from Wayzata Yacht Club to win a world championship, Ronning is continuing to check races off his sailing bucket list. Following the J/70 World Championships, he found his Zen in a Caribbean race near Key West. Soon after, he took the Catapult to Charleston, North Carolina for Charleston Race Week -- the western hemisphere’s largest keelboat regatta. Ronning, still dialed in from the J/70 Worlds, took first prize in the regatta.
After back-to-back wins on his J/70 Catapult, Ronning bought a 68-foot Santa Cruz 70 also named Catapult and began preparing for 10-day the Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu in early July. The skipper christened his new boat by winning two out of three races and the top prize in California Off-Shore Race Week. The crew placed first in the Spinnaker Cup (from San Fransisco Bay to Monterey), broke the course record in the Coastal Cup (from Monterey to Santa Barbara) and placed fourth in the SoCal 300 (from Santa Barbara to San Diego) to secure a first-place finish in the event.
With his hands again comfortably at the helm of his new boat, Ronning finished second in his class (click here for results) in the Transpac, scratching the event off his bucket list.
Since 2013, Ronning has been CEO of Open Road Ventures and chairman of ASI-DataMyte, an international software quality assurance company. While he continues to use his competitive nature and communication skills to thrive in both business and sailing, Ronning said his priorities are correct.
“It’s sailing, and sailing first.”