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Men Overboard

How a disagreement between John Podmajersky III and a crewman on his yacht turned into an all-out naval battle.

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John Podmajersky III is "probably the only guy who grew up in his ward who sails," says Mark Kastel, a farm policy analyst who has known him for about 20 years.

Last summer Podmajersky made the biggest win of his sailing career, skippering his Mumm 30 sailboat, the Illusion, to victory in the Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac. The 333-mile race, first run in 1898, is one of sailing's most prestigious amateur contests and the longest annual freshwater race in the world; about 300 boats entered in four divisions last year.

But now, as Podmajersky should be preparing to defend his title, the sailing world has turned against him. He's suing one of his crew members for more than a million dollars, and it's possible that as a result he will be banned from this year's race.

Kastel, who used to race two-man Olympic-class sailboats with Podmajersky, has been acting as his friend's unofficial spokesman during the debacle. He describes him as a bootstraps kind of guy--a descendant of poor immigrants, reared in the hardscrabble Pilsen neighborhood--who's managed to break into the "hoity-toity" world of sailing. Podmajersky's father, John Podmajersky Jr., was born near 18th and Jefferson in Pilsen, then a major port of entry for eastern European immigrants. His family had fled Slovakia for Chicago just before World War I, and his father set up a dairy along with other family members who'd come over. Twelve teams of horses brought milk east from Hinckley for them to distribute in the Pilsen area.

As a child Podmajersky Jr. helped his dad deliver milk, but later he worked as a structural engineer for the city. In the mid-1960s he started buying buildings, mainly condemned and abandoned properties that he could get for cheap, and encouraging artists to move in. The family, which now reportedly owns hundreds of properties in and around Pilsen, has been both lauded for its patronage of the arts and reviled for its role in gentrifying the neighborhood.

John Podmajersky III, who has a reputation for being less altruistic than his pop, was also born in Pilsen, but attended Francis W. Parker, the north-side private school, from second grade on. After graduating in 1978, he earned a political science degree at the University of Chicago. In the mid-80s he started working for his father's business, Podmajersky Inc., and then launched his own, Podmajersky & Associates, in '87.

Podmajersky started sailing as a teenager. "I cleaned out people's boats to earn money to buy my first boat," he says. He sailed for the University of Chicago team, and early in his sailing career joined the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club, based at Montrose Harbor. He's vice president of the Mumm 30 North American Class Association. (A Mumm 30 is a fast, sleek 30-foot boat; Podmajersky reportedly bought his used in 1999 for $80,000.) And for the past 19 years he has been an active member of the city's preeminent yachting organization, the Chicago Yacht Club, serving on various committees dealing with the promotion of the sport and internal administration. "I've been racing sailboats for 30 years," Podmajersky says. "I taught sailing at the yacht club. I've spent a tremendous amount of my time getting people into the sport."

The Mackinac dustup started last June with what looked to be a bureaucratic snafu. As the race deadline approached, Podmajersky says, some regular members of his crew asked if he were planning to enter the Illusion--if not, they wondered, could they do it without him? Podmajersky says he wasn't sure yet whether he'd be able to make the race but wasn't averse to letting the guys use the boat. He says he asked Robert Brandenburg Jr.--a 30-year-old stock trader who'd often served as navigator--to fill out the paperwork in such a way that he'd be able to decide later.

Podmajersky describes Brandenburg--who declined to speak for this story--as an up-and-coming but relatively inexperienced sailor whom he was trying to help gain experience. The two had met at the yacht club, and Brandenburg had been sailing on the Illusion for about a year. Podmajersky says that while the two weren't "close friends," they got along well and he trusted Brandenburg. He apparently also felt some sympathy for him--according to a feature that ran later in the Tribune, the younger man had recently been diagnosed with testicular cancer but was determined to compete in the big race.

