By Joe Cooper
At the conclusion of the Ida Lewis Distance Race in August, I brought the Class40 Icarus back to the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY, through whose great graces we were able to use her in the Storm Trysail Foundation Junior Safety at Sea seminars and the Ida Race. When I got home the next evening, I was totally pooped. I had been going non-stop since January in about seven volunteer things, almost all to do with getting kids sailing. I was thinking, “OK, something’s gotta give here. I need to cut back on some of this.”
A few nights later I was rummaging through my various Facebook personas and I read a post from a teacher, along the lines of: “I call my class ‘my kids’ because through the year they grow on me and become part of my family. My life.” I agree. I am not a teacher, but I do coach the Prout School Sailing Team. And in what must be one of the biggest ironies in high school sports in the country, high school sailing in Rhode Island is only a club sport.
But being a club sport has its advantages in that I do not conduct tryouts. My remarks to non-sailing newcomers every spring are, “If you want to come and make the effort, you will sail, you will get wet, confused, sometimes cold, overwhelmed, perhaps anxious on occasion. You will also have a blast and be with a great collection of fantastic, caring, smart, loving kids. If you want to put in the effort, you might even to learn to sail.”
The school hosts a sports awards dinner in May where the varsity teams receive their awards. Since Sailing has no varsity trophies to collect, I get to present three sailors with what amounts to my own awards. This past May, other coaches also had the sad duty to say goodbye to a few of their graduating seniors. They spoke to the growth of the kids, the fun times, the goofy factor or particular unique contribution the member had made to the team, along with reference to the effort they had put in and the hole that the graduates would leave in their hearts.
This season was the first I had sailors for all four years – freshmen to seniors. This is why the Facebook post resonated so loudly. As I saw “my” sailing kids, many of whom were there with their other teams, I had flashbacks to past events – races won and lost, chances taken and not. Hearing them banter as they change into drysuits, patiently walking newcomers through the ropes, literally. Then there are the moments when I wanted the throttle them for something or another largely irrelevant to the larger scheme of things. Incidentally, this is how I learned to laugh when working with teenagers (see last month’s column, Kids on Boats, Again…or still? at windcheckmagazine.com).
I cook up other sailing capers during the summer too, so I get to see the kids in more of their natural habitat. These interactions, especially overnight races in 25 knots, are full of glimmers into what makes these kids tick. Their strengths and weaknesses, their personalities and other interests. It gives me a chance to speak with them and learn more about them as people, not sailors.
Many of the other presenters speak to the various efforts and strains their teams go through. As is the nature of such dinners the volume is pretty loud, even while awards are being presented.
I’m up: I remind the audience that sailing is conducted outside in virtually all conditions of cold, rain and snow, and only curtailed by high wind. That once sailors leave the shore and especially when in a match, I cannot stand on the sidelines yelling instructions or plays. I mention that there are two teams in sailing, the pair in the boat and the three boat pairs. (We practice Team Racing.) I mention too the requirement that sailors make their own decisions with regard to almost everything on the water from tactics, techniques, navigation and assessment of the wind to the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. I say that sailing has no bleachers, no cheering and no proud parents urging them on. All the effort is the students’.
I speak to the qualities that all this responsibility brings to the kids. They get to take risks, think for themselves, figure out what went wrong and right, and help their mates. All these characteristics settle in different ways in each student. It starts to go quiet. I say that the Sailing Team is losing 12 seniors and how there is a hollow feeling realizing that I will not have the pleasure of their company next season. Quieter. That it has been a great pleasure and privilege to have such an extraordinary group of young men and women to work with, to help, and to watch grow. Start to get a bit short of breath…room goes quieter. I refrain from naming all 12 sailors, saying, “You know who you are, so I’m not going to embarrass you.” A ripple of laughter. Finally, I say it’s a testament to the school, the kids and their parents that they have raised such fine young men and women and that they ought to be very proud of what they have done, and I will miss their sons and daughters next year.
It’s mid-September as I write and already I am nearly ready to go again. It is for “My Kids.”
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.