By Joe Cooper
In mid-March, I was at home riding out the third blow in as many weeks. Absent electricity for a few hours, I was looking for a simple read. I discovered a little book that had floated to the surface recently. It is thin, just merely 56 pages so, just the right size, and a lovely read, by E.B. White. This little picture window in words is called Here is New York. Reading this lovely little snapshot of New York City, I was reminded the first time I was there, late May of 1980.
We, the advance guard of Bondy’s 1980 challenge for the America’s Cup, had flown in a couple of days in advance of the arrival of the ship carrying the 12 from Sydney. We were half a dozen and had digs in a hotel in the mid-20s East Side. When we got the call that the ship was arriving in Howland Hook, we decamped to the container ship terminal. Regrettably, the yacht was not quite the pristine vehicle carrying the hopes of the sailing part of Australia intent on pillaging a certain well-known club on West 44th Street. Rather she was looking pretty sad. The paint job had had some nervous reaction with the micro-balloon filler and the boat was a sad looking mottled mess of varying shades of the reddish-magenta color that cured micro-balloons finish to, and spots of white paint.
We got the yacht in the water and secured to the tender. The syndicate had chartered a tender through the Stamford office of the John G. Alden Yacht Brokerage Company. The tender on site was, it transpired, owned by the owner of the brokerage firm, Bill Albertson. Bill was an agreeable shipmate and was aboard accompanied by a young fellow he knew. The tender in question seemed to be one of the spare ‘S. S. Minnows’ from Central Casting – one that didn’t make the cut for Gilligan’s Island. A sportfisher in style, planked timber in build, and, let us say, distinguished in age, early Viking I reckon and Tautog by name. The speed with which we renamed her ‘Warthog’ would have made your head spin.
Of the six in our party, two were on the Twelve, me and Phil. Two were on the tender, Scotty and Steamer, and two drove off to Newport. We, on the tender and 12 got the towing kit all set up and were underway across the reaches of the Upper Bay.
We got perhaps 30 minutes into what was going to be a 12- to 14-hour passage, when we noticed the Warthog had slowed, then stopped. Water was being pumped out the portside of the boat. I don’t mean a garden hose, I mean an industrial, Hook and Ladder, 4-inch diameter get-the-water-out-in-a-hurry hose. Phil and I looked at each other. We had no handheld VHF, so comms. with the tender was not simple. Phil, looking back to me for some reason, suggested I look behind me, us. Making waves, in a literal sense, was a Coast Guard 41-footer on a mission to get to the Warthog. This was going to be interesting.
Well, here we were, in the middle of the East River, just north of, I think, the Manhattan Bridge on several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of national hopes incorporated into what was about a million-five campaign, adrift while tethered to a wooden boat of indeterminate age pushing water out of the boat in a stream 10 or 15 feet long. The 41-footer arrived moments before another from upstream. I have a vivid memory of Warthog being the fish in the fish sandwich between the two 41-footers lashed up either side, water squirting out of all three boats like a Bernini fountain consumed by the Poltergeist. Meanwhile, we were sitting in the steering cockpit contemplating the show. I remember seeing the 23rd Street Marina, for instance, and the Chinese junk that was, I think, a fixture there for many years. I ran into the guy who owned and lived on that boat years later and he remembered our story.
At length, one of the 41-footers took the towline from Warthog. A 12 Metre is around 65 feet long, BUT the masts are maybe a bit over a hundred. The spars were seriously lashed to trestles bolted to the deck of the 12, so about 20 feet of mast was hanging off the bow and stern. What was about to happen did not sink in until it was almost too late.
The Coasties, in what might have been a contract hit commissioned by the aforementioned 44th St. boat club, took off at warp speed – I could swear I saw Chewbacca at the wheel. It was pretty clear they intended to either park us alongside, or for a moment, impale us on the docks at the 23rd St. Marina. Mindful of the confidence the nation had placed in Bondy, so us, on winning the Cup, Phil and I cooked up a plan in short order. This was to slow the 12 down enough and place her alongside the face dock. We had the towline dead-ended onto the port grinder drum, so we had control of a small part of our fate. There were the fenders lashed down in the middle cockpit. Phil rigged them to starboard.
We took the longest mooring line we could find, and rove it through a snatch block on the starboard gunnel and led the tail to the starboard grinder drum, all while Chewbacca was making the calculations for the leap to light speed. And light speed on a 12 is a really frightening proposition. One way of slowing down a 12 is to reverse the trim tab and rudder, the tab to port, say, and the rudder to starboard. Both blades are roughly the same area, so this works like the tabs deployed on a jet when landing. By now we were aiming at the dock roughly perpendicular, a couple hundred yards out and going maybe 9 knots, very close to light speed for a 12.
With the boat set up just so and Phil standing by at the towline, we let ourselves loose and I recall in the first instance turned hard a-starboard. I wanted to get up towards the eastern end of the dock. Australia (NOT ‘One,’ JUST Australia) did not turn anywhere as tightly as Australia 2 did but she was pretty limber. With rudder and tab hard over, I got the desired runway to the east. From here, I had enough room to get the bulk of the boat heading west with a view to running parallel down the dock. So far so good, except for the height of the tide.
The marina had a fence along the upper bulkhead and it dawned on me, that like the song, the tide was high, but my eyeball told me by not enough. I had visions of impaling some dear old New York native on one or all three 12-Metre masts. Time was running out and it is remarkable how much water you can cover at what was now about 8 knots.
As it turned out, the tide was just high enough. We laid the dock at about 45 degrees to its axis with the forward 20-odd feet of masts brushing over the fence with clearance that one might have been able to slide a well-used sheet of 400-grit through. Phil did a commendable job of snatching a cleat with the mooring line, with which we proceeded to ease off the drum at a good clip. I managed to keep us heading offshore using the tab and rudder and the fact the snatch block was in just the right spot.
We eventually came to rest, feeling rather like the pilot of an F-14 with no fuel left grabbing the last arrestor line. The Coasties, ours, were waiting in the offing, and I could swear they were bummed their mission had failed. We got more docklines ashore and generally made ourselves secure. At some point we looked up to determine the fate of the mighty Warthog. She was last seen limping to a boatyard in Staten Island alongside the other 41-footer, still recycling the East River through her aging timbers and looking like one’s aging grandfather who’s kicked out at the soccer ball in the backyard and fetched up against the brickwork around the petunias.
Scotty, Steamer, Phil and I found a beer somewhere and looked up places to sleep for the night. Bill, suitably embarrassed, organized a Grand Banks 42 for the remainder of the tow. Departing early the next day, we arrived in Newport after dark, secured the boats and decamped to the Cooke House to find a number of the U.S. guys who, having told each other their latest sea stories, were more than willing to listen to our most recent tale.
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US 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, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.