“I’ve always been student of something.”
November 12, 1927 —
Birthplace: San Diego, California
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Mr. San Diego
In 1945, at age 17, Malin Burnham became the youngest ever to win the Star World Championship. Fellow sailors say he’s the best natural helmsman they’ve seen. That’s part of it. The rest has to do with the seven virtues he was taught in the San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC) junior program. We all know them: commitment, dedication, hard work, teamwork, follow through, playing by the rules, and planning ahead. We all give them lip service while Burnham has made them his mantra. He was a major contributor to a new junior sailing center at the yacht club on one condition: that the seven virtues would not only be taught there, but indelibly imprinted on the building. One of those virtues, playing by the rules, cost him a second Star World Championship. He and crew Jim Reynolds had a strong lead in the 1963 series in Chicago. “In race four, the leech of the main touched the windward mark,” Reynolds says. No one saw the infringement, but Burnham immediately dropped out.
As a sailor, Malin Burnham is probably best known for his influential presence in the America’s Cup as helmsman ( Enterprise 1977), trial horse skipper (1980, 1983), syndicate head (1987, 1988), director of the legal defense team (1988), and design director (IACC yacht, 1989). He says managing Dennis Conner’s comeback in 1987 was the highlight. To announce their quest, in 1984, Burnham called a press conference. “Six people attended,” Burnham recalls. “We were two guys with no money and no boats. But you’ve got to be a calculated risk-taker if you are a sailor, so off we went.”
He’s not enthused about the current direction of the Cup. “They are taking the uniqueness out of it,” he says. “Challengers and defenders are all racing together. We’ve lost the grandeur of the oldest active trophy in sport. We need a neutral authority to run things, sites announced years in advance, national teams…”
At 88, Burnham still plays handball and goes to work every day. He’s written a book about leadership – Community Before Self – and in 2013, he was presented with the esteemed Midway American Patriot Award. As a sailor, the last of his four wins in the very competitive International Masters regatta now held at the SDYC was in 2015, a fitting bookend to his early, and continued success in Star boats.
- Roger Vaughan
Links of Interest:
Video — Interview with Malin Burnham about America's Cup - YouTube
Video — Discussion: Malin Burnham, BS '49, Talks Leadership — Stanford Law School
Video — Malin Burnham — Notes to Our Sons and Daughters Project