Eight Bells: Terry Kohler

Avid sailor, supporter and the former owner of North Sails, Terry Kohler has died at the age of 82.

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Terry Kohler steers his Santa Cruz 70 in the Chicago-Mac race.Sailing

He died Tuesday, September 20, at his home in Kohler, Wisconsin. He was 82.

Kohler bought North Sails from its founder, Lowell North, in 1984, and immediately set about advancing the technology of sailmaking. Under his guidance, North Sails created the 3D molded sailmaking system that is the standard in high-performance sails today, helping make the company the preferred sailmaker of boats in most premiere events including the America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean Race. He added additional marine companies under the North Marine Group umbrella, including Southern Spars and Edgewater Powerboats. He sold North Sails in 2014.

"When Peter Barrett approached Terry and asked if he wanted to buy North Sails, he said ‘But I already have a boatload of North Sails,'" recalled Tom Whidden, CEO of North Technology Group. "When Barrett said he meant the company, Terry said, ‘Now that’s a different story.’

"His passion for sailing is what made him a wonderful owner to work for," Whidden said. "He was never egocentric about any of the decisions, and was a great motivator, everyone always worked very hard for him. And ultimately, he turned into a fantastic friend."

Kohler was the CEO of Windway Capital Corp., which also owns Vollrath Co., one of the country’s largest manufacturers of commercial cookware, located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

The son of Walter Kohler, a three-term Wisconsin governor, and Marie Celeste McVoy, Kohler spent much of his life on the water, frequently sailing with his mother in the Caribbean.

“He led a charmed life, having grown up in Florida, sailing in the Keys and the Caribbean, where he developed a love for sailing,” said his daughter Leslie Kohler, chairman of Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan (SEAS). “He went on to share that passion with young sailors throughout his lifetime.”

After his parents divorced, he lived with his father in Kohler, not far from the Sheboygan waterfront he would consider his home waters. There he joined the Sea Scouts and, as a teenager, joined the crew of Sheboygan businessman Romy Brotz’s 87-foot M-Class Sabre, one of the most exciting boats on the lake at that time.

In 1973, he bought his first boat, a Cal 40 named Agápe, which he campaigned on the Great Lakes. A Tartan 44, also named Agápe, followed in 1975 to race the Two-Ton World Championship on Lake St. Clair. By 1978, Kohler had set his sights on the Canada’s Cup and sailed his Holland-design Two-Tonner Agápe for Bayview Yacht Club, losing the match to Don Green’s Evergreen sailing for the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Kohler competed in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference in 1984 with Ted Hood’s Robin Too II, renamed Agápe Too II.

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As a teenager, Terry Kohler, second from right, sailed aboard the M-Class Sabre.Sailing

In 1991 he bought the Santa Cruz 70 Drumbeat, renamed her Cynosure and brought her to Lake Michigan, joining Dick Jennings’ Pied Piper and Bill Martin’s Stripes in what would be become the Great Lakes 70 class, which lead to a resurgence for the Bill Lee design on freshwater. Kohler could have filled the crew of the big boat with some of the best professional sailors in the world. Instead he was adamant that the crew be made up of skilled local sailors, a rag-tag group of mostly 20-somethings, some of whom had sailed their first offshore races on Kohler’s other boats. In 1992, on their second try at the Chicago-Mackinac race aboard the sled, the young crew sailed to a first place overall and, more importantly, were first to finish, winning the Royono Trophy as he had done in the 1950s aboard Sabre.

“Terry was very competitive,” said SAILING Magazine Executive Director Greta Schanen, who was a regular member of Kohler’s crews. “He loved sailing against the other sleds, and had a particular rivalry with Dick Jennings’ Pied Piper. He always listened to us kids, but when he made up his mind to go a certain way, off we went. He never took credit for a win if it worked out, but if it didn’t, he was the first to admit he should have listened to us.”