Ultimately Podmajersky did decide to helm his own boat for the race, and when the Illusion took the Mackinac Cup, awarded to the winner of the large-boat division, he assumed his name would appear both on the various trophies and in the annals of sailing history. At an informal ceremony immediately after the race, Brandenburg was announced as the skipper, but a Rolex intended for the winning helmsman was given to Podmajersky--who then gave it to Brandenburg, says Kastel, because "it was really important to Rob and Rob had just gone through all these health problems." But several days after the race, Podmajersky learned that Brandenburg's name, not his, would be inscribed on the trophies, to be presented at a formal ceremony in November.

When he'd filled out the paperwork, Brandenburg had listed himself as "person in charge" and "owner/charterer" of the Illusion. Podmajersky says he asked Brandenburg to correct the entry shortly before the race, and that Brandenburg said he'd do it right away. When race day came, though, nothing had changed. Right after the race he again asked Brandenburg to make sure the form was corrected--there was a three-hour window for such changes to be submitted--and says Brandenburg again promised to take care of it.

Several days after the race, according to the lawsuit, the yacht club "changed its official web site...to accurately reflect that Mr. Podmajersky was...the owner and skipper" of the Illusion. But the club "then later changed its web site again to list Mr. Brandenburg as owner."

Podmajersky requested that the yacht club correct the error once and for all, first with a phone call and then with a letter. At the beginning of August, Brandenburg also wrote to the club to request the same, notes the suit. Spokeswoman Barbara Matthopoulos says the club offered to add Podmajersky's name to the trophy along with Brandenburg's, but that Podmajersky wouldn't go for it.

"That's not something I'm interested in," he confirms. "I made a number of compromises to the club. The last was don't put anyone's name on the trophy--just put the boat's name on it. I'll even pay for the re-engraving. But I got no response, not even the courtesy of a 'John, we can't work with ya.'"

Podmajersky says he would like to believe the initial error was an honest one on Brandenburg's part. He has a July 25 E-mail from Brandenburg apologizing to him, as well as the letter Brandenburg wrote to the yacht club. But in the fall, he says, Brandenburg stopped communicating with him and stopped professing to be upset about the error.

On September 11, Podmajersky says, he presented Brandenburg with an affidavit he had prepared for him to sign. It stated that Brandenburg was the navigator of the Illusion but had never acted as skipper, and that Podmajersky spent at least 30 hours of the 35-hour race at the helm of the boat. Brandenburg had already written the letter to the yacht club, Podmajer-

sky says, so he didn't think he would have a problem signing an affidavit to the same effect.

"I was unfamiliar with the form and had no idea that in completing it incorrectly I was inadvertently entering the Chicago-Mackinac Race in my own name and thereby signing away the rights of the skipper and owner, John Podmajersky," it reads, in part. "I do not want my name on the Mackinac Race trophies because I did not win them. The name that belongs on those trophies is John Podmajersky III, the owner and skipper of Illusion, the person who won the Race."

Brandenburg never signed it. Instead, Podmajersky says, on September 13 he got a letter from attorney George Feiwell telling him not to contact Brandenburg again.

On October 2 the Tribune ran a lifestyle feature about Brandenburg, framing the Mackinac win as the capper to his battle against cancer. The piece referred to him as the Illusion's skipper and gave no indication that Podmajersky had even been on the boat. Podmajersky is quoted, however, as saying he turned over "100 percent of the logistics" of preparing for the race to his friend.

On October 25, Podmajersky filed a lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, asking that Brandenburg be made to pay him $100,000 in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages. "All of the representations made by Brandenburg...were false and were made knowing the falsity of the statement," the suit reads. "In addition, Brandenburg acted with malice towards Podmajersky in making these false representations." If he wins, Podmajersky says, he plans to use the money to set up a fund for aspiring sailors from immigrant or minority families.

The suit also named the yacht club, from which it demanded injunctive relief, including that "Illusion-John Podmajersky" or "Illusion" be engraved on the trophies; that all Web sites, press releases, award presentations, and the next year's Mackinac program identify Podmajersky as owner and skipper of the winning boat; that Podmajersky be allowed to submit his boat's photo for the yacht club's Mackinac room, which is one of the privileges of winning; and that Brandenburg be prohibited from publicizing himself as the boat's owner or skipper.

