by Josh Adams
Sailing lost a true caretaker of the sport this past week when Bob Billingham passed following a long and valiant fight against cancer. Bob touched many in sailing through his decades of dedication across different areas of the sport, most notably the America’s Cup and the Olympics. Speaking for several generations of US Sailing Team athletes and the Olympic Sailing Committee past and present, we will dearly miss one of our steady leaders. In his lifetime, Bob had a very positive impact on Olympic sailing in this country.
Bob was an Olympic silver medalist in the Soling (1988), sailing with John Kostecki and Will Baylis. That performance was just the beginning of Bob’s contributions to Olympic sailing, as he would go on to devote his time and passion as a multi-quad member of the Olympic Sailing Committee (OSC). Bob was a tactician who brought to the OSC a competitive fire forged by his experiences with America’s Cup winner America 3 and challenger AmericaOne. Bob always seemed to thrive in the midst of a challenge, especially when a creative solution was the only solution.
As the US Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider evolved the last few quads—developing a commercial program and upping the financial support of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes—Bob provided an influential voice during a time of great organizational change. But his best moments centered on developing advantages at the Olympic Games venues. Even while fully dedicated to the most recent America’s Cup, Bob’s influence on Games projects carried well into the current quad; as recently as January he was advising on Rio-based initiatives with his usual competitive focus. The Olympic and Paralympic teams that will be selected to represent USA in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 will have the benefit of Bob’s strategic guidance.
One of Bob’s most notable contributions to the US Sailing Team came in the London 2012 quad. Dean Brenner, OSC Chairman from 2005-2012, captures Bob in his element:
'Bob Billingham was many things in the eyes of many people: an Olympic Medalist and a champion sailor; a world-class operations manager; a major player on multiple levels in the America’s Cup; and a tireless volunteer. But those are just the résumé items. It was the human interactions, the little things that gave Bob texture and made him who and what he was.
In the spring of 2007, Bob and a group of his colleagues wanted to make a big contribution to Olympic Sailing. So Bob and I made our first trip to Weymouth, England, 5+ years before the 2012 Games to begin scouting out locations for a team base. We spent days skulking around Weymouth, keeping a low profile. Bob was in full 'America’s Cup disinformation' mode. He didn’t want anyone to figure out who we were and what we were doing (as if it mattered… but it was fun watching him operate!). Fast-forward to the 2012 Games, and Bob’s vision was reality. 'Camp Billingham,' as we named it, was the home for our teams for multiple years of training and racing. That project was Bob at his creative best.' (Dean's full reflections can be found here: http://bit.ly/1mUJmin )
Bob sailed gracefully on his final beat in life. As the America’s Cup community can attest, he gave it his all these last few years despite significant medical challenges. By now you may have heard that the St. Francis Yacht Club and St. Francis Sailing Foundation have dedicated the B Buoy off the club the 'Billingham Buoy'. We applaud this move, a fitting tribute to Bob’s dedication to sailing and something his beloved family can be proud of. I look forward to rounding the Billingham Buoy and celebrating all that its namesake has done for the sport of sailing.
US Sailing website