Pioneer Trimaran Builder John Olin Passes

By Thom Burns

John Olin, 76, a life-long resident of Minnesota left the earthly sailing community on September 22nd. He died of heart failure while sending some parts to a customer. John grew up in Minneapolis where he graduated from Blake School in 1944. He then enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Following military service, he attended Harvard University graduating in 1950 and graduating Harvard Law in 1953. John joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis where he rose to Vice President before retiring to pursue full-time his life-long passion for sailing and sailboats.

John was a true pioneer in the development of fast multihulls. He met multihull designer Dick Newick while on vacation in the Virgin Islands. Dick, whose philosophy on sailing is, "People sail for fun and no one has yet convinced me that it's more fun to go slow than it is to go fast," and John became lifelong friends. Newick's proa multihull, "Cheers," had recently finished third in the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race, more commonly known as the OSTAR, in a highly competitive 35 boat fleet in which 17 boats either retired or abandoned the race. John told Dick of his dreams to build a Polynesian canoe with outriggers. Dick agreed to design the center hull.

John started Tremolino Boat Company in 1975. He and Dick developed the Tremolino 23. The boat was unique in that it used Hobie 16 hulls for the outside hulls called the amas. The boat was quick and stable with the original Hobie 16 mast. John once told me that at first he had expected the Hobie Company to buy the concept and build trimarans because they worked so well. It was not to be. John and Dick soon developed amas with greater buoyancy which met the need for more speed and greater stability using a much more powerful sailing rig. The Tremolino 23 went from quick to very fast.

John and Dick were so far in front of the "closed sailing minds" of the time that they had to put up with words of wisdom such as these written to Dick Newick, "I notice that you are taking steps to enable the crew to right the vessel when it has capsized, but my committee are more interested in any steps you may take to stop the capsizing in the first place. We are still of the opinion that to race along at 25 knots in between periodically capsizing is not a proper way to cross the Atlantic..." John told me that in all the years of building Tremolino trimarans only a couple had ever flipped. In each instance, the boat was in extreme conditions with way too much sail up. None ever sank nor did anyone ever drown to his knowledge. The Tremolinos, John pointed out were only about half as big as the ocean going trimarans Newick was designing.

By the time I met John in 1990, he and Dick had perfected a folding system for the 23 footer. Both subsequent boats, the 27 and the 25, used the system. The complexity of all the molds and the intregate production process made it nearly impossible to economically build the boats. Nevertheless over two hundred Tremolinos were built. These innovative and for the most part hand-crafted trimaran sailboats brought joy and fellowship to hundreds of sailors worldwide.

One of those sailors, Howard Rice, remembered meeting John many many years ago at the Newport, Rhode Island boat show. “He invited me to race one of the first Tremolinos in the Round Britain Race. At the time we were prevented from doing so because of the chain requirement. But I have never forgotten John, his charm, generosity of asking a young sailboat racer like myself to race with him and the love I developed for the Tremolino which finally brought me to purchase one so many years later.”

John loved the outdoors and camper sailing. He was one of the founders of the Lake of the Woods regattas. He served as an early Commodore. This became a family tradition for the Olins. Despite his many trips to the Lake of the Woods, he’ll probably always be best remembered for his proa week. The course was set so that the race boats had to tack upwind through a narrow channel. The channel is so narrow that races are now routed around it. John leaped out in front with his newly commissioned proa and much to his consternation found that it sailed equally well in reverse when he stalled it in a tack. He finally had to paddle through the narrows after the whole fleet had passed.

In recent years, John would take a trimaran to Madeline Island in the Apostles for a week to sail with his son, grandkids and other family members. He never totally gave up on the camper sailor adventure.

John had been trying to retire the past two years. The pride in his voice when he described "a Tremolino owner" was a special reward in itself. In fact he loved his extended family of Tremolino owners so much that he thought it might be great fun to visit all his Tremolinos and their owners. When an owner reminded him that many owners would be tempted to put him to work fixing things, John instantly replied, "That's okay!"

John was a quiet and gentle man of high intellect who was very well read. When he was dreaming the dream of fast trimarans, he reached back to Joseph Conrad for the name of his company and his boats.

She who was my cradle was a true balancelle, with two short masts raking forward and two curved yards, each as long as her hull; a true child of the lake, with a spread of two enormous sails resembling the pointed wings on a sea-bird’s slender body, and herself, like a bird indeed, skimming rather than sailing the seas.
Her name was the Tremolino. How is this to be translated? The Quiverer? What a name to give the pluckiest little craft that ever dipped her sides in angry foam! I had felt her, it’s true, trembling for nights and days together under my feet, but it was with the high-strung tenseness of her faithful courage. In her short but brilliant career she has taught me nothing, but she has given me everything. I owe to her the awakened love for the sea that, with the quivering of her swift little body and the humming of the wind under the foot of her lateen sails, stole into my heart with a sort of gentle violence, and brought my imagination under its despotic sway. The Tremolino! To this day I cannot utter or even write that name without a strange tightening of the breast and gasp of mingled delight and dread of one’s first passionate experience.

John could find a way to reach most people at varying levels. Last winter when I told him I would like to work on a boat on Saturday at the shop, he replied, "that will be just fine but you have to listen to the opera on MPR on Saturday down here." I quickly acquiesced and listened to my first opera in a boat shop. It was always fun to work with John in the shop because he was such a wealth of knowledge. He was also extremely curious and helpful. He couldn’t really do his thing if I were doing something he had not seen done before such as tuning up a hydrofoil or assemblying a brand new WindRider 17. He was always quick to appreciate design achievements and to offer better solutions. His love for sailing was much deeper because of his experience in both design and building while being a certified speed sailor.

He liked to go quickly and he more than proved it in the American Diabetes Association Regatta this past July on Lake Minnetonka. John had never sailed the new WindRider 17, but his friend and long time customer, Pat Kittler, had bought one and entered it in the regatta but couldn't sail the first day. Pat asked John to sail his boat for him. John proceeded to win the first race by half a leg. He finished second in the regatta by virtue of a tie breaker. Who says you can't have the heart of a racing sailor and the spirit of a champion at 76?

John was a man with a certain special spirit when it came to his Tremolinos. In a discussion about marketing and selling sailboats, he told me that he talked more people out of buying his boats than into it because he was sensitive to their needs and objectives. He concluded with, “I build boats for myself, the way I think they should be built and other people buy them.”

This kind of intellectual integrity is rare. I feel priviledged to have known this pioneer. He’ll be both missed and remembered.