Gary Jobson: Dignity personified - Soundings Online

Gary Jobson: Dignity personified

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His remarkable career continues to inspire

Gary Jobson, sailing legend, steers his ancient Mercedes diesel sedan along a familiar highway between Baltimore and Annapolis, Md., barely keeping up with the municipal trash trucks trundling in the right lane because, as he has been doing for the last five hours, he is talking.

His topics are varied — collegiate sailing, the America’s Cup, the Olympics — but his focus has remained constant: the future. No surprise here. The 55-year-old Jobson became a sailing superstar almost 30 years ago largely through his ability to look toward the horizon and select the best course. Now, on his way from editing films in a television studio to giving an interview to the Today show, he has taken up a new subject: his own future.

Jobson’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system, is in remission. He has gained back 30 pounds. He gets scans every three months, and they’ve been good. But with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he says, no one makes it past 10 years without a relapse. “It comes back, and you hope the treatments are better,” he says, his gaze fixed straight ahead.

Suddenly, Jobson is braking hard. The renowned tactician, lost in the uncertainty of his own horizon, has missed his turn. In almost the next breath, he is back on course, enthusing this time about what he and the other sailing heroes should be doing: giving back to their sport.

No one in the history of sailing has given more back than Jobson. “Gary is always giving back,” says James Muldoon, a former US Sailing president. “That in itself has made its mark. His major contribution is that he is the only person who has successfully made sailing known to the general world … more successfully probably than everyone else combined.”

Jobson says sailing is the icing on the cake of life. “My mission is to promote it,” he says, “help people go faster, encourage new people to take part, and help sailors make their time on the water more enjoyable.”

While for a time he was slowed by his illness, he again is approaching this mission full throttle, with television commentary, documentary films, magazine articles, books, public speaking engagements, and membership on countless boards. But now, with a new appreciation for the fragility of life, Jobson thinks it also is time to summarize. He has read the memoirs of other famous sailors — Sherman Hoyt, Olin Stephens and the rest. “All feisty and outspoken about the issues of their day,” he says. “It inspires me to speak out.”

There are more stories he wants to tell and some things he wants to get off his chest regarding the Olympics and the America’s Cup. His memoir — 250 pages are on paper — will be his 15th book.

Schmoozing and Turner

If one were to summarize Gary Jobson, the key words would be drive, contacts and long-range view. The drive is evident in the numbers Jobson recites, unprompted. “In 2005, I will have given 75 lectures, written one book, 10 articles for Sailing World, attended 15 Leukemia Cups, 25 board meetings, done four short topic videos, and produced two films and three television shows,” he says, guiding the Mercedes along the interstate.

Jobson’s contacts, as the list of board memberships suggests, are everywhere there are sailors and sailboats. The long-range view can be traced to his boyhood as a young sailor on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay.

“A fellow in the Beachwood Yacht Club by the name of Tom Chapman — a top-notch sailor — told Gary that watching the luff was important, but it was more important to look ahead 100 yards to see if there were any wind shifts,” recalls Tom Jobson, his father. “By the time the wind gets to you, you can’t do a lot about advancing the boat.”

Even before he learned that lesson in sailing and in life, however, Jobson the toddler was making contacts. “He’s a schmoozer from the word go,” says his father. “He was always that way. He used to run away all the time. We had a heck of a time to keep him from zooming out [of the yard].”

Jobson is the oldest of three children whom Tom, a newspaper editor, and Helyn Jobson, a teacher, raised in their home next to the yacht club. In the home, the conversations were about current events. There were books and music, and the family traveled often. The children sailed with their father, and once Gary began sailing on his own, he flourished. He took notes following every race and asked other sailors what they did to win.

“He was trying to learn all the time,” recalls Runyon Colie, a Barnegat Bay racer and collegiate champion in 1940. “There was no question about his ability. It showed through in his results when he was sailing and in his enthusiasm.”

First, Jobson won the Junior Penguin Championship on Barnegat Bay, then the Senior Championship. The year he turned 16, he won the Bay’s outstanding junior sailor trophy. Once Jobson got a driver’s license, he traveled year-round to compete, and by the time he was a high-school senior, he was recruited by the top sailing colleges, choosing the State University of New York Maritime College on the Throgs Neck peninsula.

