The Epic of Jay – Sailor, cyclist, super friend and soon-to-be father Jay LaPlante went out on the highest note
by Mark McDermott
Two weeks ago, on Monday morning, Jay LaPlante decided to ride his motorcycle to work. LaPlante, who lived in Manhattan Beach and worked as service manager at Subaru Santa Monica, knew that this would be among his last rides on his beloved Triumph Street Triple. He could not have known it would be his final ride.
As he drove north, LaPlante left behind a truly happy home. He had a lot of things happening in his life, almost all of them sources of utter joy.
He was in love, and it was the lasting kind. He and Janelle Arnold, the woman he called Little Red, had been together eight years. And now, at the ripe young age of 48, LaPlante was about to become a father for the first time. On February 19, he and his tight-knit group of friends gathered for both LaPlante’s birthday and a “gender reveal” party at his favorite local restaurant, Pancho’s. What was revealed could not have made him happier. He and Little Red were expecting a little girl in August.
A little less than three weeks after that party, on March 12, Aaron Wimberly heard the familiar rumble of his friend Jay’s Triumph pulling up near the end of his own work day at Toyota Santa Monica. As he walked out to see his buddy, he was shocked. The Triumph was gleaming clean.
“Is this the same bike?” Wimberly asked, jokingly. “What happened?”
“Yeah,” LaPlante said. “I cleaned it. I am going to sell it.”
The friends didn’t even have to talk about why. Both were skilled riders, and while that certainly reduced the risk, nothing could eliminate the often distracted, jittery driving of car commuters along Lincoln Boulevard, Vista del Mar, or the 405. Two years ago, Wimberly was hit by a driver who abruptly veered into the carpool lane on the freeway and apparently didn’t see the motorcycle right alongside his car. The accident sent Wimberly to the hospital and he’s soon having yet another surgery on his damaged arm.
LaPlante was preparing for fatherhood. Wimberly joked that he better get ready to sell his other beloved ride, the dream car he’d finally bought a few years back, a 2011 Porsche 997.2.
“No way,” LaPlante said. “I am getting a baby seat for the Porsche.” “Yeah, we’ll see how that goes over when the baby arrives,” Wimberly said.
They biked home together that night, following the sunset to Manhattan Beach. Nine days later, LaPlante was back on his bike. He knew the Monday morning commute would be particularly brutal, and he’d been called into work to do what he’d become known for in the industry — to solve a problem, to be “the fixer.” LaPlante was the service manager for Subaru Pacific in nearby Hawthorne, but that position was vacant in Santa Monica, so he was filling in, driving there in the morning and then heading to his regular job in the afternoon.
Wimberly understood the calculation his friend likely made that Monday morning.
“It takes you 30 minutes on the motorcycle, or it takes you an hour to an hour-and-a-half, each way, by car,” he said.
What happened that day on Vista del Mar is something all motorcyclists are acutely aware of, and actually attuned to, but there is nothing they can do when it happens. A car in the southbound lane abruptly hung a left-hand turn, not at an intersection, but before the Imperial Highway intersection, into the Hyperion treatment plant. LaPlante had no time to alter course. He collided with the front of the car and died instantly.
LaPlante texted Arnold every morning when he arrived at work. She was wondering why she had not heard from him when three police officers arrived at her doorstep. Among the first people she reached out to was Chris Gregory, a fellow cyclist who was among LaPlante’s best friends, and a sort of star around whom many of his other close friends orbited. Arnold texted her to call immediately, typing urgent in all caps, Gregory got in her car to go to see her instead, and got the call from her own daughter about what had happened while en route.
As Gregory took in the horrific news, she had another dawning realization.
“I’ve known Jay for over 10 years,” she said. “We were very, very, very close. When I got the initial call from Jenelle, I went outside and just started driving. I was screaming and cursing and I had to pull over and I fell to the ground, screaming, ‘I’ve lost my best friend, my best friend, my best friend.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, I have to call Aaron Wimberly, because that’s Jay’s work best friend. And then I have to call Dave, his sailing best friend. I have to call Chris Down, his cycling best friend. Oh my god, I have to call all these people, because he is all of their best friend.”
