Carrying the Fight

While his body wages a mighty war against cancer, sailing icon Gary Jobson's spirit remains resolute

March 8, 2005

America has never embraced sailing as a hero-making sport. It’s insufficiently violent, too convoluted in its rules, and too intellectually demanding in its tactics to grab the kind of attention accorded its bone-crushing brethren. Or at least that’s how it was until Gary Jobson came along. When it comes to sailboat racing in America, since he burst onto the scene as a college kid from the shores of New Jersey, Jobson has become the sport’s megawatt face, voice, and cheerleader. During his four years at SUNY Maritime College, three times he was named an All-American sailor, and twice he was the collegiate Sailor of the Year. At the ripe age of 27, Jobson was selected by Ted Turner to become tactician on Courageous in Turner’s nationally galvanizing 1977 America’s Cup win. In addition, Gary’s won three SORCs (Southern Ocean Racing Conferences), one-design championships on Lasers, Shields, and Force 5s, and, most dramatically, the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race aboard Turner’s ocean racer, Tenacious.

In 1988, Jobson won an Emmy for his television coverage for NBC of yachting at the South Korea Olympics, and for 19 years on ESPN he’s been the host, teacher, and sometimes song-and-dance man who’s succeeded in explaining sailing to the masses. He’s pumped out 14 sailing books and scores of videos and magazine articles. Over 30 years, he’s given 1,900 slide shows and lectures at yacht clubs and boat shows. And he’s an editor at large for both Cruising World and Sailing World.

No one in American sailing has combined such an understanding of the sport with savvy business skills, charismatic stage presence, confidence earned by having the goods, and enough exuberance and stamina to make it work. He also chairs the prestigious FALES Committee at the U.S. Naval Academy and sits on the boards of the Mariner’s Museum of Newport News, Virginia, and of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.


Probably Gary’s greatest contribution is that he’s parlayed his position in sailing to benefit cancer research. For more than a decade he’s served as the volunteer national chairman of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Regatta Series and raised more than $12 million.

This accomplishment was all the more poignant last March 25, in Baltimore, Maryland, when Gary appeared for the 141st time at a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society fund-raising event. This time, the event was in his honor. As the audience rose in applause, Gary entered in a wheelchair, no longer their high-energy, high-profile fund-raising chairman but a patient fighting to beat lymphoma himself.

A Hero Takes a Fall
In 2003, after returning from covering the America’s Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, Gary was in Cleveland, Ohio, ready to lay on his fast-paced video show about the year’s highlights in sailing. “I felt really wasted,” he remembered. That night, a physician in the audience, concerned about Gary’s appearance, approached him after the show and told him to come by the hospital the next morning for some tests. “He said, ‘I’m not sure what, but something’s very wrong,'” Gary recalled. “That was the beginning. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.”


One year later, on March 25, 2004, Gary sat in a hospital room at the University of Maryland’s Stem-Cell Transplant Unit, where he’d spent the previous two weeks fighting back attacks of shingles, pneumonia, 10 days of unending hiccups, and constant nausea. I was with him that day, the afternoon of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society fund-raiser in his honor. He’d stopped taking his pain medication so as to arrive at the banquet that evening and be completely in the moment. He was too weak to walk independently, and I didn’t believe for a moment he’d find the strength to get out of bed, to say nothing of making a public appearance to rally the troops. On and off that afternoon, he dozed and awakened. On and off, we talked.

DB: Gary, you don’t have to go tonight. Everyone would understand that.

JOBSON: At 7:15, we’re going over there. I’ll speak for a few minutes, play my Year in Sailing video–I’m really proud of it. And everybody will think everything’s cool. I gotta go. I really want to introduce my docs.


DB: It’s been a long slog this year. How do you hold it together?

JOBSON: The first round of chemo went pretty well, and I thought I was OK. After that, when you and I went to the Redskins game last October, I said it could go either way. I could be fine, or I’d need a stem-cell transplant. I thought I was mentally prepared. Well, a week later, they found my tumor had doubled in size. That brought on the high-dose therapy and the transplant. Through it all, in my inner of innards, I believed I’d be OK. Coming off that stem-cell transplant, wow. How much more can someone do? Man, lymphoma’s a hard disease to get rid of.

