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Life Lessons from Sailing

By Joe Cooper

The DeLorean is in Doc’s garage again for (more) work on the flux capacitor, so we will have to do this newer movie-style. Grab a hand towel, go upstairs into the special secret room, known only to you and where you remember things, and stick yer head in the Pensive.

We are back in the middle 1950s, somewhere on Long Island Sound. We – you – are sailing with your father in an overnight race for the first time. You are young, and it is a great adventure. The boat is a lovely Sparkman & Stephens-designed (of course), Nevins-built 45-footer that is Dad’s pride and joy. You’ve sailed on her a lot, family cruises and such, but this is the first time you’ve been aboard for a race. Comes time for you to go off watch, and you reluctantly give up your spot, in the cockpit, immediately aft of your father’s steering position. This is your favourite spot because you can smell Dad, particularly his wool sweater. As you settle into the pilot berth, you take stock of the inside of the cabin.

Over in the nav station is Henry, Dad’s longtime mate and navigator. Illuminated by the red night light over the chart table, his Norse red beard glows even more brightly Viking-like. The smell of his pipe is familiar and not unpleasant. The boat is humming along in a moderate southerly with a big reaching headsail set. You can tell the speed by the sound of the water rushing by the planks right next to your ears. You contemplate the adventures and experiences you’ve had aboard and doze off, thinking how much fun this offshore racing thing is.

Fast forward to Labor Day weekend, 2018. Your two kids are aboard the J/105 Young American for the Vineyard Race. They are jilling around in the starting area off the Cows bell south of Stamford breakwater. They’ve been captured by the joys of sailing that you’ve shared, both as stories and taking them sailing with you and the missus ever since they were born. They seem so much more advanced and mature for their ages – 15 and 16 – than many of their contemporaries who do not sail. In fact, the entire crew of Young American exhibit a similar level of maturity, understanding and mateship far beyond their calendar years. Watching your kids, and the rest of the YA roster, come to grips with the nuances of life, big and small, through sailing brings a smile to your face and a warm glow of pride and satisfaction to your inner self. You remember the same sense of accomplishment from sailing when you were their age, and younger; things learned by osmosis, almost, from sailing with Dad. Then they’re off, close hauled on starboard tack into the teeth of a 17- to 20-knot east-nor’easter.

As far as Vineyard Races go, and you’ve done your fair share of them over the years, this one was painfully long and slow. The breeze petered out around midnight, as you discover when talking with your kids after they finish. This particular Vineyard Race was both a huge pain in the sternpost and great fun and a fantastic learning experience all at the same time. Sounds familiar, you think. Driving home after the race, you listen with a knowing air as the gory details emerge. Seems like the idea of sailing as a microcosm of life still pertains, 50 and more years on.

When the boat does a distance race, there’s a list of equipment that was removed for day racing that needs to be bought back aboard. One of these items is a second battery. Well, that battery was aboard but, as was discovered about 0300 Saturday, halfway between Plum Gut and “1BI,” there were two errors in the boat’s management for this race. These unforced errors were completely on the crew because they are specifically empowered to plan the race for themselves. “Got questions? Ask. Otherwise, you are all up to the task” is the fundamental brief from the leaders of the Young American Sailing Academy.

No one had checked that battery’s charge, and the crew all subsequently agreed that they’d assumed it was charged. Second, as they were motoring to the start, no one checked to make sure the battery switch was on “Both.” Turns out it was on only “One.” This all became manifest about 2330 a few miles west of Plum Gut as the low voltage alarms went off. The “One” battery had been run down, and the second battery was not charged so there was not enough oomph to start the engine. A confounding issue is that the fuel tank, if not fully topped up, will suck air on (the then active) starboard tack. And there was a debate about how much fuel was in the tank versus how much was burned motoring into a head sea to the start. The upshot was that when the starter was being cranked, there was minimal fuel getting into the lines.

On the eastern side of the Gut, there was less wind and the seas were flatter, so a couple of more tries to start were attempted, to no avail. At this point, there were no electronics, no instruments, no GPS (although the plotter was running on the computer’s own battery, but not for long), no running lights, and no shipboard VHF – backup handheld only. Undeterred, the emergency running lights were rigged and two sailors deployed navigation software on their phones. The coach, the only adult in the 9-person crew, had a handheld GPS of questionable vintage. The two most experienced young sailors very quietly assumed leadership roles and suggested that all phones be turned off so as to be available in the future as needed. One outcome of this was that the tracking system, using phone-based software, went dark. For parents back home following the team’s progress, Young American was off the air in the fullest sense.

Meanwhile, they were still racing. Food was prepared, water was drunk, watches were kept, monitoring of boats nearby was kept up, and positions on the boat were rotated to keep everyone on deck fresh. After daylight, between “1BI” and the Tower, they had some pretty good sailing against other similar-sized boats, providing good speed calibration. Somewhere around 1245 they rounded the Tower, gybed and set off towards Block Island.

The breeze was light to moderate, 8 to 12 knots or so and trending southeast, so gybes and spinnaker changes kept the troops entertained. The next big question was negotiating the passage from the south side of Block to Gardiner’s Bay or the Race.

After sneaking in under Montauk Point to minimize the furious ebb current where the boat was headed, along with with running out of sea room, another gybe was called for. This was fortuitous because the boat was equidistant between the Gut and the Race and, after a gybe, was laying the Race with good pressure and speed. Racing continued, into the Sound via the Race, with sail changes, food prep and consumption and watch standing all carrying on as though nothing had happened. Later that morning, the breeze shut off in the vicinity of the New Haven Harbor entrance, leaving the boat bobbing and rolling in the wash of the holiday weekend powerboat wakes.

The wind was fitful for the rest of Sunday, wafting across the otherwise glass-flat Sound. This was the most frustrating part of the race. There was a discussion about pulling out, but since there was no engine to go anywhere and they had already sailed about 50 hours, the crew all resolved they were not going to quit. Out came the binos, and the wind search started again. There were a couple of boats in the vicinity that offered a forward command view of conditions in the immediate area and also a benchmark for their own speed.

Finally, around 1915, they crossed the finish line after some 55 some hours of racing, taking a fourth in class after about 70% of the race done “blind” by today’s standards of yacht racing information…and finishing when 25% of the boats on the 238-nautical mile Vineyard Course did not.

While this tale was unfolding, the smile across your face was slowly expanding. When questioned as to why you were smiling, the answer was not as simple as it would seem.

It’s a combination of recalling similar lessons you learned all those years ago, and admiration for the way these eight teenagers simply kept doing what they had to do to finish. Yup, you think, Dad was right when he told you that sailing is just like life – regardless of what comes at you, keep plugging along and you will get to where you are going. The other half of the smile was, of course, fatherly pride in your teenagers’ accomplishments.

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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