By Joe Cooper
I’m going to start a book. No, not that sort. Think distance race or delivery back from somewhere type of book…the Belmont type of book. The kick in a dollar, write down what time you will finish and the person with the time estimate closest to the actual finish time takes the kitty kind of book. In this case, send your dollars to me, after putting them in the microwave for two minutes. Include the following:
At what regatta will the first boat come out named Social Distancing?
Add a second dollar for what sort of boat: J/70, VX One, etc.
Sheesh, the funny thing is, on all my social media the sailors I know are the most chilled. They get it: Sit tight, consider the risk/reward, and minimize mistakes. See, just like sailing.
Meanwhile at Chez Cooper, we are all working at home. The creature getting the most agitated is Annabelle the Wonder Dog. Jill is in the upstairs office, I’m at a table in the living room and Ned, just up from DC where, having graduated, found a job in his field, that pays actual money and at which he is good and loves, is home and set up in the dining room. Annabelle knows not where to go for the most attention.
Jill’s office looks out to the east, across Easton’s Pond, Newport’s water supply, across to the Quantum Sail loft, the Harken offices and what used to house the American Magic offices until they moved and now houses Clean Ocean Access. It is not a bad view.
Ned’s view from the dining room is across the turning circle at the end of our street, across the side yard of the neighbor and through their bushes to the back wall of the Mormon Church that backs up to their property. It is OK as far as it goes but after about 1300, the sun starts coming in and so the blinds are drawn.
Me, I am in the living room at the library table, located basically under Jill’s office, so I have much the same view. Out to the east, across the crick to where the potato fields used to be. But I get a bonus view looking out to the south through the picture windows.
To our immediate south is a parcel of land that has an historic aspect to it. This, combined with the fact there is no way to get clean driveway access to it means we live on the edge of a 4-acre wild wood, unlikely to be developed any time soon. (Fingers firmly crossed). The view out this big window is mainly bush, trees and glimpses of the roofs of a couple of houses down slope of us to the south. But gazing out the window as was my bent in school, across the southern Tasman Sea does not return the same sense of wonder when gazing into the trees, as dreaming upon the wild and wooly grey ocean. But there is hope.
Between the east and south windows are two of several bookshelves holding about a quarter of the Cooper Maritime Library. This particular quarter is a bit deadly, especially in the time of Social Distancing, for within said quarter lurk the volumes of books written by the pioneers of solo offshore, read circumnavigations, sailing.
Chichester, Knox-Johnston, Bill King, Alec Rose, Moitessier, the full roster of these characters is there, most with rather weathered dust jackets, with small tears and folded in corners of pages. It is a very, VERY, short board from gazing out the window at the trees to jumping back in the Tardis (the DeLorean is in for an oil change) for a trip to the mid-1960s and “watching” (well, reading) about the action two months later in the paper, of these guys and their exploits. I have a box of my dad’s clippings of most of these, some of which are annotated in his fine artist’s cursive hand.
Regrettably, A World of My Own seems to have social distanced itself out of the shelves to some secret undisclosed location. This is of course Robin, later Sir Robin, Knox-Johnston’s account of his circumnavigation. The title screams Social Distancing, no? Three hundred and twelve days on his lonesome. NOT 312 minutes, or hours, DAYS! Let’s see, by my own three-week count, I have, ah, just 291 to go. And I’m not even alone just self-quarantined and ‘working remotely’ (another candidate for a J/70 name). There is I think a difference between being alone and being by yourself.
Anyone offshore today, except the Minis, will likely carry some kind of long-distance communications kit, usually a Sat phone. In this sense you can be alone, but not by yourself. Feeling a bit Postal? Do an ET.
Looking at pictures of his little ketch, Suhaili, built in India in teak by RKJ to the Colin Archer design, ‘Eric,’ was basically what a Westsail 32 would become several years later. Photographs of the boat somewhere in the ocean show her with great rust stains streaming down the hull from the chain-plates, a huge bowsprit that calculates to about ten feet long. Roughly the dimensions of the bowsprits on today’s Minis, and a gantry on the stern organized in a way to not get decapitated by the mizzen boom. Photos of the interior show not much remaining volume after all the stores were stored.
When Blondie Hasler proposed what became the O.S.T.A.R., ‘people’ said it was madness: No one could sail a small boat across the Atlantic. Hasler’s response? “Hold my Whisky,” and single-handed ocean racing is now, well if not common, much more readily undertaken than in 1959. We enthusiasts of this genre take heart in the new DH co-ed class in the Olympics, too.
Sir Francis Chichester’s account of his participation, and victory in, this granddaddy of solo offshore races is a grand read. Early on, weeks before the start, he has, of course what we all know as the seemingly insurmountable pile of stuff to get done. Returning from an errand he writes, “One has a pretty desperate feeling on coming back. There seems to be an impossible amount to do and it all seems futile.” And this is before he started. Sound familiar?
The sailor most likely to incite introversion after many long days at sea is the Frenchman (of course) Bernard Moitessier. But he had a running start being raised in Buddhist Vietnam. (Well, French Indochina, incorporating Vietnam, to be more accurate.) And he had done a lot of solo sailing before he got to Joshua. Bernard apparently became depressed in the vastness of the Southern Ocean (what is mad about that then, eh? Seems perfectly normal to me) and started practicing yoga. His view of the world convinced him it was madness to continue the race, so he didn’t. ‘To heck with this,’ he said and sailed halfway around the world again, finishing up in Tahiti after famously sending a note to a passing freighter, by slingshot, reading, “Because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.”
Solitude brings out, or perhaps, up, different processes in different people. Sailing is the last place where humans can go and be alone, really alone, for days on end. And of course, such solitude can play all manner of tricks in your head, if you are so disposed. Today, quarantined, self or otherwise, we are perhaps alone, if we are not married say and live alone, but we are certainly not by ourselves. NOT by any stretch of the imagination. I have been wondering how fast Zoom can add capacity; it seems to be the new coffee shop for people to minimize their distance, and be alone but not by themselves.
Perhaps this is an OK time to consider what life would be for you in the event you were to set sail even just to Europe, alone, with the prospect of three weeks by yourself? Chichester was frank in his comments on that. He knew himself to be a character quite content with his own company and in fact preferred to be doing things alone.
Bouwe Bekking’s quote on his poster in the Volvo Race Village a few years ago was “Know yourself, know your crew.” Being alone AND by yourself for a month or more is a likely way to get to know yourself…and probably the crew too.
When in September 1995 I was at sea in my Mini bound to France for that year’s Mini-Transat, I was not alone long enough to really push the edge of, well whatever it is we trip over as we push ourselves outside our comfort zone. I found that the actual sailing was just like normal, going for a sail on the bay, except it was a very big bay. The physics don’t change just because you’re in the Atlantic.
But like Moitessier and likely all the rest there is a special peace being at sea, by yourself, alone, practicing your social distancing. ■
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, boats.