The list went on. By Monday night, hundreds of people were mourning in the South Bay. Several had lost a best friend. Jay LaPlante was an elite athlete — he’d been an Olympic alternate sailor in his late teens, and later became a professional sailor. He was also a force to be reckoned with in the road and mountain biking worlds. He was not a large man. Yet the feeling that wracked his large circle of friends and acquaintances was that a giant had fallen.
Part of the intensity of LaPlante’s connections with so many people was because he shared adventures with so many of them, often on the ocean, on mountain trails, or in a peloton where they were dependent on each other in potentially dangerous situations.
Chris Down met LaPlante on a cycle in a race, and knew immediately he’d met a friend.
“He had a unique ability to impact other people in a way that felt more special to probably the people that he impacted than he realized,” Down said. “I mean, he just had that kind of gift. He and I used to talk about it. I’m like, ‘Jay, man, there’s just something about you.’ ’Don’t be a jackass,’ he’d say. ‘That’s not true.’ But it’s completely true. I’ve been with him in situations, in places where we probably shouldn’t be, and he just attracted all types of people. He is one of these shapeshifters, he’s able to appeal to a lot of different people. He truly had this kind of magnetic gift, and it just was inside of him, without trying. A lot of people try. Jay was one of the people who did…he just naturally was a magnet.”
A day after his passing, Arnold wrote to him on his Facebook page.
“I am not sure I will ever have the right words to say. Jay LaPlante was my entire world… we were about to embark on the greatest adventure of our lives,” she wrote. “I know that I told him every day how much I loved him, and he let me know, and made me feel like one of the most loved humans on this planet. These past four months, as we decided to grow our family, have been pure bliss, peace, and just so damn happy. We talked daily about how we felt true/genuine happiness from all of our friends, and family about the new chapter we are going to start. About this kick-ass little girl we are going to bring into this world. I am not sure I had ever been happier, and just felt I was exactly where I should be, and who I should be with.”
Arnold said that the outpouring of love she’d received from LaPlante’s friends, who’d now become a crucial part of her own life, astonished her. “I am comforted knowing we will not be alone, and that I now have many many people to stand with me in this next chapter. I truly appreciate and love every single one of you.”
“Jay, I love you…I will make you proud. I promise.”
“These past 24 hours have seemed like a movie I am watching, or a story I am reading about someone else. This was not supposed to be our story. He is the one person I need right now to help me figure all of this out. He would just know the exact right thing to tell me…. He knew how to fix it all.”
The stories Jay LaPlante left us would seem mythological if they didn’t happen to be true and each particular chapter imbued with a uniquely lopsided grin indicative of the man who lived them. How he became a sailor is one of them.
The life of Jay LaPlante could easily have ended one day about 35 years ago on Lake Michigan. LaPlante experienced a peripatetic childhood. His father, Joseph “Jay” LaPlante, was a sought after radio programming director who bounced around the country, from station to station, from Boston to Los Angeles, with many stops in between. Jay the younger was born in Rhode Island and lived in several places growing up, including Palos Verdes during his middle school years and Michigan during his high school years.
He was in his early teens one day in Michigan when he looked out on the lake and saw a sailboat race taking place on the far horizon. Always adventurous, LaPlante fired up his father’s small power boat and headed out on Lake Michigan to find a spot to better observe the race. When he got closer to the race, he turned off the engine and just sat and took in the beauty of the sailboats, their sails filling up with wind, and the crews nimbly scrambling across decks, performing the countless but crucial little tasks required to move swiftly and safely through the water.
As the sailboats moved away from LaPlante’s boat towards the finish, he went to fire up the engine and it immediately blew up. Both LaPlante and the boat caught fire, and he jumped into the lake to douse himself. He was quickly rescued by a nearby boat, but his injuries were significant. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering from burns. When he finally was fully recovered, his father gave him a gift to help him get back on the water — a Laser, the legendary 13.8 ft. single-handed racing sailboats often used by beginners, but also the most popular Olympic class sailboat.