DB: How do you feel now?


JOBSON: I’m so sick it’s unbelievable, but I’m down to a splitting headache, an awful earache, and nausea, so that’s a lot better. This is the fourth time I’ve gone through this.

In January, I went to Sail Expo in Atlantic City to do my presentation. I wasn’t the best, but I got there. I talked. I socialized. It was quite a big moment for me to be able to do that. People take it for granted that Joe Montana’s going to throw footballs, but this Joe Montana wasn’t so sure. I wondered if I had the strength.

I wasn’t prepared for getting sick again at the end of February. I’d done everything. And here it is coming back, worse and harder. The docs would say, “Let’s try this med,” and I’m getting worse by the day. Finally I checked myself in again, two weeks ago. I was failing.

It’s like somebody took a fist and smashed the side of my head, like somebody put a belt around my chest, put both feet on, and pulled with all his might. I’ll get relief tonight when I get back on the pills. One thing about pain, you can’t remember it long-term. Sometimes during the chemo, I’d lie on the couch and know it would be five days of agony, then four and a half, then four. I’d just bear it out.

DB: It’s different this time?

JOBSON: This time I thought, is this it? I got all my papers in order. My first priority was making sure my family’s taken care of. Is there enough money in the college funds? What stupid things do I have lingering? What do I do with my Redskins season tickets? I started thinking about what else have I done. The short answer is I’ve done everything in racing. I’d like to do more cruising. Or maybe return to a career in coaching. Maybe I don’t need to make so much money anymore.
DB: How are you dealing?

JOBSON: Talking to shrinks helps. They said that I’ve been such–and I mean this humbly–such a Superman for so many years, doing a lot of races and TV shows and talks and articles that I had to come to grips with the possibility that I might never get back to that pace.

I had to do a living will before the transplant. I told them to Keep Trying! Don’t give up. Five years ago, my father didn’t have a living will, and there were a couple of docs who wanted us to sign things that said One More Time And That’s It, and we didn’t sign it, and he’s fine today. They were ready to give up on him early. I take the attitude that they should keep trying for a long time. That way, if you’re in the middle of some unbelievable pain, there’s no way out of it, so you keep trying.

Reflecting on a Full Life
When he turned 50, before the diagnosis, Gary went through a midlife crisis. He grew his hair long, got an earring, and in a move he regrets, left his wife for a period. It’s a time he’s grateful to have put behind them.

Today, he and Janice live in Annapolis, Maryland–their home throughout their marriage. They have three daughters: The eldest is a sophomore at Harvard, and their 17-year-old twins are high-school juniors.

DB: Looking back, Gary, don’t you think you might have been better off just buying a red Miata?

JOBSON: For sure! You know, I never would’ve achieved what I have without Janice. She was just so tolerant with all my stuff. I think I’ve done as much as is humanly possible in 53 years. I’ve done all these ocean races and dinghy races, and I’ve done expedition cruises and writing. And I’ve got three great kids. Getting back with Janice, that was really big. That’s my biggest accomplishment.

DB: So what now?

JOBSON: I just really want to get up to Maine this summer and spend some time with my family on our new Sabre. It’s a good boat for me, being 6-foot-2 and over 50. Not too much to handle. Well built. Well designed. Sometimes I think about getting a long-distance, bluewater cruising boat. I’d go with one head, stay with 40 feet. I’d want a good place for foul-weather gear–that’s essential. Everything would work from the cockpit. I’d go with a monohull sloop, a gennaker. No TV though. If you have a TV, you watch tapes all the time.

A cruising boat should make 7 knots under power. Slower than that, you’re hurting yourself. I like fiberglass, but I’d want steel for the extreme north and south. I’ve only done fast-track cruising, with Skip Novak down in the Antarctic. The longest I’ve cruised with my family was 35 days. We never stayed longer than two nights anywhere. We kept moving. Now I’d like to slow down.

