Apart from the actual sailing of the boat, one of the top three things we love about sailing is the characters we meet, the Kapers we get up to and the stories they spawn, like for instance this beauty.
Since November of 1975, I had been sailing Finns. How that happened is its own story but, anyway in the late winter of 1976 there was in Sydney a strike by the truck drivers who delivered gas to gas stations, so there was of course a run on gas, and people were mindful of driving no more than absolutely necessary. Crashing into this scene, literally, was little Joey Cooper, aspiring Finn sailor.
I was arriving at the home of Tony James, my Finn mentor, coach and sometime adopted parent, with the boat in tow. As is common when towing such dinghies, the mast was sticking out the front of the boat and over the car when it was turning. Tony’s street was a regular suburban street and so turning around was a 9-point turn kinda deal when towing a boat. Yes, I managed to spear the mast into a pile of bushes resulting in a bent mast…and equally bent young Finn sailor. Tony wandered out of the house. He must have heard me cursing – half of Sydney probably did – and here is one of the great lessons of the sailing world. He did not berate me for being an idiot. It was obvious what had happened and equally obvious I was hopping bloody mad with myself. He said nothing, but just wandered around the mast looking at the damage. It was significantly bent about four feet down from the head. We took it off the trailer and laid it on the sidewalk. He picked it up and tried flexing it, and generally poked and prodded the wreckage.
Now, it should be noted that I had been sailing my Finn since January that year. I had finished mid-fleet in the Australian National Championships and the Finn Gold Cup held in January, but Tony had done a great job of dangling the 1980 Olympics in front of me. That winter I had sailed as much as I could, went to the gym daily, and rode my bicycle about 25 miles a day round trip to work. And I was just 21 and hooked on the idea of The Olympics. In the 1975 State Championships, I had finished eighth I think. I needed to get better – a lot better – if I was going to go to Tallinn. The 1976 States were in about two weeks, so the pressure was really on, just to get on the water at this point.
After a while of looking and noodling we went inside, and Tony reviewed the options. Finn masts at that time were aluminum and the best (only) ones were made in the UK. There was really no dealer in Australia, so usually a group of sailors would order a 6-pack of spars at the same time to help defray the shipping costs. Buying a new one and getting it here was not an option. Tony grabbed the Finn address book and started leafing through it to look for a likely candidate who might have a spare mast or was not actively sailing. He eventually found one, BUT.
There was this gas strike and the guy with the mast lived some 35 miles away. Under normal conditions I would drive over there, pick it up and drive back. But in this case if I did that, I would have no gas for moving the boat around (I kept it at home). We noodled on some other ideas and eventually Tony said he would keep on it and call me tomorrow, Monday, and I went home in dark spirits. True to his word, Tony called me the next day with the following news.
One of the guys who owned a marina and boat yard (with his own supply of gas) lived about five miles from the Finn mast guy. He could give me a ride to his house one afternoon and if I could get the mast to his house, he would bring it to his yard the next day. I could take a bus home. Done!
Next day I drove home with this fellow and, arriving at his house, set off on foot the five miles to the mast. I arrived at the mast, concluded the deal and, shouldering the mast, started to walk the five miles back to the driver’s house. Eventually I arrived and we tied the spar onto the top of his car and off I went to the bus stop and so home.
Next day I arrived at the boat yard, which was not far from the sailing club I would launch at, and carried the mast to the boat at the ramp. Of course, there were the usual small surprises as to fittings on the mast collar, size of the pin at the gooseneck and so on, but not for nothing did I have a robust toolbox and parts bin in my car. After about an hour’s jigging around, the mast was in, the boom was fitted, and the sail was up. Yee Hah, I was back in business.
Now, the sidebar to this story is not the dumb breaking, nor the walking all over southern Sydney, but motivation. Tony could have gone toe to toe with Freud in his appreciation of how the mind works. He understood that I felt like an idiot and was terrified of missing the regatta, and aware of how much effort I had put into getting back in the water, how much I had been sailing, and how focused I was on the Olympics. And he used that collection of emotions to the max. I continued sailing and practicing and saw no noticeable change in the boat’s performance, although, like almost every AC boat, we all look great until the first five minutes into the first race.
Comes the day of the first race and we are all in the parking lot getting ready. There were a couple of Olympic contenders apart from me. There was a guy who had been a crew for a top Aussie Flying Dutchman sailor, another Finn guy who had been sailing hard, not as much as me, but worked out at least as much and was a good sailor, and I think a couple of the better Finn sailors from Victoria up for the workout.
First race was in very light air and overcast…not much chance of any increase in breeze. I had been practicing what was then called wind phasing, the technique of recording the boat’s heading at five-minute intervals and from which data one can get a better estimate of potential wind shifts, like the strip charts on sophisticated electronics available today. I had been on the water for an hour before the start and done multiple runs of the weather leg. I had been doing time and distance practice during my training time, and could hit the target within a second close to 100% of the time. And I had James’y whispering in my head about how much I had put into getting to the line, how much practice I had done, how fit I was, and what Tallinn was like.
Well, the drift-a-thon lasted most of the day. A couple boats threw in the towel and went home but the rest of us hung in for the duration. I led, I think, the whole way and finished with a lead that allowed me to drift into the boat yard, un-rig, cover my boat and drive up to a headland to see the second boat
One thing I had learned from John Bertrand (yes, that one) at the Olympic Trials the past January was the idea of sailing where you believe you should be on the course. This was after I had led one race of the trials, only to be overtaken by John on the square run. He came over to me at the end of that race and after congratulating me on a fine race, said, with his usual candor, “You knew I was going to pass you, didn’t you. You’re just not used to being in front. You need to develop that mindset. Not being in front becomes the uncomfortable condition you sail to get out of.”
I had thought of those words often, and in one race where I goofed the start and was fifth or something around the first mark proceeded to put that sentiment into play and passed everyone to win that race too. I won every race I sailed in finishing the regatta, dropping a Did Not Start. That was the second race of the last day and I sailed over to my girlfriend’s father’s boat, picked her up and watched the last racing tootling around the bay with her.
At least I did not have to walk. ■
Australian 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, dog and several, mainly small