John Bledsoe Bonds – conscience of sailing, safety innovator and authority, and former Executive Director of U.S. Sailing – died on board his boat, Alliance, at Newport, R.I., on the night of June 8. He was 70. He and his wife, Beth, lived in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.
Born in Arkansas, John Bonds was initially infatuated with the sea and boats while a student at Rice University. He became an officer in the U.S. Navy, retiring with the rank of Captain in 1988 after a broad range of duties that included command of an ammunition ship off Vietnam and serving as Deputy Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the Naval War College. Sailing whenever and wherever he could, in 1981 he was qualified to be appointed Director of Navy Sailing. Based at Annapolis, he had a roster of responsibilities that included supervising sail and seamanship training throughout the Navy and NROTC programs. He also helped develop the design, construction, and rigging of the Navy 44 sloops.
Already active in the United States Yacht Racing Union (now U.S. Sailing), in 1981 he joined its Safety At Sea Committee and began conducting on-the-water research with midshipmen on techniques and equipment for man-overboard rescue. Some 600 tests led to the breakthrough Quick Stop maneuver, a vast improvement over the traditional Williamson Turn. He next tested life jackets and concluded that the best option was the newly introduced inflatable. The Coast Guard officer in charge of life jackets disagreed, announcing that the USCG would never approve inflatables as long as he was in charge. Several years later, John looked back and declared, with characteristic succinctness, 'He was wrong.'
Inflatable life jackets, the Quick Stop, and other tools of safe sailing are widely appreciated today, but they were little known until Captain Bonds opened the Naval Academy’s safety-at-sea seminars to the sailing public in 1984. Four years later he took safety seminars on the road to Charleston and Newport, and from that sprang the well-known and highly respected nationwide system of safety seminars certified by U.S. Sailing.
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To call John Bonds a missionary just for safety would be a mistake. In his exuberant Arkansas evangelical way, he was a missionary for sailing itself. He knew from his own experience that sailing can transform and enhance lives. He also knew that for this to happen, people must feel and be safe. The safety seminars that we did together, two or three times a year for a quarter century, often ended with a talk he gave that was so full of this conviction that we referred to it as 'The Benediction.' This past spring, John was the moderator or featured speaker at four of these all-day seminars, in Florida, Canada, New York, and Newport. He was to participate in another one before the start of the Newport Bermuda Race.
After retiring from the Navy, John served as Executive Director of U.S. Sailing from 1988 to 1994. The organization’s membership grew during his term, and the disciplines and controls he introduced left the organization financially healthy and its volunteers and staff enthusiastic. On hearing of his death, Charles Leighton, U.S. Sailing’s current Executive Director, said, 'John Bonds, besides his dedication of seven years to our sport, will always be remembered for his compassion for people.'
All this time Bonds was racing his J-24 and later a J-35, while also sailing offshore in friends’ boats, often in the joint role as navigator and cook. He sailed 11 Newport or Marion races to Bermuda and regularly brought boats back home from the island, choosing for his crews novices who, like him, were enchanted by the idea of going to sea, and who wanted to advance their skills so they could do it with confidence. Here are his concluding words in an article he wrote for the official program for this year’s Newport Bermuda Race, addressing owners: 'So as you plan your race down, think about the trip home as an opportunity to improve your crew roster and all the rest. It’s a good investment for the future.'
Always moving ahead, for his most recent (and, alas, last) boat he chose the J-40 Alliance, in which he and his adored Beth cruised. There was the occasional race. On the 2009 New York Yacht Club Cruise, Alliance won the Cygnet Cup, the oldest trophy in American yachting. That had special meaning for John, who on shore was a late-blooming practicing historian.
After earning his Ph.D. in his sixties, he taught history at The Citadel, in Charleston, S.C., until his retirement in May. His professional publications include a scholarly study of post-World War II U.S. foreign policy, Bipartisan Strategy: Selling the Marshall Plan (2002). In his spare time, John played saxophone several nights a week in a jazz quartet. He recently played a big band concert at The Citadel.
For all his interests, John Bonds was never not sailing. He was active in race management and judging for many sailing organizations, including his yacht clubs, among which were the Charleston Yacht Club, the Cruising Club of America, the New York Yacht Club, and the Storm Trysail Club.
Besides his wife, Beth, John Bonds leaves a daughter, Margaret Podlich, Vice President of Government Affairs at BoatUS, of Annapolis, Md.; a son, John B. Bonds Jr., of San Francisco; and two grandchildren.
He will also be missed by the world of his friends and admirers, and by the countless people who owe their sailing – in some cases even their lives – to what John Bonds brought us.