Dave Licata, a longtime sailing companion of LaPlante’s, said his friend had the innate capacities that make great sailors — nearly unshakeable poise, quick competency in all manner of mechanical and nautical tasks, and a huge yearning to just be out there in the wild blue. This last quality was apparent from the beginning.
“He got the Laser in December, and he dragged that Laser across the ice to an open patch of water to start sailing on it,” Licata said. “That’s how excited he was to get started, to take the gamble of it. He was willing to sail in ice water.”
This episode illustrates two things that would characterize how LaPlante would live. Learning new things gave him no pause, and fear played almost no role in his life.
“For a lot of people doing something new is stressful,” Licata said. “For Jay it just generally wasn’t. He was just very comfortable in his ability to accomplish whatever he needed to accomplish….Jay never let fear determine his actions. Jay wasn’t stupid. He didn’t take unnecessary risks. But fear didn’t drive his decision-making, either.”
He quickly excelled at competitive sailing. By his early 20s, he trained in Florida, and advanced to the highest stages in the Olympic trials, narrowly missing the 1996 Olympics but serving as an alternate. His relatively average size — LaPlante was a trim 5-foot-9 — made this achievement even more remarkable in the world of superhuman, elite athletes.
For most of his adult life, he did not live to work, but rather worked to live. He accrued decades of cycling, sailing, surfing, and wilderness-seeking adventures. He was a sailmaker, taught sailing, and owned a small business called Action Water Sports for a few years in Marina Del Rey. He was also a professional sailor, one who was coveted as crew in the competitive racing world. He was a key part of dozens of first place finishes in races ranging from the Santa Barbara to King Harbor race, to the Newport to Ensenada race.
This was how he crossed paths with three Southern California sailors who were legendary in their own right, Mike Leneman, Geoff Deutschmann, and Licata. All three are deeply experienced sailors and boat owners. LaPlante crewed on all their boats. Different permutations of the foursome crewed together hundreds of times.
Licata remembers the day they met, about a dozen years ago, both enlisted by Leneman to crew on his boat for the Ensenada race. Leneman is a professor of Marine Science who taught oceanography for three decades and is also a boat builder and all-around sailing sage. He is also ultra competitive and has his own way of doing things. Right after Licata and LaPlante were introduced, they proceeded to start loading Leneman’s boat. They’d brought a case of 18 water bottles, and when Leneman saw it, he stopped them in their tracks.
“You are not bringing that on the boat,” he told them.
“What?” Licata remembers saying, almost in unison, with LaPlante.
“You guys get one water bottle a piece,” Leneman said. “We are going fast.”
The Newport to Ensenada is, at minimum, a 14 hour race. Leneman wanted no extra weight. But these two sailors weren’t docile crewmembers. After bargaining up to two bottles, they eventually brought the whole case.
“Eighteen water bottles, and we still won the race,” Licata said.
Those three particularly raced a lot together. Deutschmann was less frequently a part of other boat’s crews, but LaPlante was in his crew when he won his first race, the Santa Barbara to King Harbor race.
“Jay was an exceptional sailor,” Deutschmann said. “People see him on road bikes and that kind of stuff, but on the water, he was just untouchable, a natural…He could absolutely have been an America’s Cup starting helmsman. I mean, he could read a start line, at the start of a race, and be the first to cross the line, pulling six or seven boats down the line. Just unbelievable.”
Licata said LaPlante’s decision-making on the water was impeccable. He noted that sailing is chiefly about “long periods of boredom, interspersed with sheer terror.” When the time came to terror, LaPlante invariably made every right call. But he had another, unteachable, and perhaps rarer quality, and that was his way of seeing.
“Beyond judgments and just capability and decision making, Jay could look out at a course, with multiple sailboats, and just see — everyone talks about that Queen’s Gambit Netflix thing, where she imagines all the moves ahead, again and again and again. Jay could do that with racing. He could imagine all the different permutations of the different sailboats and what they could or couldn’t do on the race course, and then think about where’s the best place to put his boat. So his ability to judge angle, speed, and tactics, not just his own but everybody else’s in order to position his boat was more or less unrivaled.”
