He’s sailed around the world by himself in his 34-foot sailboat, once boarded and robbed by pirates.
He’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, snorkeled to 120 feet as he spear fished holding his breath and surfed 30-foot waves.
He’s been attacked by a Tiger shark, jailed and beaten for three days as a prisoner in Cairo suspected of being a spy.
Meet Jak Ayres, North Thurston’s swim coach who has lived an adventurous life. Don’t let his quiet, mild manner fool you. He’s a Steven Spielberg creation, a virtual Indiana Jones – minus the whip.
His life has been an action-packed adventure that was spurred by a doctor’s diagnosis 40 years. After a doctor discovered tumors pressing against his heart, he was told, “You have six months to live.”
However, with treatment, Ayres got better, postponing the inevitable. But his brush with death changed his life’s perspective.
“I had this big bucket list of things I wanted to do,” Ayres said.
So, with a dramatic shift in paradigms, changing from the desk jockey life of a teacher to a world globe trotter, Ayres literally shoved off, sailing up the Nile.
“It was a pretty intense trip,” Ayres said. “I didn’t know how to sail until that trip. Made it up to Ethiopia.”
After returning to Lacey and teaching biology at North Thurston a few more years, Ayres boarded a 76-foot fiberglass sailboat in Holland and sailed to Seattle. As part of an eight-man crew, he spent four months on the trip, which included a two-week layover in Acapulco.
Ayres then moved in 1979 to the land of adventure – Hawaii. He taught scuba diving, biology and sailing at Hawaii Loa College.
After teaching at Loa College, now Hawaii Pacific University, for several years, Ayres began his adventuresome sail around the world that took six years. During his journey, he lived alone on a small Pacific island for three months, survived monstrous storms while going around the Cape of Good Hope and did some scuba diving off the coast of Australia as part of a research study on dolphins for eight months.
“It was pure magic,” Ayres said.
Ayres’ globe trotting began in 1969 shortly after finishing school at Washington State University when he took a trip through Europe, which was a graduation gift from his parents. While swimming in Morocco that summer of 1969, he saved a young boys life, pulling him from underwater to the beach and resuscitating him.
“I didn’t see him come up,” Ayres said. “I drag him into shore. I was giving him mouth-to-mouth and he came out of it.”
In a thank you note from the boy’s father, Ayres’ first name was misspelled, changed from Jack to Jak. Ayres later officially changed the spelling of his name.
“He was a wonderful man,” Ayres said.
Before his around-the-world sailing adventure by himself from 1990 to 1996, Ayres sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti, taking a year to complete the trip. He has put over 50,000 miles on that sailboat, which he named “Compadre.”
He’s also made a 500-mile canoe trip with some island natives, making the journey without the aid of nautical instruments.
Ayres, a 1965 graduate of Olympia, swam in high school. His high school coach, Don Martin, remembers Ayres as being a hard worker who always demanded the most from himself. Martin ranked Ayres among the top 10 best swimmers he’s coached in over 40 years of coaching.
“He’s a great guy, a great teacher,” Martin said. “Jak is old school. Do it right, work hard. In a day when mediocre is okay, he asks for their best.”
It’s a recipe for success at North Thurston. When Ayres took over the program four years ago, he had 15 kids turning out and none reached the finals at district. Last year’s team went undefeated and won district, placing ninth at state. This year’s team is again undefeated, winning the South Sound relays by 100 points, easily beating host Olympia and six other schools.
“I love coaching,” Ayres said. “There are two things that are important. It’s that we have a big program with a lot turning out and that we’re doing well.”
The Rams swim team is both of those things.
Ayres is writing his second book. His first is “Pacific Northwest Creatures,” which is above the marine life in the Puget Sound and the Pacific and includes Ayres’ stories about his dives. He’s now working on his autobiography, titling it “Solo Passages.” It’s about him sailing the world and about his other action-packed trips.
He said he wanted it to be more than his solo trip around the world.
“There’s a lot of stories about people sailing around the world,” Ayres said. “Even 16-year girls do that now. And I didn’t ship wreck. I had some pirates, but it was such a brief thing. I didn’t have any disasters. I had some close calls, but it was all fun.”
There was a time in Cairo when Ayres met and befriended a man from Australia. Looking for something to do, they decided to climb to the top of the Cheops Pyramid.
“So, we snuck our way up there to watch the sunset,” Ayres said.
They also caught the sunrise, sleeping on the pyramid. They took pictures, lots and lots of pictures of the scenery. On their descent, Ayres took one route and his new friend went another. They weren’t supposed to camp on the pyramid.
“On the way down, I got caught,” Ayres said. “I was thrown into prison for trespassing.”
It didn’t help that Ayres’ passport had been stamped in Israel and that he had taken so many pictures.
“Unfortunately, in the sand around the pyramid there were all these missiles pointed toward Israel,” Ayres said. “They called me a spy. They tortured me for three days.”
They broke his elbow. Smashed him up. Fortunately, Ayres’ Australian friend’s father was a diplomat and contacted the United States.
“And they got me out,” Ayres said. “I was so lucky. I could still be there.”
So, Ayres’ life story will soon be a book. And then maybe someday a movie. I’d go see it.