Ding Schoonmaker

Eight Bells – James Martinus “Ding” Schoonmaker, II

June 10, 1933 – January 19, 2021

One of America’s sailing heroes, James “Ding” Schoonmaker, 87, passed away on Wednesday, January 19, 2021. He passed away at his home in Naples, Florida, his wife Treecie by his side. Treecie said he died from lung cancer and had been feeling well until just two days ago. Ding, as his friends referred to him, was a Star Class World Champion and served as a Vice President of World Sailing, the international governing body of the sport. He was a long time steward of the sport of sailing and a generous supporter of the US Sailing Foundation, the National Sailing Hall of Fame, the United States Olympic Sailing Team and the US Sailing Training Center in Miami, Florida

 At the 1975 Star World Championship, President Gerald Ford was invited by Chicago’s mayor, Richard Daley to welcome the 73 crews and guests to the Windy City. Reigning champion, 34 year old Tom Blackaller, sat in the audience next to two sailors from Florida. President Ford made a point to recognize Blackaller’s rivals, “One skipper and crew in particular has caught my eye, and I would like them to stand up and take a bow – the skipper of Star Number 5607, Ding Schoonmaker and his very talented and capable crew – Jerry Ford.” Everyone got a good laugh, and Schoonmaker and (the sailor) Jerry Ford must have been inspired because they went on to win the Star World Championship over the next week. (Blackaller finished second). Two years later Ding Schoonmaker returned to the Star Worlds with a new crew who wanted to get acquainted with the class, and learn from the master. The 47 year old crew was named, Buddy Melges, who must have learned a lot from Ding because he went on to win the Star Worlds in 1978 and 1979. 

James Martinus Schoonmaker, II was born June 10, 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

His Grandfather, of the same name, was a Medal of Honor recipient in the Civil War. Ding’s first race was in 1944 at the age of eleven off Watch Hill, R.I.  He spent his summers in Watch Hill and winters in Florida over the past 87 years. Schoonmaker started out in the Star Class as a crew for Olympian Jack Price in 1946. He remarked during an interview for the National Maritime Historical Society in 2019, “I immediately fell in love with the boat.  From the beginning I liked the class organization, the accomplished sailors who raced the boat and the challenge to win.” At the age of 19 he placed second in the Olympic Trials in the Star Class and was named the team’s alternate in Helsinki. He earned that honor again in 1964 at the Games in Tokyo. Along the way, Schoonmaker won World, North American, South American, Western Hemisphere, and European Championships in the Star Class. In 1962, following the Cuban revolution, Schoonmaker worked with Tito Argamasilla Bacardi and Frank Zagarino to move the Bacardi Cup Star Class Regatta to Biscayne Bay off Miami where it is still raced today.

In 1971 he raced with another Star World Champion, Joe Duplin, as his crew at an Olympic Classes regatta in Kiel, Germany. Schoonmaker noted, “It blew very hard the entire week. Thanks to Joe we won every race.” Schoonmaker was named Yachtsman of the Year in 1971 for that accomplishment and a long list of other victories that year. In addition to racing a Star at a high level he also raced Thistles, Flying Dutchman, Herreshoff 12 1/2s, X Dinghies, Finns, Lasers and Solings, in which he placed third in the first World Championship in 1969.

In 1968 he was asked to join a committee working on class measurement and development issues for the International Yacht Racing Union (now World Sailing). Ding learned the value of service and how it translated into improving his beloved sport. He was a Board member on the US Yacht Racing Union (now US Sailing), and would serve on several international committees. He was elected to serve on the Board of IRYU for 14 years (1986-1994 and 1998-2004).

Schoonmaker observed that sailing has changed a lot over his lifetime,  “One of the best changes is modern technology, but one of the worst is the high costs associated with Grand Prix racing. Unfortunately, the Olympics has become an arms race for some of the affluent nations.” He added,  “Talent and ability win medals. Sailing is a sport you can compete in for many years.” Looking toward the future he suggested,  “I would like to see the sport like it was 25 years ago. Promote the fleet, club, recreational sailing and racing. We need to keep grass roots (sailing) and club racing active.  Also, we need to encourage young sailors to remain in the sport.”

For his distinguished career he was awarded the Nathanael Greeene Herreshoff Award, US Sailing’s highest honor, in 1988 and the Beppe Croce Award, World Sailing’s highest honor in 2011. In 2018 he was inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame and in 2019 he was presented the Distinguished Service Award by the National Maritime Historical Society.  Notable among all of his philanthropic work was creating the US Sailing Center in Miami in 1987, establishing the World Youth Sailing Trust to help aspiring sailors in emerging countries and creating the US Sailing Foundation in 1990. Ding Schoonmaker has been an important counselor to the leaders of the sport both in the United States, and throughout the world for decades. He will be missed, while his life long work will serve as enduring legacy for sailors in the USA and around the world. 

Gary Jobson, Annapolis, Maryland