Life Lessons From My Dad "Jake"

Jake's son Tryg sailing with family

In Wisconsin, you spend nearly three months out of the year sailing your Lightning, and the other nine months thinking about it.  I guess it’s one way to learn patience.

I was seven.  And it was a cold, yet sunny spring morning in 1963 when my father, "Jake" my sister Kris and I drove out to the barn where our Lightning was stored over the winter.  She was number 2225, one of the earlier wood Lightning’s that found more time upside down getting her belly sanded than she did on the water.  Her name was “Islander”.

As I wandered about the barn, I remember how the flies that had been in hibernation all winter were now banging their heads mindlessly against the windows as Dad swept the pigeon droppings off the boat cover.  And just as flies that moved mindlessly toward the light, Dad was now exchanging his Paul Elvstrom books, Lightning Flashes and Bruce Goldsmith tapes for the real thing.  The musty smell.  Last year’s regatta instructions wadded up in the bottom of the boat.  Rusty pliers and leaves.  The mildewed life jackets.  The starting line only two weeks and 10 minutes away.

Jake was not a champion Lightning sailor, he was better than that.  He was a champion dad.  Growing up, the Lightning became a special kind of language for me (and my sister) and my dad.  It built a wonderful bond between us that nothing in this world will ever take away.  

I remember the first time Jake put the tiller under my little arm and said, “Okay son, steer toward the red lighthouse,” and I remember the wonderful feeling of having had his blessing when I kept old Islander on course.  And I remember the early years we had pleasure sailing, fleet racing and making new friends at district regattas.  And regretfully, I remember the day my dad resigned his position as main-man to coach me from the sidelines when my “know it all” attitude began to get his goat.

Years later, Dad waved to me and my crew as we crossed the starting line of the 1977 Worlds at Lake Thun, Switzerland.  In that same World’s event, Tom Allen sailed a perfect series, with his son and daughter!  We weren’t even close, but it took nothing away from the sense of victory we felt when my father, our coach, gave us his blessing.

Like most coaches, Jake had a lot of great one-liners.  He would say: “Make your big moves early.”; “When the wind goes light, it doesn’t matter if you’re going the wrong way, just keep moving”.; Be patient with your crew.  You need them more than they need you.”; “Teach your competition everything you know.  It’ll help make you better.”; “Don’t yell, it breaks people’s concentration.”; “Fall in love with your boat.  Wash and wax it, trim and tune it.  It’ll psyche you up and your competition out.”  And I love this one, “If you can’t convince ‘em, confuse them.”  (This one worked great in protest meetings and its worked well in life, too).

When I was a kid, all of these little one-liners meant something specific on the racecourse.  Now in a somewhat funny, metaphorical way, they mean just as much off the course.  “Work with your weight”; Get the feel” and “Be on the line when the gun goes off”; “ If you tip over, stay with the boat”; Check the bailers before you launch”.  So all that time he was teaching me about sailing, he was really preparing me for life’s challenges.  Sailing was his funny way of doing it.

Professionally, my dad was an advertising man, so it was natural that his love for the Lightning took him far beyond the bluffs of Lake Michigan where he watched and took notes and pictures of our local fleet races.  Dad was an incredible dreamer and a promoter.  When others laughed at the prospect of bringing the Lightning North American Championship to Sheboygan, Dad convinced everybody we could do it…  The event was legendary.

As Class Secretary, and during a time when the integrity of the Lightning’s design was often put at risk to attract new sailors, my dad worked with others behind the scenes to promote the class though good advertising, enthusiasm and just plain good sportsmanship.  He traveled to several major Lightning Championships to capture incredible Lightning moments of film which he later published in a variety of books and posters to help raise money for the class. That's just the kind of man Jake was.

Jake died on December 28th at the age of 75.  The time we actually sailed together spanned maybe 15 years at the most, but I feel we’ve been sailing together for a lifetime.  Perhaps its because so many of the things I learned on the boat were lessons that have helped me in so many other areas of my life.  I have three little girls of my own now, so while they may never get to know their grandpa as well as I knew him, I’m confident the little one-liners that have guided me the last 30 years or so will have impact on them…whether they choose to put a tiller under their arm or not.

My Dad wasn’t the only dad who ever taught his children how to sail.  He was not the only dad to ever love a Lightning.  So my memories of dad and our Lightning and everything this blessed combination taught me are dedicated to all those great moms and dads who gave their kids what they needed most.  Love.  A boat.  A starting line.  A finishing line.  And everything in between. 

Jake's StrongGinger ginger juice brings a smile to my face every time I drink it.  It's everything my dad was and always will be for me and I continue to live the dream.  

---Tryg "Jake" Jacobson 

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