DB: Have you always loved telling people about sailing?

JOBSON: Here’s what happened. I’m about 12. I’d just gotten a new Penguin–a really popular boat at the Jersey shore. This family comes down to the yacht club who’d never sailed before. I got all enthused and talked, and these people listened to me! Right there, I knew I liked doing this.

DB: Who in your family, other than you, was into sailing?

JOBSON: My father helped me get the Penguin. Here was this guy in his early 30s working at the newspaper, where he had to be in at 6 o’clock every morning. And at 6 o’clock on Saturday morning, he’s taking me to the yacht club because that’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t realize what that meant until I was in my 40s. He was waking up at the crack of dawn when most parents just roll over and say, “Get yourself down there.”

Then again, some parents force too much. There are a lot of really talented sailors in this country who got turned off at 15 because their parents pushed them too hard and wouldn’t accept that they wanted to play soccer or football. The best thing a parents can do is get kids to play another sport, because when they come back to sailing, they’ll have better teamwork skills. Taking the kids around to the Optis, burning them out early, is too much. Then they reject sailing when they’re 17.

Choice Words about the Boys
In 1999, Gary was awarded the Nathanael G. Herreshoff Trophy, US Sailing’s most prestigious award. In October 2003, he was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, and all 11 crewmen from the 1977 Courageous crew, including Ted Turner, showed up that night.

DB: What do you think of some of your sailing peers?

JOBSON: Well, Bill Koch, for example: He might be a bit of a nut case, but he’s a good nut case, so into science and math and making boats go faster. Buddy Melges–you can’t help but love him. Ted Turner is the best guy I ever met. So full of life. He has this ability to take far-fetched ideas and make them come out as reality. Very few people have the business sense to take something abstract and make a lot of money at it. These guys–Koch, Melges, Turner, Conner–they’re very moral people.

Dennis Conner, for instance: I was sailing with him on Condor in a Fastnet one time, back in the days when you weren’t allowed to fly the spinnaker without a pole. If the pole broke, you had to take it down. There wasn’t anybody within 20 miles. The pole broke. Conner said, “Either we get a new pole up in one minute or we take it all down.” High marks from me. No one would ever know, yet he played by the rules.

DB: Who are your heroes?

JOBSON: Buddy Melges. It’s 1965. The E Scow nationals in Little Egg Harbor on the Jersey shore. A hundred boats, blowing hard. It’s the first race, and there’s this guy with a funny-looking nose, and his shirt says USA. Buddy Melges! Holy shit! I’m 14 years old. I went over and introduced myself, and he said, “Hiya, kid. Good to meet you. See ya on the racecourse.” And then I watched Buddy Melges port-tack a hundred of these E Scows! Wow, you could be racing against him, and at the end of the race, he’d be telling a crowd of people how to trim the jib. Wasn’t afraid to give away secrets because he’d get better himself.

Today, I look at my peers–the older guys–who’ve really contributed to sailing. Robby Doyle and Tom Whidden made their sails. The Harkens built their blocks, and Buddy and the Johnstones built their boats. The one big thing I’ve done is make sailing interesting for the non-sailor. I made people want to go sailing. Twenty years from now, that’s how they’ll remember me.

DB: Somehow you made a career out of sailing. Very few people have found ways to do that.

JOBSON: I learned about business from Ted Turner. During the 1976-1977 America’s Cup, he said, “Look, you’re going to help me with this sailing stuff, and I’m going to help you with business.” Later, I went to meetings with him in Atlanta and New York, and I really learned a lot watching him operate. It was a fair trade.

DB: In 2002, you were aboard Blue Yankee in the Stamford-Block Island Race when a crewman was lost overboard.