The final piece to the puzzle was this: LaPlante was all in. When the wind was so strong other sailors took down sail, LaPlante would go bigger, taking the sailboat to the outer limits of its capacities. Licata, who at one point won 18 races in a row with LaPlante, recalled one race in particular. It was the Summer Splash, an informal race organized by Leneman every September out by Catalina Island. After an uncharacteristically slow start helping the other boats start, they decided to really go for it.
“We ended up putting up a big sail, a lot larger sail than the conditions warranted, because we wanted to win,” he said. “So I drove, staring at the top of the mast to make sure it didn’t break, and Jay did everything else on the boat. But I couldn’t look down for about two hours. Because you had to go downwind with the gust, otherwise you’d break the mast…Jay was one of those people where I felt absolutely comfortable pushing that boat to the limit of what was possible, because I felt confident that he and I together would be able to figure out out, whatever it was that happened.”
Then there was the adventure that LaPlante would later describe, in repeated tellings, as the Greatest Story Ever Told. It happened in 2011. Deutschmann had embarked on an around-the-world journey aboard his 40 ft. monohull sailboat, and he’d convinced LaPlante, Leneman, and Licata to join him on one leg of the journey, from Fiji to Vanuatu. It was about a 750 mile sail. At the very last moment, Licata had to pull out, but LaPlante flew down to Fiji a few days early, and was soon joined by Leneman. The weather forecast was for calm, so they set off one night at about 6 p.m. A few hours in they came to realize the forecast had been wildly wrong. Winds quickly ratcheted up from 25 to 60 to 70 knots, meaning over 80 mph. Winds like this do two things to create the most treacherous conditions possible for a sailboat — they create wind waves that are also breaking waves. And this was occurring in the dark. They had entered the realm of pure terror.
They started to take down the sails but the sails were ripped away. Twenty-five foot waves are breaking on the boat. They lost use of all navigation equipment. At one point Leneman went down below and discovered the boat’s propane tank was hanging by its hose, so he propped his feet against it to secure it and prevent the boat from filling up with propane — eventually calling Jay down to take his place, amazingly, because he had decided he needs to use the head. But while in the bathroom, Leneman makes another important discovery. The window was open, and the boat was taking on gushes of water. At one point, the boat capsized, and all three were thrown overboard. Miraculously, the boat righted itself, and all three also washed back aboard. But by that point, they knew they were utterly at the mercy of the sea.
“The way Jay explained it was they were so sure that they weren’t going to make it through the storm that they had more or less made their peace with the world and were prepared for it,” Licata said. “Jay had a much loved dog named Flash, a bulldog, who had passed away prior to the trip. And Jay saw Flash in the distance.”
“We turned the boat over. We all ended up back on the boat,” Deutschmann recalled. “We pretty much wrote ourselves off that night. And I can still remember sitting in the cockpit with Jay, he’s got one hand trying to keep the dodger [windshield] from blowing away and another hand hanging on to the big water bottle in case we end up in the life raft and we need it. We were six feet apart and could hardly see each other it was so dark…That was when Jay and I kind of looked at each other and were made aware of our mortality.”
Sometime after midnight the winds died down and the seas seemed to miraculously calm. They had no sails, and the lines had tangled the propeller, so they could not motor. LaPlante dove under the boat and was able to untangle the lines. The engine fired up, and they turned around, heading back towards Fiji. They had no navigation instruments other than a compass, and missing the Fiji islands by even a few degrees could have meant a slower kind of unfolding disaster. But near dawn, they were exhilarated to see the jut of land.
They pulled closer, dropped anchor, and took a long nap, after being awake all night. And then, after waking later in the day, LaPlante and Deutschmann had an argument.
“I know what island that is,” LaPlante said.
“No you don’t,” said Deutschman, who’d been living in Fiji himself and didn’t recognize the island.
“I’ll bet you I do know exactly what island that is,” LaPlante said. “That’s Castaway Island.”
LaPlante had watched the Tom Hanks movie Castaway on the flight over. He recognized the shape. LaPlante jumped in the water, swam to shore, and sure enough he confirmed it was Monuriki, popularly known as Castaway Island. Later that same day, LaPlante even climbed the mountain made famous in the movie, the home of Tom Hanks’ cave.
