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Hazy Memories

By Joe Cooper

Summer in Newport is spelt SAILING. Apart from the usual “even year” events – the Bermuda Race (go MudRatz!!!) and the Offshore 160 – there are the annual events. The (10) NYYC regattas, weekday evening sailing: Monday (sport boats); Tuesday & Wednesday (Shields & PHRF); and Thursday (J/24s); the Ida Lewis Distance Race, presently with 49 entries, a week out as I write. Then there’s the New England Solo Twin, and currently, the I420 World Championship at Sail Newport. And there’s still all of September to go.

At Newport Shipyard, one can see several corners of the Sailing Universe in one spot. Mirabella Five, now known as M5, has parked her quite impressive 77 meters one dock south of Spindrift, the 40-meter French tri standing by for a shot at the transatlantic speed record. There are race boats, some old woodies including Bolero, a W-Class and miscellaneous niffy little boats. And parked between the 40 to 60-meter powerboats arrayed up the east side of the harbor is the visiting Viking longship, Draken Harald Hårfagre.

A biscuit toss northward from the Hårfagre lie several older 12 Metres, defenders and contenders all: Intrepid, Weatherly and Columbia. Weatherly has a close connection for me, to sailing, the U.S., Newport and the America’s Cup. It was she who was passed by Gretel in one of the races in 1962, and the voice of the ecstatic, almost-screaming-with-excitement Aussie announcer crackling over the airwaves kept this seven-year-old mesmerized until his mum drug him out of bed by the scruff of his jammies and shoved him off to school.

The America’s Cup is never really that far under the seaweed-strewn high tide line around Newport Harbor, especially since the NYYC took over the Brown House and made it their Newport Station, Harbour Court. On the west porch of this edifice, one can lounge with a cold G&T and gaze across the hazy beauty that is Newport Harbor. I was reminded of this aspect of Newport yesterday as I dawdled along Ocean Drive watching, through the haze, 170 or so I420s coming in from the fabled – nay, hallowed – AstroSurf south of Brenton Point. From the crest of the Newport Bridge, one has a car-crashing view to the south; on clear days to Block Island and the wind farm beyond. Clear days are a rarity in summer so mostly you can see halfway to Point Judith…just about where the AC races were held during the event’s tenure in Newport.

Many folks have a bit of an ‘Ohhh! Ahhh!’ moment seeing 12s sailing by, so salty and yachtie do they look. I always smile when I hear this, for the look is just literally the surface of these boats. In my time on them, they were loud, hot, and often slippery tin cans with lots of sharp-edged frames to bang shins against. Down below, they smelt too. That odd combination of stale saltwater, wet sailcloth, sweat, and in the case of Australia, hydraulic oil. Lots of it.

Think a 1978 IOR 45-footer has a lot of hydraulics? Well, come with me fella. On Australia (NOT One, JUST Australia), we had hydraulics for the boom vang and the mast partners – for pushing or pulling the mast forward or aft at the deck. The outhaul was an interesting arrangement (I notice with a touch of pride was copied by Comanche). Rather than pulling the sail out along the boom, the clew was attached permanently at the end of the boom and hydraulics pushed the entire boom aft. There was a piston for the Smart Pig, too. Ben Lexcen designed the mast with hydraulics in the spreaders, aft side I think, so the rake of the spreaders could be adjusted while sailing. Think about that for a minute. And one for the headstay so as to be able to pull the rig forward going downwind.

The bendy topmast had diamonds and jumpers, both adjustable. This was a nice extra workout for the mainsail trimmer, Robbie Brown. Finally, in the days before mast jacks, Bob designed a system where we could load up one of the chainplates with a special gizmo he designed, with a piston, take the load off the BIG PIN holding the chainplates to the boat…ease the piston and the rig would go loose and we could pull the rig without sailing back and forth and adjusting the leeward rigging to get the rig set up. So, lots of hydraulic oil. I’m pretty sure we had a can of it aboard. We had a large supply of, er, sanitary napkins, too. They worked just fine for soaking up hydraulic oil.

The deck had all manner of holes for various control lines. Lengths of shock cord with a ring through which the afterguy would lead so we could readily grab said guy preparatory to gybing.. We gave up trying to seal the mast partners area and just lived with it, I think. The headsail tailers sat in manholes about six inches inboard of the gunnel and so when heeled hard, and a wave washed by, some large amount of water came aboard. The forward hatches were holes in the deck with pieces of clear plastic sliding in grooves, pretending to keep water out. Spear the bow through a modest wave and the forepeak view below looked like something from a 1960s B-movie about submarine warfare with the valves showering water after the depth charging. We would carry five to six headsails and about the same number of kites. These fill up the inside of a 12 pretty quickly, so that space below was at a premium. They were invariably all wet, and so heavy, and smelly.

Forget not young fella, this was all before the era of The Fleece. Clothing was wool sweaters or cotton sweatshirts. Those who have been shipmates with a wet wool sweater will know of what I speak. This was all under Line Seven foul weather gear – those thick, industrial-strength plastic slickers. No breathable Gore-Tex gear for us, mate. There’s a reason the inside sail handling area of boats is known as The Sewer.

They were really noisy, too. All the running rigging was a combination of wire and rope. We went through the wire parts so quickly we used galvanized wire. Consider putting a 3:1 runner tail onto a Barient 32:1 winch, with a stainless drum, and swinging a 12-inch handle on it. With 100 lbs. on the handle (there’s a reason we worked out) you are putting close to 10,000 lbs. at the business end of the runners. Less whatever the boat bends – and that’s another funny story for another column. When the runners (and the sheets) were eased when tacking they made a deafening, screeching, screaming sound above which not much could be heard. This racket travelled down the aluminum hull that amplified the banshee sound several times.

I have an odd remembrance of the first race of the America’s Cup in 1980. We were all used to the noise of the boat, the wind, the crackling Kevlar sails, the screeching, and after about five minutes to go, the tacticians yelling at each other and at us: to trim, ease, tack, stop, go or gybe. Even after all the races leading up to our being selected, winning the right, as the Challenger, we were used to all this. And as the guys aboard who had been in other matches in previous years (six of eleven) were doubtless aware, the noise of the helicopters. Flying at what seemed Windex height, the Wop-wop-wop of those things made any attempt at verbal communications pointless.

Still, 38 years on, driving over the Newport Bridge, on days when the haze is just so, I can still see, smell and hear Australia wiggling and ducking, tacking, luffing and stopping and going. I’m not sure if it’s age, or memory, but I can still feel the 180-heart rate and the strain in the ol’ body from grinding, jumping halyards, and packing 300-pound jibs in that oily, smelly, noisy office in which the sewer man, me, lived.

We took a race off Dennis that year and were a long way ahead in another when the time limit ran out. After the last race, Bondy jumped aboard from the RIB and, full of beans, in Full Toad Mode announced he was going to have Bob do a new boat and we were “gonna come back and win this bloody thing.”

I am continually amazed by the fact that between 1962 (with the screaming excitement of that announcer and its impact on a seven-year-old kid) and the 1980 Cup, Little Joey Cooper from Kings Cross, Australia somehow ended up on Rhode Island Sound getting his own firsthand experience of the haze, the noise and the smell.

joe cooperAustralian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, college senior son, dog and several, mainly small, boats. The cats have, sadly, crossed The Bar.


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  • Robert Ross
    commented 2018-09-21 02:17:36 -0400
    Nice memories Giant

    Bob Ross
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