Gary Gilbert, who co-owns an Etchells named Annie with Jobson and who as a student at the Merchant Marine Academy raced against him, says a Jobson sailing hallmark was “a very good sense of time and distance.” His boats are quiet, Gilbert says, and Jobson sails within the rules, which Gilbert equates with “ethical” sailing.

“I was racing like crazy [in college], 2,000 races in four years,” Jobson says. “I started winning. I met Ted Turner in 1972. He said, ‘I don’t know you, kid, but we’re going to sail together some time.’ ”

“I was an intercollegiate sailor at Brown,” Turner explains, “and I followed who was doing what in intercollegiate sailing because I knew the good sailors would graduate up. In a way, I was scouting to recruit for my crew. I had gotten a small ocean racer then. Gary’s name kept popping up winning. I finally met him at a regatta, and I made a point to get to know him.”

At the time, Jobson was earning his second of three selections as an All-American collegiate sailor. When he graduated in 1973, he was Intercollegiate Sailor of the Year for the second time. From the Maritime College, he moved across Long Island Sound to the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point to become a sailing coach. The next year, he ran US Sailing’s (then known as NAYRU) advanced racing clinic at Association Island in New York and later convinced the organization to take the program on the road. He wrote his first book then, an instructor’s manual, and created an instructor’s training program for the organization. He also married his sweetheart, Janice.

On to the Cup

It was during this period that Jobson gave a racing clinic at Bay Head Yacht Club back on Barnegat Bay, where he shared with one of the parents his goal in life. “He told me he planned to make sailing a career, not as a boat designer or builder or sailmaker or yacht broker, but in a new role he was trying to envision,” says George Lucas. “He may have said ‘bringing sailing to the public,’ but at least that was the theme … which sounded nice to me but not very practical.”

In 1976, Turner was preparing to challenge for the America’s Cup. “Turner comes up to me and says, ‘Why don’t you do the Cup with me?’ ” Jobson recalls. “He made a deal with me. He said, ‘You’ll make me better in sailing, and in return I’m going to make you better at business.’ It was a fair trade. He methodically included me in meetings, helped introduce me to people.” The first fruit of their collaboration was the successful Cup defense with the 12 Meter Courageous in 1977. Jobson was tactician.

Jobson is not a “violinist who can play only one string,” Turner says. “Like all the good people in any sport, he takes it very seriously when he’s doing it. But he doesn’t get so immersed in it that he loses sight of the bigger picture. [He was] perfectly constituted to have a lifelong career and do a terrific job in sailing without running into burnout.”

Turner thought Jobson was bright the day he met him. “He has tremendous leadership ability, infectious enthusiasm, a lot of the same qualities that I have,” he says. “I guess that’s one of the reasons we got along so well.”

With the Cup victory, Jobson and Turner became a very public pair. “Simon & Schuster asked Ted to write a book, and Ted asked me to be the co-author,” Jobson says. “ ‘The Racing Edge’ was published in 1979. Independently, Michelob was looking to promote its product in sailing. They asked Ted to help, and he suggested me. So after coaching and writing this book, somebody called me and said, ‘Why don’t you come to lecture at our club?’”

Jobson had been a nervous public speaker in high school. He says he got over it by being enthusiastic, having good notes, and being prepared. What he got from the club speaking engagements that he now began booking was an organized way of thinking about sailing. “It made me define my sailing thoughts,” he says. And as he traveled from club to club, he says he built up a network of friends and business associates across the country.

Jobson’s next big break came when cable TV sports network ESPN decided to cover the America’s Cup. There were many applicants for the job. “I had an edge,” says Jobson. “You could take any part of the sport, and I could explain it enthusiastically.”

Connections, committees

Jobson is an imposing physical presence. He is tall — 6 feet, 2 inches — slender and animated. In public, a crooked smile is never far from his lips. His hand reaches out to touch you but only with a whisper of contact, just enough to suggest your inclusion in his thoughts. He assumes — often correctly — that he knows what you want from him, and he graciously provides.

