Martha’s Vineyard’s Rob Douglas follows a fair wind to clear away dark skies

World kitespeed champ races past cancer for 2016 title.

0
Rob Douglas overcame a cancer diagnosis to win the kitesailling world championship for the second time in his life. —Stacey Rupolo

The morning of July 27 began like most days for Rob Douglas, but change was in the wind. At 2 pm that day Mr. Douglas, 45, a world champion kiteboarder and general manager of the Black Dog corporation, learned that he would host the International Kitespeed Association (IKA) World Championship on the Island, to be held from Oct. 22 to Nov. 4. Then, two hours later, his doctor called to say that Mr. Douglas had cancer — a Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumor in his chest.

Mr. Douglas underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, and three days after his last treatment, on Nov. 4, Mr. Douglas became the IKA world champion for the second time (he had previously won the 2012 title in Salin-de-Giraud, France). He outraced a dozen of the world’s fastest sailors — including his brothers Morgan Douglas, 39 (third place), and Jamie Douglas, 44 (fourth place) — in 10 out of 14 races. Jamie Douglas also set a world speed record for achieving an average speed of more than 47 knots (more than 50 mph) in one of the Island races. Rob Douglas dedicated his victory to individuals and their families fighting or who have fought cancer.

Mr. Douglas is not new to the winner’s circle. He and his brothers started kitesailing before most people knew what a kiteboard was — an uncle dropped one off at their home in 1988, and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. In addition to his world championships, Rob Douglas was undefeated over a four-year span, winning the prestigious Sosh Cup, and has reset the speed record for sailing multiple times. Given his early start and victorious record, Rob Douglas’ accomplishment last week was somewhat predictable. But to compete — and win — while undergoing cancer therapy was anything but predictable.

Mr. Douglas is a tall, rugged man with strong, defined angles on his face, a picture of health, so to speak. He shows up as a man of conviction about his sport and his life. He reports his story conversationally, without angst or ego. In his tidy office above the Black Dog Tavern in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Douglas offered perspective on the situation he found himself in three and a half months ago.

“I had a cough, just coughed a couple of times a day, but I knew it wasn’t right, so I had it checked out. That day I had just settled with the race director around 2 to stage the world championships here. Then found out at 4 that I had a tumor in my chest,” he said. “The championship planning was a blessing in a way, a distraction. Mentally, it forces you to be present. Physically, I decided that if I was able to race I would.

“I took it day by day, and that’s what I do now. I don’t feel like I am ‘fighting’ cancer, but take it and the chemotherapy as a challenge, as a way to bear down on the situation, to live my life as I want to live, with or without cancer,” Mr. Douglas said. His treatment to date has substantially reduced the size of the tumor in his chest, and radiation treatments will begin again after the holidays.

“Social media, Facebook particularly, immediately became my support group. At least 10 of my friends who have had cancer responded within a few days. It’s been a huge and organic source of support,” he said.

So what’s next for this two-time world champion kite sailor? “Well, we’ll see how the radiation goes, but I’d like to go to France in the spring to take another run at the speed record. Volkswagen has built a dedicated course in Port-Saint-Louis. Speed sailors want speed. Now if they make it a speed event, I’m in,” he grinned.

Of course he’s in, just like he is in for life and living.