Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper

I’ve come full circle. I started out as a small kid, a “tot” as my Dad often referred to me, on a sandy beach with small boats. Now I am instructing small kids in small boats on a sandy beach.

A few weeks ago I got a call from Tom Kirk, a mate of mine who with his wife and a few of their mates created a junior sailing program called Portsmouth Youth Sailing. PYS’s goal is basic sailing instruction for kids 6-12 in the Portsmouth, RI area. Tom was calling because the two college kids they had engaged to run the program this year had sunk without a trace and PYS needed someone to jump in or else they would have to abandon the summer’s sessions. Well, me being me, I signed on. My first action was to identify some of the kids from the Prout School Sailing Team who would be interested in such summer work. If I was going to be in charge of 5-12 year olds, I needed someone who was not older than their grandparents, 6’4”, 240 lbs and with a funny accent… In short order I had a good supply of high school kids, with smarts and sailing skills sufficient for the task, on deck and on standby to help out.

Next up was to meet in Portsmouth to pull the dozen Optis out of winter storage and get them down to the venue. For those who equate “sailing” with “yachting” and “The America’s Cup”— Ha, come and look at “sailing” as practiced by PYS (and I know, hundreds if not thousands of other “grassroots” operations). To me and most Australians of my generation who grew up sailing “off the beach,” this is just the normal mode of sailing. In the Northeast, at least there are few venues where this is the case since most junior sailing summer camps are run from yacht clubs (Sail Newport being a local exception), where even if the launching is off the beach there are “facilities”-classrooms, showers, actual launching ramps, docks, fresh water, electricity and so on. 

Portsmouth Youth Sailing makes the phrase “grassroots sailing” look like a synonym for the New York Yacht Club. There is very little grass involved and what grass there is, is Marram grass. The boats are stored on racks above the high tide line and chained to each other overnight. There are two secondhand RIBs with cantankerous engines. There is a Hunter 146. These three boats are on moorings off the beach. There is a kayak to paddle out to those boats. There is a Home Depot Instant Garden Shed nestled up against the beach’s bathroom block, about 400 yards from where the sailing takes place. Everything is covered with sand. The price you pay for sailing off the beach, I guess…Sand is in the boats, on the sails, blades, cordage, life jackets, pants pockets, lunch bags, toes and hats, but fortunately not in the eyes…yet. Not for nothing is the venue called Sandy Point Beach.

The last part of the circle is that this is also the name of the beach where my dad kept his boats. What did Yogi Berra say about déjà vu….? I have been at it for three days as I write (on 4 July), and it is an absolute hoot. There are two classes a day. This week it is 5-6 year-olds in the morning and 9-11 year-olds in the afternoon. The first class has six kids, and when we started on Monday the climate was similar to the Amazon rain forest with rain, fog, humidity and bugs. We spent an interesting 45 minutes huddled in the shed with six kids, three instructors, a white board and markers, discussing the parts of a sailboat. This was in between answering questions, nudging the focus (“focus” and “6-year-olds” cannot be used in the same sentence, I’ve decided) back to “the bow,” “stern,” “port,” “centerboard trunk,” “luff,” leech”…stopping Mike from whacking Ann, and so on. Teachers ought to get paid at least 10 times what they are getting paid, at a minimum I reckon. I am quickly reminded that the sailing instructor’s best teaching tool is a sense of the ridiculous and humor. I find that these kids can relate to these two traits of mine.

Snack time is a savior, and the kids like it too. Then it is off to the boats. After our trek through the expansive wastes of the central Arabian Peninsula, I mean Sandy Point Beach, we arrive at the boat rack. Now I know why my Dad had a cylindrical inflatable rubber tube shaped like a long, skinny fender that he placed under our boat to roll it, like the builders of the Pyramids, from its parking spot in the Marram grass to the water’s edge. Fiveyear- olds are not as strong as teenagers…or 58-year-old former Finn sailors.

We get boats into the water. We put two kids into each of three boats. We push them out into knee-deep water – my knees – and tow them up and down the beach. Repeat a few times, then put the rudders in and repeat with instructions and examples on steering. Repeat. When the parents come to sign them out, the response from the kids is that sailing is great and they are coming back tomorrow…

One of the reasons I wanted to have some help from kids on the Prout team was to give them a view of coaching from the other end of the telescope. On Wednesday afternoon at the end of the third afternoon session with the 9-11-year-olds, several of whom are, well, full of energy shall we say, Carter, one of my assistants, drew in a big sigh, looked at me and said, “I don’t know how you do it, Coop…..” Frankly, I don’t know how I could not.


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,, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.

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