By Joe Cooper
The America’s Cup is, as most sailors remember, about to happen in Bermuda. There are many opinions (hey, we’re sailors) on the current state of the AC, and they range across the spectrum from “Great!” to “Bring back the 12s!”
Listening to a shortwave radio broadcast of the 1962 America’s Cup at his home on the other side of the world from Newport, Rhode Island, little Joey Cooper was late for school the day Gretel (KA1) surfed past Weatherly to win Race 2. © unikatoo.com
There is one thing about the America’s Cup that, even if held in bathtubs on an obscure body of water in Mongolia, would not change: the experience of the guys and, way too infrequently, the women, who sail in this most storied sailing event. Win, lose or…well, there are no draws, sailing in, and the larger America’s Cup experience is one of the most profound experiences in sailing, or at least it was for me.
True aficionados will remember, maybe, that the first Australian Challenge was in 1962. September in Sydney is early spring and it is dank, chill, and so generally ill-equipped for seven-year-old kids who love sailing to be getting prepared for school when the America’s Cup is being broadcast via radio from Rhode Island Sound, Newport, Rhode Island. I probably knew the location of Newport, Rhode Island (home of Foghorn Leghorn) and Rhode Island Sound before I knew more prominent geographical locations normal kids growing up in Australia might learn about.
I remember still so clearly the sound of the Aussie announcer, one Lou D’Alpuget, a journalist by trade and a sailor the rest of the time, and his rising pitch of voice crackling over the shortwave radio. Weatherly was leading Gretel around the top mark, by not much. The breeze was on and the U.S. guys set the kite they thought appropriate. The guys on Gretel got a bigger kite up and trimmed in pretty short order and started to reel in the ‘Yanks.’ Lou’s voice was getting more excited and elevated with every wave the Gretel boys surfed down. When she finally sailed past the U.S. boat, I thought Lou was going to bust a gut…my memory is he was literally screaming down the mike. All thoughts of getting dressed for school were a long way off.
Fast forward 15 years to 1977. I was in the thick of Finn sailing, had just won the state championships and improved my place in the nationals versus the previous year by six places. Like most sailing communities, this was more or less common knowledge and resulted I am sure in me getting one day an invitation from Gordon Ingate, the skipper and driving force behind the Gretel 2 challenge in ’77, to ‘come for a sail’ on G2. Note the phrasing: It was not ‘try out,’ but come for a sail. So I did. And did and did and did, until in May, maybe, I was part of the crew that was announced with some fanfare in Sydney. So off we go to Newport, Rhode Island, and Rhode Island Sound.
The Finn Class North Americans were to be held in San Francisco at a date that fit into the ‘get to Newport’ schedule pretty well, so I arrived in SFO and in my chartered Finn had a blast sailing against many of the names I had been reading about in Finn Fare, the class magazine. I even did well in one race, a first or a third, I think. As sometimes happens, I was offered a ride halfway to Newport by a fellow Finn Sailor named Tony Hermann who was driving, with his 18-year old daughter, back to Milwaukee and I was welcome to join them. A wonderful drive cross country terminating in a few days as his guest at his lovely home in the suburbs was capped only by a Saturday race on Lake Pewaukee. A classic day’s sailing in an E scow with Tony and Peter Barrett, a founding partner of North Sails and former Finn Sailor was really finished off with a very hydraulically lubricated evening at the Pewaukee Yacht Club with the brothers Harken and some goofy dice game that had a lot of liquor involved. In the course of all this, Tony had arranged with Barrett to give me a ride to Newport. Great, just another 16 hours or so driving and I would be in Foghorn’s back yard. Not.
With some difficulty I woke up at first light, piled my gear into Tony’s wonderful 1970s classic 16-person family station wagon highway cruiser and off we went wending our way to, I thought, Barrett’s house. Imagine my surprise a few minutes later when we hauled off into the apron of a small airfield. Well, it turns out that Barrett was not for nothing an aeronautical engineer and we were going to fly to Newport. Now I realize that flying into the America’s Cup town is de rigueur these days, but in 1977, well not so much. We flew at maybe 10,000 feet across Lake Michigan, Ohio, and all the rest of the states until I could see the sea…Rhode Island Sound, to be precise.
By the time we arrived over the Astro-Surf, it was late morning on a glorious late June day and the ‘12s’ were out practicing. Lowell North was there with Enterprise testing the first Mylar film sails, including the infamous Garbage Bag headsail, so named for the green color of its namesake. Barrett did a few low-altitude slow circles looking at the boat and sails and saying nothing. After which we peeled off and landed at Newport Aero. Lowell met us there in his version of Tony’s highway cruiser and I still think Lowell was a bit aghast that Barrett had actually carried a member of the other team across country.
The trip into town was actually pretty funny, in that one would have needed a chainsaw to cut the atmosphere, so quiet was the car, yet so pent up was the tension to the point of explosion. Here we had two of the most skilled and ingenious guys in the sailing world, in Newport, working on being the guys to defend the America’s Cup and they could not say anything until they got rid of the Aussie kid. I had told them where I could be dropped off and as we approached Newport Shipyard I thought Lowell was going to hit the eject button so badly did they want me out so they could catch up.
After a few ‘Thanks, mate,’ heartfelt too, for it was a great way to arrive in Newport, here I was, little Joey Cooper from Sydney, Australia, standing in the middle of the driveway into the yard, surrounded by my kit, as I watched them drive off down Thames Street with their heads leaned inwards to better hear each other as they raced to catch up.
I have remarked before that the real reason we all go sailing is to get a new supply of sea stories. I am sure the guys in Bermuda have great sea stories, but somehow I don’t think they are of the same genre as this one.
Footnote: In 1990 I was hiking in Montana and had just arrived, from the eastern side, at the summit of the pass across the top of the Continental Divide. I had stopped to savor the moment when a not too tall, but solidly built, fellow and his wife arrived from the west side. We were the only humans there so we naturally nodded to each other, but then I did a double take, as did the other fellow. It was Peter Barrett.
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.