Q & A with Josh Axler, RFL Academy 2021 Alum

These days, you won’t find Josh Axler behind a desk — or even on dry land — very frequently. The RFL Academy 2021 alum spends much of his time at sea, sailing a large carbon race boat or his own, much smaller, wooden boat, Heike. “She’s my baby!” he says.

Axler realized the hard way that he was not suited for a conventional path through life. At school in Flagstaff, Arizona, he struggled to sit through class and stay focused and eventually got kicked out of the ninth grade (technically, he said, he was “indefinitely suspended”). In need of a less traditional educational setting, Axler found a way to complete high school through a series of remote learning classes, Outward Bound courses, and an apprenticeship at a wooden boat building shop. 

After foregoing college, Axler landed in the Roaring Fork Valley, and eventually in RFL Academy, while working as the manager of Carbondale’s flagship consignment gear shop, Ragged Mountain Sports. But the sea, and dreams of sailing around the world, led him to his latest adventure racing a sailboat professionally in the Caribbean and on the northeastern coast of the U.S. 

Recently, RFL caught up with Axler just as he was heading down from Maine to his winter base in Antigua for the Caribbean racing season. From Alaska, to South America, and the Roaring Fork Valley, Axler has never called one place home for long, but the lessons he learned at RFL have remained with him — whether he’s managing a boatyard or preparing for his life dream to sail around-the-world solo in the legendary Golden Globe Race.  

Roaring Fork Leadership: You followed an unconventional path to where you are now. Can you talk a bit about your background? 

I never went to college – it was something I considered, but I was having so much trouble in the traditional school setting. I  did explore alternatives like Prescott College in Arizona that does a lot of outdoor and experiential education, but I ended up deciding it just wasn’t for me. So I moved to Aspen when I was 18 and did some work for the 10th Mountain Huts organization and met a bunch of amazing people. That was the start of my career in the outdoor industry.  

From there I did a bit of traveling for a year and a half in Central and South America and afterwards, I ended up on a boat, which is how my career on boats started. I had grown up sailing, but I had never worked professionally on a boat. I worked on a big wooden schooner for a couple of years and really fell in love with wooden boats and with sailing. That boat took me down to Mexico and all the way up to Alaska. That was kind of my schooling in some ways. The captain was really supportive of me and pushed me to get my captain’s license. Because of him, I was able to get that license and work professionally in the industry. 

I worked on the wooden schooner for two years and when that came to an end, I decided to move on and try to do my own thing. I bought my own boat in 2017 and would spend part of my year sailing all over and part of it in Colorado. In the fall and spring, I’d move boats to support myself financially. Now my boat is on the East Coast up in Newburyport, MA, just north of Boston. 

RFL: What drew you to RFL Academy? 

JA: I was close at the time with another RFL alum and managing Ragged Mountain Sports in Carbondale where I’d been working for a couple of years through the pandemic. She suggested to me that if I was interested in the program, I should apply. I really had no experience managing a store — I’d had other jobs with a fair amount of responsibility, but this was really my first job where I had an institution that I really needed to take care of with a bunch of employees and a lot of customers. The Carbondale community really loves that store and the store is a big part of the community. I thought RFL Academy would be a really good opportunity to learn more about management, especially while I was in one place for a time because it’s very rare that I’m in one place for long! 

RFL: How did your RFL Academy experience impact your life? 

JA: I learned a lot about myself — not just from the coursework, but just from consistently engaging with the people in my cohort. They were amazing and I still talk to some them regularly today even though I haven’t seen them in more than a year. I really enjoyed having this small group of people you could lean on for support.  

Josh on his boat, Heike.

One thing I really took away from the course was learning that often, employees don’t leave because they don’t like what they were doing, they leave because they have poor management. We have a small boatyard in Newport where we do a lot of work on the boat when it’s up here and I manage the 8-10 people who do that work. I think that knowledge has pushed me to be a better manager and pushed me to make sure everyone is happy and fulfilled, otherwise it’ll be impossible to find good employees regardless of the industry you’re in – whether it’s restaurants or retail or sailing boats or managing a boatyard.  

 RFL: What’s next for you? 

JA: My short-term plan is to race this winter in the Caribbean and then next summer we’ll race on a circuit up in Maine on a different boat. And then more long term, I’m entered in the Golden Globe Race to sail around the world solo and nonstop. The caveat about the race is it’s a retro race. There’s no modern electronics on board. It’s racing around the world using just your sails and celestial navigation, which means you find your way using the sun, moon, stars, and planets instead of with a GPS device. This past summer, before I started my current job, I was in France all summer preparing one of two American boats entered in the race. I did all this preparation work with the skipper, but my intentions were a little selfish because I knew I wanted to do the race in 2026 when the next Golden Globe happens [the race runs every four years]. So, I was there getting a lot of knowledge and information so that when it’s my turn, it’ll be a little easier for me to get ready.  

RFL: What would you say to someone — especially someone like you who’s in a less traditional workplace — who’s on the fence about doing RFL Academy? 

You meet all these really amazing members of your community, and whether you’re in a similar industry or not, those people are there for you and will help you make decisions. And that’s why I’d recommend it for someone in a less traditional industry – you’ll get this amazing community support from a group of people who live around you and learn so much about yourself.