Jeff Knowles, who incurred a kite boarding accident on San Francisco Bay which kept him underwater for at least 10 minutes, succumbed to his injuries early on June 7.
Jeff grew up sailing at Ida Lewis Yacht Club in Newport, RI and competed in regattas around the country. He sailed on the St George’s high school team and was named an All-State Sailor before joining the Brown University Sailing Team where he became Team Captain, an honorable mention All-American, and an Academic All-American. He relocated to California to attend UC San Francisco to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience.
“Jeff passed away at far too young an age,” shared Dan Rabin, Brown University Assistant Sailing Coach. “I coached Jeff in sailing at Brown University, where he graduated in 2010. He was an incredibly free spirit both on and off the water. I’ve never seen anyone quite like him.
JMK - by his crew Sally Evans
If someone were to write Jeff’s biography – it would have to begin with a line as epic and memorable as “Call me Ismael.”
Where to begin – how you can you possibly describe someone as amazing, eccentric, brilliant, kind and caring as Jeff.
My first memories of Jeff are from spending time with him and the Brown sailing team as a freshman. What was so remarkable about Jeff is that anyone who spent time with him felt that they were immediately his friend, as he made everyone feel heard and important. He managed to find a connection with anyone he talked to – and somehow convey his passion, and speak passionately about their interests. I was so lucky that fate, and John Mollicone, paired us together my Sophomore year as skipper and crew for the next two years. Jeff was the best skipper I could have asked for. He always provided unwavering support both on and off the water. He was never cross, never pointed fingers – even when I forgot to put our stern plugs back in our boat and caused our boat to actually SINK during a regatta. When I injured my knee my Junior year – he told me my knee brace made me a “bionic woman” and a stronger better crew. He had a way of being eternally optimistic.
Those two years sharing a boat were some of the best years of my life. Every day with Jeff was an adventure – and not just in practice. Sometimes getting to practice itself was the adventure. Some days Jeff decided to run to Edgewood for a little extra exercise. Other days (the days of no cell phone Jeff) I would drive my car around the east side, looking for Jeff riding a long board while eating a slice of Antonios, and flag him down to drive him to practice. One day, we were running late together, and car less – so he suggested we hitchhike down to Edgewood, while fully dressed in our sailing gear. The kind woman who finally offered us a ride, was immediately entertained by us, and she and Jeff talked about how interesting French music was and she explained what it was she liked about her favorite French artists as he intently listened.
When sailing together, I knew to expect the unexpected. Part of what made Jeff so brilliant is that he never thought like anyone else. We were practicing starts in a decent amount of current, and rather than try and maintain a position on the line like everyone else, he pulled up our centerboard last minute, backwinded the main, and had us scooting down the line into a spot before I could even ask “what the hell are you doing???”. But I knew better than to ask, because 9 times out of 10 his crazy ideas worked – making him the brilliant skipper that he was.
Our practice days, and regatta days were filled with the biggest deepest belly laughs, where you laugh until you feel like you had a core workout the next day. Jeff had his own language while we were sailing. The Cunningham was always a “smart pig”, anything could be described by adding the word “sail” (pronounced “ sul”) to it. Toes were now “toesails”, and head was “headsail” - as in “watch your headsail!!!” - while doing a quick unexpected jibe. We played pranks on our team mates and coaches, and told endless jokes that no one else would understand- his smile and laugh were contagious. Often we would “big boat sail” sitting with our backs to the sails dangling our toes in the water – just because. Jeff never wore a hat sailing – because he needed to feel and hear the wind. He taught me how to connect with nature – and for that I will always be grateful.
We had the BEST conversations. I heard all about his childhood antics, about minute details of his work in the infamous “Bat Lab”, we talked about our favorite classes, politics, dreams, the future, the latest episode of Law and Order SVU, and we ALWAYS sung together. Jeff LOVED music, and loved to be an active participant in music, knowing full well he’d never make it to the stage. When he sang (or played his trumpet) – it was never in tune, but he always belted out the lyrics in his goofy grin. Some of our favorites to sing together: “The Weight” by the Band, “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, “Take it Easy” by the Eagles and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby Stills and Nash. I can still hear him screaming in a scratchy voice “take a load off fanny!!” For two years, the best part of my day was sailing with Jeff.
Jeff in his own way, brought out the best in me. By seeing someone lead a life where they followed whims and passions, it made me step out of my shell and try and emulate that. Sometimes that meant sailing off into the distance to explore a submarine, or an infamous set of “pilings”. At first I might have been annoyed, but any adventure we went on proved worth it. I remember one day, we were having a rough practice, very windy and very tiring. I expressed to Jeff that I was hungry, and he pulled an entire French baguette out of his life jacket. The perfect snack, lightly salted…, and completely unexpected. He taught me to never take myself too seriously. Jeff helped me find my own love of neuroscience, convincing me to take certain classes at Brown that helped shape my future. I eventually found the department of Animal Behavior and worked in a rat lab. We liked to compare notes of bats and rats while eating our favorite sailing treat – sour gummy worms. He was one of my biggest supporters when I made the decision to go to vet school, and consistently checked in on me to see how the work load was going, whether I was still loving what I was doing – because for him it wasn’t worth it if you didn’t love it – and he was right.
Jeff and I lost touch over the last few years as we both dove further into our academic pursuits. We were supposed to meet up this January and somehow it just didn’t pan out. But that didn’t concern me because I knew Jeff wasn’t someone who could be tied down. I knew I’d catch him the next time the tide brought him back to New England. Part of me wants to hope that somehow he’s still out there – going wherever the winds blowing him – all while wearing that big goofy grin. I am eternally grateful that I got to be part of Jeff’s life, and I can only imagine that anyone who has been part of his life feels similarly.
Sally (or as Jeff called me – Sallers)
[“If you have any questions, then look to the sea and you will know the answer”.
Best as Always,
Your Loyal Captain JMK]