Journalists hoping to write a Jobson profile will be instructed that their reporting will include time with him in his television studio, at a lecture, and on a sailboat. An interview with him can be a monologue: a verbal slide show of Jobson highlights, an enthusiastic travelogue through his many projects. The images come in bursts, pre-edited like a well-paced film. They are accompanied by insights he has acquired and opinions he has formed. In an informal social setting, Jobson finds opportunities to share stories from his vast collection. When he stands before a crowd, he already has thought through which of his tales will keep the attention of this particular audience, and he has visualized how they will respond when he is finished.

No one could do what Jobson does and not be well-connected. But he is more than a filter for the thoughts of his contacts. He has, according to associates, the desire and the ability to shape outcomes. Yachting author John Rousmaniere worked with Jobson early in his career on a committee whose job it was to forge the next Olympic sailing team. “He reads a room very well, and he did when he was younger,” Rousmaniere says. In a public setting, Jobson “tends to dominate a room. But the same person who is that way in a room, in a meeting is quite silent. He never said more than he had to.”

As with his public speaking and his sailing, Jobson’s quiet approach to meetings is a product of preparation. Before he enters a meeting, he has read all the material and talked with everyone who he knows will attend. He wants to know, “What’s going to open the door with this guy? What’s important to the other guy? I respect people who have very good ideas, and short ideas,” he says.

Jobson says he learned a valuable trick about dealing with organizations from Robert Stone, retired chairman of the Harvard Corporation. He says Stone told him the most powerful position in any group is being in charge of the nominating committee. It allows you to look ahead and shape decisions before they must be made.

“I’ve always made it a point along the way of ending up on a lot of nominating committees,” he says.

The “good and bad”

In the Mercedes, Jobson rattles off some of the boards and committees on which he has served. He just completed two years as chairman of the Fales Committee, advising the superintendent of the Naval Academy in his home town, Annapolis. He is on the sailing committee at New York Maritime and on a committee supporting the sailing team at Ocean County College in New Jersey. He has been nominated as a trustee of St. Mary’s (Md.) College and says he helped start the sailing program at Hampton (Va.) University, where he recruited the school’s first sailing coach and found boats for the students, as well. He has volunteered on boards with the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., the Annapolis Maritime Museum, the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., and the New York Yacht Club, among others.

Jobson’s most visible volunteer work has been for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In 1993 he volunteered on a committee to set up the first Leukemia Cup sailing regatta in Annapolis. That first year, 100 boats showed up after Jobson gave his name to the project, and $30,000 was raised. “There will be 51 Leukemia Cups this year. I now have gone to 182 events,” Jobson says. The program has raised $18 million for the society.

Jobson’s long limbs are folded in on him in the Mercedes as he steers, talks, gestures and keeps eye contact with his passenger. He switches to a new topic: “the good and the bad of sailing.”

“Youth sailing is extremely vibrant,” he declares. “The yacht club is becoming a center of family activity. I like the growing trend of one-design sailing in the country. Here in America, it’s the Etchells and the JY-15s.”

However, Jobson is concerned that the marquee events are becoming “not interesting.” For example, there are only four Americans in the Volvo Ocean Race fleet. “It should be American crews on American boats, and the America’s Cup, the same thing,” he says. “I don’t think the marquee events are getting the non-sailors enthused in the sport and are not entertaining sailors.”

Jobson’s second concern is participation in the sport. “We’re losing sailors between the ages of 23 and 35,” he says. They have families and expenses that keep them off the water. “We have to find a way to promote daysailing and sailing that costs less.

“When I was sick, I thought hard. The revelation I had is that the marquee event is the thing that draws people, but not enough. The one event that really is pure and that inspires our youth is the Olympic Games.”

But participation by young sailors is down, he says. “Women’s Yngling had only six boats show up [at the U.S. trials for Athens],” he says. “So I am putting a lot of energy in the Olympics.” He is a member of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Committee, whose members, he says, “have been working hard to support the athletes and build an endowment.”

The diagnosis

So many committees, boards and projects, but Jobson has a family, too. He and Janice had their first child, Kristi Lynn, in 1984, the year after Jobson was inducted in the SUNY Maritime Athletic Hall of Fame. She is now a senior at Harvard University. The twins, Ashleigh Eileen and Brooke Ann, were born in 1987, the year Jobson won a Cable Ace Award for his Cup coverage. Ashleigh is a freshman at the University of Maryland and Brooke a freshman at New York University.

