lessons from jan

Michigan iceboat superstar Ron Sherry says if everyone lived like Jan Gougeon, the world would have a lot more fun.  On his death, Ron put together the following story to celebrate the man.  Remember that Jan’s memorial party is on the 27th in Bay City, MI, and for a unique memorial for the rest of you, mix a jar of West System Epoxy at 7 PM Friday night with the rest of the Anarchists and toast a great man and a great life.


I could write a book titled “What I Learned From Jan Gougeon” but it would take volumes. So I am going to tell you a few stories about building, racing, and dealing with people that we all need to remember and try to live by.

Jan always was looking towards the next project. He was not what you would call a party animal. However, one of my first real good memories of Jan was in 1980 when Meade won the DN North Americans. Jan was so happy to see his brother win the North Americans he was heard by many to say, “I haven’t puked in a long time, let’s get drunk tonight”. We partied well into the next morning and we carried Jan to his room. You would have thought he had won. I know when I finally won Jan made sure to help me celebrate and I thought that was so cool.

In 1982 Jan and I were at the top of our game taking first and second in every event we entered. We knew we were going to Germany for the Worlds and kidded each other on the starting line in the one and two starting positions at the Detroit Invitational, saying, “It’s going to be just like this in Germany”. Little did we know it would really happen.

Jan had traveled to Europe before and was the victim of a little team racing that kept him from winning. With his new veneer mast, he had enough speed that no one could stop him. He also strategically placed himself in the final race to make sure I ended up second for the regatta.

One night during the regatta all the national teams were working on their runners in one big barn. Every team had the most sophisticated equipment I had ever seen. They had light bars and you could change the angle on their sanding machines to what ever you wanted. Jan walked into the room carrying his front-runner and the room got real quiet. Every one was looking over their shoulders to see what he was going to do. He asked if he could borrow a machine and Christoph Schmidt said sure. He took his runner and set it on the belt free handed first one side than the other dragged his fingernail across the edge said thanks and walked out. It took all of about 2 minutes. All the teams were sure he would not use that runner and said he only did that to try and psych them out. I just thought it was great.

Jan’s Lesson #1: Share your secrets of speed with anyone who asks.

FAST is FUN. The faster you make others the faster you will be. Jan always shared information and technology. He honestly would let you know how he built things and what he was trying to accomplish. He knew fast was fun and wanted everyone to have a piece of the fun. He never tried to tell you what to do; he knew everyone has a little creative genius inside them and just tried to coax it out. He had a way of putting everything in layman’s terms that made it look simple.

When Jan dominated the DN Worlds on Barnegat Bay with a new hull design, he went home and made a detailed set of plans so anyone could build the boat. These plans are still today the official plans the DN Class uses and sells.

Jan’s Lesson #2: BRING YOUR BEST SHIT!

Jan is one of the only people on earth with more enthusiasm for iceboating than me. I called him often, and when we talked, by the time we were done telling stories on racing and what we were building we were on the phone for one and a half hours. But we would always end with the same things. Number one he would say, “Thanks for the core dump”, and then he would say, “Bring your best shit”. Because when we sailed against each other, there were no excuses. If you looked at Jan’s boat he always had a lot of adjustments so if someone was beating him, he could match their tune and learn. There were at least two Worlds and one North Americans that we finished first and second. I knew I was starting to get it when the conditions changed; we got to the starting line and had made the same changes to our boats.   I know that when Jan said, “Bring your best shit” it was about all of life, not just sailing. Lets all try to bring our best shit no matter what we are doing. We always ended our conversations with I love you. It took a little while for Jan to get used to that but it made me real happy when he would beat me to it.

Jan’s Lesson #3: Appreciate what you have.