JOBSON: At 2000, I went off watch and got into my bunk. A few minutes later, I felt the boat rolling out. Figured the spinnaker had luffed, so I jumped up to help. The owner, Bob Towes, said we had two men overboard. I called the Coast Guard. Jamie Boeckel had been hit in the head with the spinnaker pole. Another guy had jumped in after him; he’d got to him, but Jamie got heavy and sank. I’d never been on the boat before. I was a guest. Stamford Yacht Club had a memorial, and many news groups were out front. I showed up, and the owner wouldn’t do it, so I did all the interviews and spoke at the memorial and did what I could. There were a lot of mistakes made that night. The watch captain went forward to work when he should’ve stayed in the cockpit to oversee everything, and the helmsman kept spinning out–he wasn’t really qualified to be steering. And Jamie had taken his life vest off. At 2000, he had it on, and 20 minutes later he wasn’t wearing it. There were good moves, too. Peter Isler did a brilliant job getting us back to exactly where the man went overboard. And the second guy who’d gone in the water and had Jamie in his hands–that was courageous. This was the biggest tragedy I’ve ever experienced in sailing.

A Banquet Awaits
Two hours before the fund-raiser in Gary’s honor, we left the hospital. Kathy Lambert, Gary’s assistant, drove him to an apartment he owns in Baltimore, close to where the banquet was to be held. He lay on the couch in a dark room, a blanket over his legs, a sweatshirt on, one hand across his stomach, the other holding his ear, struggling to keep down sips of broth. Mostly he was quiet, conserving energy. Soon his wife and the twins arrived. They got dressed, and each sat with him, asking him if he really had to go. I reminded him that he didn’t have to be Superman. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Kryptonite. It gets ya every time.”

While Gary rested, from one of his bookshelves I picked up David Remnick’s biography of Muhammad Ali, King of the World. He saw me holding it, and he recited from memory Clay’s poem about Sonny Liston. One stanza reads: “Clay swings with his left, / Clay swings with his right. / Look at young Cassius / Carry the fight!”

DB: Has cancer changed your goals in life?

JOBSON: I’m working on that with the shrinks. They keep saying, “Now is the time to decide what to maximize.”

As much as I was involved in the Leukemia Cups and as much as I read about cancer–and Janice’s parents both died of cancer, and my grandfather smoked himself to death with lung cancer–I didn’t really know what cancer is. It overwhelms your body and takes you away. I’ve learned, though, that I’m a fighter and not a giver-upper.

DB: Are you taking time to smell the roses?

JOBSON: Maybe. If I can get the boat to Maine this summer, I don’t want to feel I have to instantly put up the sail to get to the next harbor.

But there’s lots I still want to do. I have several projects going. I started work on my autobiography, and I wrote another book–on tactics–all while I was sick this year. It’s finished, but I’ve still got to make sure the right diagrams are with the right captions–all the details. Next, I sold ESPN on doing a show on the most significant moments from the last 25 years in our sport. I’m also doing the UBS Cup for Outdoor Life Network up in Newport, half an hour every night.

It looks like I’m not going to see my 80s, not like the CCA people all cruising around at that age, but I plan to see my 60s. Kathy’s worked for me for 21 years. I’ve been in my same office since 1978. I’ve been married even longer than that. I’ve been in my house since 1981. I crave longevity. Especially now.

Show Time
Around 7 p.m., Gary managed with much help to take a shower and get into his clothes–an elegant sports jacket, wool pants, and white shirt. Then, as he grimaced, we wheeled him downstairs, a plastic bucket in his lap, and helped him into the car. Outside the banquet, ready to make his entrance, he cast the bucket aside, and smiled. “Man, you’re about to watch one miraculous comeback. I’ve spent the last 13 days getting ready for the next five minutes.”

Janice led the way. Kathy rolled Gary in. The sea of worshippers parted. The applause got wild. Someone made a stirring introduction. The champ found his strength. He rose with conviction from his chair and commanded the stage. Standing, beaming, Gary tried to quiet the crowd, but they’d have none of it. Finally, he raised his hands and they gave him rapt attention. Head held high, with timbre and hope, he roared out, “OK, let’s roll that tape. I want you all to see something amazing.”

CW contributing editor Douglas Bernon is cruising with his wife, Bernadette, aboard their 39-foot cutter. He co-authors the Log of Ithaka, the magazine’s back-page essay.


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