“Of course he did,” Deutshmann said. “Of course Jay climbed that mountain.”
Chris Down had been hearing about this guy Jay LaPlante from other people in the South Bay cycling community, but it wasn’t until 2004 when he was competing in an event called the C.R.A.P. ride that is a cycle around the Palos Verdes Peninsula that he actually crossed paths.
We often think of love at first sight when it comes to romantic relationships, but cyclists sometimes experience something like this in establishing deep friendships almost immediately while on a bike in a race. While a race is an individual endeavor, it is a collective pursuit, and in the fast-moving whirl of competition a rider can glimpse another rider’s character with unusual clarity.
“I don’t know how to say this in an elegant way, but almost all competitive cycling is a bit of a pissing contest,” Down said. “Some people are in it for themselves and other people are in for the love of the sport, the love of the camaraderie, and the love of the people around them. And Jay was one of those people. You could tell. You could see it in his eyes. And if that means stopping and helping somebody, then that is what he is going to do.”
Joel Elliott, who was not an immediately close friend, but a fellow cyclist who shared a natural kinship and mutual admiration with LaPlante, said that cyclists form unusually tight bonds.
“Cycling people have a unique understanding of what it means to depend on each other,” Elliott said. “When you ride in a group just inches from one another, you quickly learn whom you can rely upon and whom to drop like a hot rock. It can be a matter of life and death. Those relationships in the peloton often translate into relationships off the bike. Never follow a flaky wheel.”
Down, LaPlante, and other cyclists in their orbit formed a team called the Hot Wheel Factory Team (Down works at Mattel). They competed in road and mountain bike races. In 2013 and 2014, Hot Wheels entered one of the most arduous and respected races in mountain biking, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB. The second year, LaPlante was so focused that he went to Colorado two months early to get accustomed to the altitude, and to train. He was going after it.
“It starts 10,000 feet and goes up from there, 100 miles,” said Chris Gregory. “It’s grueling. It’s a big deal in that world. We took a year off to train for it.”
Gregory was on the Hot Wheels Team, but LaPlante led its elite group, the Factory team.
He was on the Hot Wheels team but not the elite Factory team.
“He was the captain,” she said. “It was an elite mountain biking team. It was just the best guys.”
Down said LaPlante’s athleticism, in addition to his leadership, was off the charts.
“When he was training, and when he was competing, he was unbeatable,” he said. “In the South Bay, you’ve got some of the best athletes in the world coming to train. And Jay was a soul crusher. I mean, the guy was believable. Just an incredibly talented, convicted competitor.”
Down received a call from LaPlante three weeks before the Leadville race. He’d had a crash and broken a wheel on his bike. The two friends liked to joke they were brothers by another mother, because they were the exact same size and had the exact same bike, so Down FedExed him a wheel.
But closer to the actual race, LaPlante crashed again.
“He does this race and he crashed so hard he broke my wheel and he broke himself,” Down said. “I can’t even remember if he had a couple of broken ribs or what happened. Jay is also somebody who does not talk a lot about his injuries. He just sucks it up.”
Shortly thereafter, some members of the Hot Wheels Team met in Tahoe for a qualifying race. LaPlante was too injured to ride, but woke at 5:30 every morning to organize the bikes, get folks breakfast, and generally take care of the team. One of the team members, its oldest, was a cyclist known as PawPaw. The day of the qualifying race, which was also 100 miles, everybody was waiting at the finish but there was no sign of PawPaw.
“He was the oldest guy on the team so a little bit slower,” Gregory recalled. “He wasn’t in yet, and the time was getting close to cut off. And so Jay hopped on a bike, found him, and then rode him in, pacing him, so PawPaw would get his qualifying metal and be able to go to Leadville.”
By the time of the Leadville race, LaPlante was riding again. He entered the race. But he realized quickly it wasn’t happening.
“He was really hurting, and so ended up pulling out,” Down said. “That was crushing. Because he was the fastest of us all who were out there from the Factory Team.”
Down had flown out just the day before the race, and so had no elevation training. About three-quarters of the way through the race, he started getting dizzy and nauseous. He pulled over to the side of the road and literally fell asleep. All thoughts of competing were gone. He just hoped to rest and finish, hopefully under nine hours in order to get the prized award for finishing Leadville.
