Toppa Talks: One Job, One (Big) Dream

I just reread the double-feature I wrote about Mike Toppa in the March issue of Seahorse Magazine, and wow it packs in a lot of information! Written right on the heels of Peter Harken’s (also a double, and not out quite yet), it’s no wonder I took the winter off from writing profiles. 

Never heard of him?

Standing on the dock racing model boats in Newport Harbor alongside this quiet but quite intense guy, I realized he would be a great profile “victim.” Mike grew up in Newport, and he’s got lots of stories about the far-better-known Jerry Kirby… while Toppa, as most locals call him, is one of the most impressive sailors you’ve probably never heard of. He’s not exactly long on self-promotion, and his most impressive victories (two or three America’s Cup wins, depending on whether you include his tween-age dockboy adventure with Intrepid) all came as part of a large team. He started designing race-winning spinnakers for North Sails when testing the shape of a new design meant hoisting it up the loft’s flagpole. Needless to say, things have changed quite a bit since then, but—as he puts it—he’s only ever had one job.

My suggested headline: “Only One Job”

Seahorse improved on that by adding a reference to Toppa’s singular childhood dream: to win the America’s Cup. He did just that in 1980, with Dennis Conner, but since he was “only” the spinnaker designer he was still hungry to win as a sailor. For the 1992 Cup, he combined his sail design expertise with an unbeatable passion for racing sailboats to earn a spot as headsail trimmer on America3, back in the days when there was a designated trimmer on either side of the huge IACC cockpit. When they won, he finally got to cross the finish line as a sailor. “And I got to sail every race in that Cup with Jerry Kirby!” he adds. “So go back to being a little kid, learning how to sail and saying that’s what we’re gonna do. And we did it, together.”

A “glass-half-full” guy

As I put it in the intro, “Toppa’s default facial expression is a smile, and he exudes a comfortable calm; not the usual demeanor at the pointy end of our sport.” That of course made for a very fun interview (and story). He even manages to keep smiling when he gets taken out by another model boat!

Seahorse has graciously provided a PDF so you can read more about Toppa, but to read the latest from Rod Davis (and all the other great columnists) you’ll have to subscribe.

Read One Job One Dream

PS I did spot one error that my “victim” was gracious enough not to mention, but since most readers won’t even notice I’m going to let it go. (If you did find it, definitely let me know.)

Okay, now that I’ve had a few months off from writing profiles, who should be my next “victim?” Add your suggestions in the comments below, or send me an email. I read and appreciate every single one.

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Previous Seahorse Profiles

Circus Minimus: The Rich Life of Bill Mattison

Mark Reynolds: Hard Chines and Unasked Questions

Augie Diaz: Lucky AND Good

Dawn Riley: Setting the Standard

Clicks of Chance: Onne van der Wal

Just Say Yes: Stan and Sally Honey

Rod Davis: Why You Need His Wisdom in 2021

Rod Johnstone: An Amazing Legacy of Yacht Designs

A Final Conversation with Harry Anderson

Life Lessons from Dave Perry

Vince Brun Profile in Seahorse

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