I talked to Jan about a month ago, and he told me about the Fibrosis of the lungs he was suffering through. The problem started when he knocked down a wall in the house he bought in Florida and inhaled a deadly concoction of dust and mouse poop. He told me that it would never get any better. The only hope would be to slow the advancement of the problem. He was on oxygen and was thrilled about the trip that he and Patty had just taken to the Galapagos Islands. He started to break up when he said he didn’t think he could sail his DN any more. I thought to myself, “You might as well cut my arms off” and I knew he felt the same. He also could not fly his planes any more either. He knew the end was coming and called it a shitty deal. Then in Jan’s fashion he turned it around and said what a great time he had in life and how lucky he was to live the life he had with all the great sailing, Great duke-outs and most of all, great friends. He was making plans to take oxygen on the boat so he could still sail.

I called him last Tuesday to tell him about the Western Challenge Cup and how great my son, Griffin, had done. He was busy building his trailer with his brother Meade so he could take his catamaran, Strings, to Florida. The call was short so he could get back to work, but it ended the same way, “Bring your best shit and love you lots”. He wasn’t able to work on the trailer the next day, but Meade took him to lunch. The next day when Meade took him to lunch, he knew it was time to go to U of M hospital. U of M tried everything they could but the writing was on the wall. The doctors gave him options and he chose his path. Understandably he didn’t want everyone to know, but at Jan’s request he got to say his goodbyes to his brothers, Patty, and close friends. He did not want a funeral- he wanted a party, so let’s not let him down.

Jan’s Lesson #4: Even when it’s already really fun, find a way to make it more fun.

Enough of all that, back to what I learned from Jan. One afternoon on Cass Lake after racing was done for the day we went back to Cartwright’s house to have some venison Sloppy Joes and talk about the racing. It was a beautiful evening and Jan went back out sailing. It was probably a good idea to go back out side because, the Venison tasted amazing but it created a reaction that needed to be released out side.

We weren’t going to let him have all the fun so we joined him. After a couple of speed runs, Jan came up with a great idea. He said, “Let’s just keep on doing laps and who ever is in the lead has to do a loop around the leeward mark.” Can you imagine that in an iceboat? Jan got just what he wanted. We had 8 or 10 of us out there and everyone had to do a loop at the bottom mark. We must have done about 24 laps. Our arms were falling off but everyone had a time that will never be forgotten.

Jan’s Lesson #5: Be positive and encouraging, no matter how drunk and obnoxious someone is.

One year on the Port Huron to Mac race, I was sailing on a Santa Cruz 70 called Equation. Jan was sailing a new G-32. We exchanged leads several times. The crew on our boat was getting really pissed off when he was passing us again on Sunday night. I let them know that we were duking it out against a true God of sailing and that should not be discouraged. I knew exactly who it was and when I said hi Jan, he said, “Is that you Ronny? I thought that was you”. The crew quieted down.

When we got to the island Jan and I were standing at the Pink Pony telling stories. A young man came up to us and said he was an iceboater. Neither Jan nor I recognized him. He had been well served, and went on to tell us how he was going to kick our ass this winter. I smiled and looked at Jan. Jan asked him what kind of equipment he had and went on to tell him what conditions that equipment works really good in. He also told him how to tune it for the different conditions. I followed Jan’s lead and told him how great it is to learn things from different sailors. Needless to say if Jan were not there, the conversation would have taken a different turn.

Jan’s Lesson #6: Be the one to say something good.

The last lesson I will tell you about is one of the greatest of all. We were at an iceboat event and we had a big group standing around talking about a jackhole who had really pissed us off. Every one in the group was telling stories bitching about this guy. When it was Jan’s turn he said, “Ya that stuff is all bad, but at least he got this right”. Jan went on to tell a story about the person that was positive. What a great lesson. From that day on I always try to be the one that says something positive even when everyone else is bitching about someone. If you look, you can always find something positive to say about anyone.

Respectfully submitted with heartfelt love and appreciation. Let’s all try to live our lives using the lessons we learned from one of the greatest people ever born, Jan Gougeon.

-Ron Sherry