Decades after debilitating crash, local sailor overcomes paralyzing disability

August 28, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Bob Jones sails with a teammate during a busy summer of 2010 at one of several regattas in the Atlantic Ocean off Newport, R.I. Contributed

Bob Jones, of Issaquah, has long loved competitive sailing and when he was paralyzed in a car crash in 1981 that didn’t change.

Now, three decades later, Jones is earning high marks on the national stage and, for the third time in four years, has won the American Eagle Trophy at the Chicago Yacht Club’s North American Challenge Cup. Since the race’s debut in 1992, only a handful of people have been awarded the trophy three or more times.

“Several sailors I have admired have won the Eagle Trophy three times,” Jones wrote in an email after the event. “I am honored to be included in this small group of NACC Freedom 20 class sailors.”

The Freedom 20 class was the original regatta’s only class of boat and is now one of three race classes during the three-day event. Sailed by two people, including one able-bodied person, the Freedom 20 this year was made up of five boats competing for the trophy.

Jones and his partner Ken Kelly won the event in 2010 and returned Aug. 3 to Chicago’s Belmont Harbor to do it again. After the first two days of racing, the duo had won five of seven races and were in possession of a commanding lead. With the wind coming in at six to 12 knots, their lead started to slip Aug. 5 when they finished the day’s first two races in third place. But a second-place finish in the event’s final race, combined with the first two days of excellent racing, clinched the win for Jones and Kelly.

The two were honored that evening at an awards dinner at the Chicago Yacht Club.

“Ken and I sail this boat once a year and are competing against sailors who sail this boat regularly,” Jones said. “The Freedom 20 isn’t a high-performance racing boat, like the SKUD 18, but it is a tradition we continue.”

The same year that Jones won his first American Eagle Trophy he was excelling in the SKUD-18 class of sailing, a two-person boat for athletes with disabilities. After qualifying for the 2009 U.S. Sailing Team at the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta, he began to compete in campaigns for the 2012 Paralympics in London.

In the end, he lost out in the team trials and is now a proud observer. When renowned sailor Dick Rose commented, after judging the time trials, that Paralympic sailors were Olympic-caliber sailors, Jones swelled with pride.

“That recognition felt like a long-overdue validation for many of us,” Jones said.

In many of the races he has won over the years, he added, other skippers would not know about his disability until he showed up at the awards ceremony in a wheelchair.

“One reason we sail,” he said, “is because it is a sport we can compete without regard for our disability.”

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