In 2000, Jobson says, everyone in the family seemed to be going in different directions. “I split with my wife for two years. I got bored with it all,” he says. “In hindsight, I probably should have taken a month off and gone dove-hunting in Scotland.”

Janice took her husband back, but within a year he was in deeper trouble. “I developed a cough, and I had all these red blotches, night sweats, losing weight, fatigue. During the 2003 Cup, I was vomiting during commercials.” He was on a 60-city lecture tour when, in the 23rd city, he “crumpled.”

A sailing friend, Dr. Glenn Robbins, arranged for a team of doctors to see him. The somewhat ironic diagnosis was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There was chemotherapy between April and August 2003, and an apparent recovery. The relapse was worse. The response was high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplants. “I had no idea about the setbacks that come along and how mentally draining they are,” he says. There were bouts of shingles, pneumonia, chicken pox and depression. “I didn’t think I was going to get out of it. But somehow in the middle of it I resolved I’m going to get up on my elbows. I’m not through.”

“He had gotten an infection, and he was really in trouble,” recalls John Burnham, editor of Sailing World magazine, for which Jobson writes 10 columns a year. “We agreed he just wasn’t going to make it this month, and that was OK. Kathy [Lambert, Jobson’s secretary] said, ‘I’m going to go over and see him at his house.’ He dictated a column. He is iron-willed. I just have huge respect.”

Jobson says he had a lot of support. “Messages from all over the world,” he says.

Turner called Jobson every week to check in. “He earned my loyalty, and I guess I earned his,” Turner says. “We faced a number of storms at sea together, the most notable Fastnet ’79. Basically we hung tough when things were not looking so well.” (Fifteen sailors perished, five yachts sank, and 136 sailors were rescued during that Fastnet Race when a Force 10 storm swept across the North Atlantic and slammed the fleet.) Turner says Jobson handled his illness “just like he’d handle crises we’d have out on the ocean — with courage, equanimity and grace — and he kept a cool head.”

Some of Jobson’s friends worry about the fury with which he has returned to his pursuits following the illness. He is still keeping tally of his achievements and can reel off his lifetime numbers with obvious pride: low 2,000s in lectures, approaching his 500th television show, 15 books, 850 magazine articles, more than 5,000 races sailed.

“This summer, ’05, I had the most eclectic summer of my life. I think I over-did it,” he confesses. “I felt well enough in April to sail in the May NOOD in Annapolis, and won third in the Etchells North Americans. I can’t tell you how good I feel about these. … I went across the ocean filming the [Rolex Transatlantic Challenge] race. It was my sixth time across the ocean. The last time was in 1973. I forgot how long the ocean is. I sailed in a 12 Meter regatta on Courageous in Newport [as tactician]. We won four of five races. I went and sailed an A-cat for the first time since 1969. Got a second and fifth out of 10 boats. I was helmsman. … I sailed an International One Design out of Nantucket. We ended second. I sailed with wife and daughters on our Sabre 402 in the New York Yacht Club Cruise. We were last in class. It’s not a racing boat.

“The only other sailing I did was cruising in Maine,” he says. “I always love cruising Maine in the summer. I’ve sailed on every continent. I think Maine is my favorite. Good people, scenery, and the challenges of fog and tides and rocks. I feel very much at ease on the coast of Maine.”

It sounds idyllic, the mood of a man who has no more contests to win. In 1999, he won US Sailing’s Nathanael Herreshoff Award, the organization’s most prestigious honor. “We had a unanimous vote for him,” says the former US Sailing president Muldoon. “Once the word came out that he was a nominee, there were no other nominees.”

In 2003, Jobson was named to the Herreshoff Museum’s America’s Cup Hall of Fame. The citation stated: “He combines his thorough knowledge of sailing with a rare ability to describe competition, interpret strategy and convey the excitement of the sport. He has done more in his lifetime to dispel the stereotype that sailing and yacht racing is the exclusive domain of the wealthy, and make it accessible and enjoyable to an international audience.”

Despite the accolades — as if the illness had never happened — Muldoon sees Jobson going full tilt. “And I could kill him for it,” Muldoon says. “He really pushes hard. He claims he’s more reflective of the kind of things he’s willing to do, but he’s got a pretty broad definition of what that is. I don’t think he has an idle on his machine.”