Steve Benjamin has been involved with the sport of sailing since he was a little boy. An Olympic Silver Medalist (1984, in the 470), and salesman with North Sails, Benjamin is known fondly throughout the sailing community as “Benj.”Benj is regularly in the sailing press for his racing accomplishments. His Olympic success and his multiple world championships (Fireball, 505 and 470) are well known, but his career started a bit more modestly. “Originally, I became interested in sailing because my dad Park Benjamin ran a boatyard, the Oyster Bay Yacht Service, now called the Oyster Bay Marine Center in Oyster Bay, NY,” Benj reminisced. “Then my brothers started racing the family’s one-design, a Seabird, at Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club and they would take me along under protest at the instruction of my mom, Trixie. They would send me up forward under the deck to keep me out of the way, but I wanted to be involved with the racing. My mom and dad really encouraged me to continue sailing and helped tremendously to make it all possible.”
“My sailing mentors were Skip Whyte and Jim Miller. Skip is one of the world’s best coaches and was our head instructor at Seawanhanka when I was 15. Jim was the owner of the Oyster Bay Boat Shop, now run by his son Bam and wife Beegie. I crewed for Jim on his Thistle and we were very competitive. These two mentors taught me the most, but I have had lots of help along the way.” Benj is continuing the legacy of mentoring and has introduced more than a thousand sailors to the sport.
“My wife Heidi’s dad, Bill Zeigler, owned a series of boats named Gem, and he always bought young sailors into his crew and trained them,” said Benj, who lives in Norwalk, CT. “When Heidi and I bought High Noon, a Tripp 41 Custom, in 2005, we made it part of our mission to help train juniors and bring new people into the sport.”
One of those protégés is Robbie Kane, from Fairfield, CT, who is now a successful professional sailor. Kane sailed with Benj as a junior in Interclubs and worked with him on both High Noon and Bob & Farley Towse’s Blue Yankee before going on to stgar in the Disney film Morning Light. “Benj is one of those mentors that is still challenging and teaching me day to day. Not just in sailing, but everyday situations in the real world as well. There aren’t many people you can say that about,” Kane said. “I know a lot of people, including myself, that have absorbed lots of lifetime skills from Benj. He’s always challenging us.”
In November of 2009, Benj faced a life-changing challenge of his own, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Subsequently, he was introduced to his surgeon (and latest sailing protégé), Dr. David B. Samadi, by Dr. Carl Olsson, the owner of the J/105 Morning Glory from Larchmont Yacht Club. “Carl is one of America’s top surgeons and a very good friend,” Benj noted.
Benj underwent successful robotic surgery less than six months ago, and last month High Noon was re-named Robotic Oncology in tribute to the life-saving skills of Dr. Samadi, who is Chief of Robotics and Minimally Invasive Surgery at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, NY. Through his high profile racing program and ability to draw people young and old into the sport, Benj is now spreading the word about prostate cancer.
Many people would have counted their blessing for such a positive and rapid response to surgery, and then went on with their lives, but Benj took his experience a step further. “I made Dr. Samadi a promise that if he could cure me, then I would take him sailing,” he explained. “With the Robotic Oncology campaign, I saw the possibility to help raise awareness of prostate cancer, and to let everyone know that the disease can be overcome.”
Robotic Oncology won its class at the Rolex US-IRC Nationals – held July 21-24 during New York Yacht Club Race Week presented by Rolex – and was second overall. Not a bad result considering Benj had just gotten back into the boat. Dr. Samadi was in Newport watching the races.
Robotic Oncology off Castle Hill, RI after the IRC Nationals, with Dr. Samadi at the helm. Photo by Randy Needham.“No question that the personal spirit and the approach of positive thinking combined with a good surgeon is going to win,” said Dr. Samadi, who is one of the very few urologic surgeons in the United States trained in oncology and open, laparoscopic and robotic surgery. “To me, prostate cancer is very personal, and I always want to win. I perform the surgery from beginning to end, and I’ve done over 3,000 robotic laparoscopic prostate surgeries. Robotic prostate surgery is not just about the technology of robotics – it’s the experience of the surgeon that counts, just like a very experienced sailor.”
And as anyone that watched Robotic Oncology blow away the competition in the recent Around Long Island Regatta and the Junior Sailing Association of Long Island Sound’s Dorade Race could tell you, they’re quite good at spotting and nurturing talent. Benj certainly isn’t slowing down, and he and Heidi have set a goal of bringing new people to the sport and spreading the word about the importance of prostate cancer screenings.
Steve Benjamin and Dr. David Samadi with their trophies at the awards ceremony for the ALIR, Sea Cliff Yacht Club. Photo by Andrea Watson.“We have been contacted by three sailors with prostate cancer looking at their treatment options since people have learned about Robotic Oncology,” said Benj. “It is an asymptomatic disease (you don’t feel very sick) which does not discriminate about age or race, so you need to get checked by your doctor and have frequent PSA tests and monitor your prostate health carefully. The disease is very treatable if caught early, but if you let it go it can kill you.” He has an equally simple message about sailing. “It is a wonderful sport and recreational activity that can be enjoyed by people of all ages.”
Benj will enjoy sailing with young and old for many years to come. “I guess that I appreciate my time on the water even more than before,” he said. “Additionally, Dr. Samadi has asked me to join the board of his Robotic Oncology Foundation. I want to help people better understand prostate cancer and how to beat it….and Heidi and I have some unfinished sailing goals. We missed winning the IRC National Championship by only five seconds this year!
According to the American Cancer Society, about one man in six will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, and more than 2 million men in the United States who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point are still alive today. More than 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., with approximately 30,000 resulting in death.