“They shut you down after 12 hours. You want to be under nine hours in order to get the big belt buckle, otherwise you get the little belt buckle so you just feel completely defeated,” he said. “So I’m like, ‘Yeah, at this point. I don’t care how many hours I’m out there. I’m just done.’ Pass out, then get up and like, okay, pull myself back together.”
He ascended a hellaciously hot and long mountain climb called Power Line and then headed down towards the final stretch thinking he’s got it.
“And I see somebody riding up to me,” Down said. “And at this point, I didn’t know that Jay has pulled out of the race. It’s Jay wearing flip flops, Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt.”
“Dude, what are you doing?” LaPlante said to his friend. “It’s 8 hours and 15 minutes. You’ve got to get it in gear.”
“I’m like, ‘Wait, what?’” Down recalled. “And I’m looking at my garment and my Garmin [tracking device] and I realized my Garmin is only giving me moving time. So I thought I had a bunch of time left.”
He raced down the mountain at the urging of his friend and made it to the finish just in time. He got his big belt buckle, but more than that, he had an experience with his friend that he will never forget.
“I mean that was a moment with Jay,” he said. “Here is this man who was so incredibly personally disappointed to have pulled out of Leadville, after oxygen training and getting started months early. And you know what? To hell with it. I’m going to go help my buddy finish this race and get his big belt buckle. Like it’s the last thing Jay has to do. But that was Jay.”
Jay LaPlante had settled down. Over the past eight years, he found both the love of his life, and began a career in the auto service industry. He excelled, naturally, both in love and work.
Aaron Wemberly did something he never does, which was recommend a friend for a job where he worked, in the auto industry. They’d met in 2013 during a road race and were housemates for most of 2015. LaPlante was in his early 40s, a few people start a career so late, much less prosper, but Wemberly knew LaPlante would be the exception.
“I knew,” Wemberly said. “In LA, it’s kind of all these fake it till you make it type people out there. But he was the type if he doesn’t know something, he’s going to ask,and that’s a rare thing.”
When LaPlante got the interview, he didn’t own a suit. He called Down.
He’s like, ‘Dude, I got nothing to wear. I got flip flops, and a pair of khaki shorts,’” Down recalled. And oh my goodness, he walked into the automotive space, one of the most notoriously dog-eat-dog industries in the world.”
He was hired as customer relations manager.
“Which is even more, a human punching bag,” Wimberly said. “I don’t think Jay had a fear of recognition, but he wanted people to be happy. And he was very good at it immediately….He had this type of personality that people gravitated to, people want to be around him.”
LaPlante rose quickly and became a service manager. It was an almost unprecedented rise within that industry.
“I think he looked at it like it was a challenge,” Wimberly said. “Like everything else. Both of us come from competitive backgrounds, and people don’t realize how much you have to actually train. You’ve got to be a very gung ho guy…He knew he had to put a lot of time in there to do that, and he had to do all of that in a condensed amount of time.”
At the same time his relationship with Little Red fully blossomed. Everything was coming together.
Down remembers the string of texts LaPlante sent announcing his impending fatherhood. “Hey Dummy, I’ve got something to tell you,” read the first one. The second one was a GIFF of the comedian Chris Farley saying, “It’s go time!” The third text was a Porsche baby seat.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you are no spring chicken,’” Down said. “But as I think about the value construct that he created for himself and in how he conducted life, especially now, he was really focusing on this next stage.”
Everybody who knew LaPlante never saw him happier. And when Arnold, who he had become engaged to became pregnant, it was like a crescendo of bliss had descended permanently upon him.
“Ever since he met Little Red, I used to tell him, this happy feeling right now, this is what pure joy feels like,” Gregory said. “And then she got pregnant, and it’s like, anything bad that ever happened to that guy just melted away. He was so high, and so happy.”
A GoFundMe has been set up to raise money for Jay and Jenelle’s baby girl. It can be found at gofundme.com/f/rip-jay-laplante-family-man-and-bulldog-fan. ER