In response the club sent Podmajersky a letter informing him that he was being charged with gross misconduct under Rule 69 of the Racing Rules of Sailing--the code of conduct by which the international sailing community agrees to abide. Rule 69 says that if a competitor is thought to have committed "gross breach of a rule or of good manners and sportsmanship," he or she can be summoned to a hearing in front of a protest committee. If the committee finds that the allegations are correct, it can issue a warning or impose a penalty and report it to national authorities. Podmajersky was called on the carpet for violating Rule Three, which says disputes are not to be taken to outside courts or tribunals.

Podmajersky says he included the yacht club in his suit because he'd missed the three-hour postrace deadline for filing changes and thought no further avenue was open to him. But in March, after a yacht club attorney asked a judge to mandate internal arbitration in place of court, Podmajersky dropped the club as a defendant. He says he filed a request for a rules hearing about a month ago and has gotten no response. "Podmajersky withdrew the suit before the judge could continue to address the issue," Matthopoulos says. And the Rule 69 proceedings have moved ahead.

On March 26 testimony regarding the misconduct charge was heard by a three-member protest committee, which found that Podmajersky's breach of Rule Three was "gross" and therefore also an infringement of Rule 69. It issued him a "stern warning" and recommended that the yacht club ban him from competition for a year--which would mean Podmajersky couldn't enter the 2003 Race to Mackinac, whose registration deadline is June 13.

Matthopoulos says the club's board of directors will decide whether to heed the recommendation, which was released in an April 10 statement. She won't make an educated guess as to when a decision might come down. The committee's statement said the decision would also be reported to U.S. Sailing, the sport's national governing body--though the rules say specifically that warnings are not to be reported. Podmajersky is currently appealing the decision to a U.S. Sailing grievance committee, and he says he will also appeal a ban or any other action the yacht club takes against him.

Both Podmajersky and Brandenburg's lawyer, Feiwell, say the yacht club's stations committee, which Podmajersky formerly served on, has recommended that he be expelled. But Matthopoulos says the committee would not have the power to expel anyone. "It's not our policy to quote-unquote kick people out," she says. "There is a lot involved before a member would be considered for rejection."

Meanwhile Podmajersky is still pursuing the suit against Brandenburg. "Putting Brandenburg's name on the trophy is just not right," he insists. "It doesn't adequately honor my crew, and as someone who pays the bills and puts in a lot of hard work on the boat, it is an outright dishonor to me. To me it's not about personal glory, but after all the time I've put into this sport, I don't want this awesome accomplishment to be remembered inaccurately."

So far all court dates have resulted in continuances, but Feiwell says he expects to go before a jury in about a year--and that he expects a jury will find in his client's favor. "I think the filing of this lawsuit is the height of the abuse of process and utter silliness, utter silliness," he says. "I would hope people have better things to do than take the court's time for this silliness. We deny everything, and we deny that he's in any way indebted to Podmajersky. We're sure a jury will throw out such a frivolous lawsuit."

The suit claims that "Podmajersky's reputation in the community in general and also in the sailing community will be irreparably damaged" if the injunctive relief is not awarded. This may have already come to pass, though not the way Podmajersky anticipated. In the February issue of Sailing magazine, an editorial chides Podmajersky for making the sport look "foolish." Sailing Anarchy, a news and gossip Web site that prides itself on not mincing words, named Podmajersky its Chump of the Year, and members have impugned everything from his personality to his appearance.

"Unfortunately, I'm not sure this will go past the Chicago Yacht Club ruling," wrote someone identified only as Peter on March 11. "I don't think the [U.S. Sailing committee] will realize how much Pod has hurt the sport, and how many people don't even want to be on the same race course as this guy. Still can't understand how Pod can give up all his sailing friends (except for the two or three duschbags [sic] who support him), all of his achievements and everything for this."

Kastel says he's at a loss to explain the intensity of the backlash against his friend. "Maybe it's jealousy," he says. "This is like a David versus Goliath story. Here's a guy who worked his way up from a nonsailing family to the pinnacle of sailing, then he gets completely dissed by these blue-blooded, blue-blazered people. To me this is very vindictive on their part."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Randolph, courtesy John Podmajersky III.

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