By Joe Cooper

As sailors we know, at some level, that we are part of a remarkable community. If you drive into a new town and drive down to the docks, you will look at the boats more or less by yourself, generally as a stranger, an outsider, a landsman. If on the other hand you arrive by boat, within about 20 minutes of turning off the engine or putting the sail cover on you will know half the other sailors on the dock. You will be exchanging comments about the varnish, how you like the sun panel or the wind turbine on the stern, the boat’s performance, the Bimini, the GPS TV on the binnacle, who you know who has the same (fill in the blank)…and so on. I was reminded of this very communal aspect of sailors last Halloween.

The Halloween Howl is the really, truly, Last Blast of the season hosted by Sail Newport, over the last weekend in October. Held for junior sailors, the Saturday has the multi-colored Opti racing and on Sunday, the Optis are joined by 420s and half a dozen 29ers. I had volunteered to do whatever was needed, in this case run the leeward mark boat. Following my instructions handed out at the volunteers meeting, I wandered over to the appointed RIB and started doing the pre-fight check. Marks, ground tackle, anchors, inflator – a battery powered leaf blower, probably well known to anyone who has ever set foot in a RC boat – gas, paper, pen, working VHF, etc. I was aboard the boat with the engine idling when a not too tall but seriously stout and smiling fellow sauntered up.

He was obviously dressed for sea and asked me if I was the leeward mark boat. After I confirmed this to be so he put out his hand and introduced himself, as did I. He looked around, boarded the boat with care, plonked his kit in a suitably out of the way spot under the driver’s chair, and looked at me with a ‘waddyaneed’ look. We have all experienced a similar situation when we are heading out, perhaps to race or to run a race, do a delivery or what not, and someone shows up about whom we no naught. A wise mate of mine once observed that sailors are ‘professional getter-on’ers’ as in we strive to get on with each other. The next few minutes were a classic example of this observation.

OK, there we were two blokes who had volunteered for a kids’ dinghy regatta, setting off to work a mark boat, unknown to each other, no experience with each others’ skills, no specific instructions as to who was in charge, and so on.

Since I was in the boat close to the controls, he asked if we were good to go. ‘Yep,’ says I, so he started to cast of the lines in the order I would have asked and I took the wheel and backed us out. He stowed the lines in a nice seamanlike manner and turned his attention to the ‘rigging,’ inspecting the marks, chain, anchors and so on. I idled us out of the Volvo Piers at Sail Newport and out to the fairway where I could open her up. I announced this before doing so, and after he grabbed something robust I gently came up to speed heading towards the RC boat, now anchored in the Astro Surf between Rose and Goat Islands.

As we approached the RC boat to make our signal I slowed down and idled by the PRO, who instructed us to head towards the bridge a few hundred yards and stand by. We proceeded to the NE and, idling along, we started to get some marks rigged. Jeff, for that was his name, asked about ground tackle and started setting it up, selecting the shots of line and chain most appropriate to the depth there, about 50 feet, and including an allowance for the state of the half-flood tide. Bear in mind we had neither of us spoken more than 10 words to each other in 15 minutes, but it was like we had been doing this kind of work together for 20 years. We got our mark placement instructions via VHF, did the deed and idled back up to the RC boat to set the finish mark.

So, at length, we got to yarning. Well, it turns out Jeff is a retired Newport cop – boy, THERE are some seas stories – and a recently retired, if they ever really are, Marine sergeant of some 35 years. Waiting for the kids to blow downwind in the first race we got to talking about sailing, slowly eking out from each other our backgrounds, sailing experiences, who we know and various Cliffs Notes sea stories. From there, we got onto the impending Volvo Ocean Race.

The first topic of discussion was team AkzoNobel in a state of turmoil, with lawsuits flying around and personnel in a state of flux. Who was in charge, who was going with which leader, and so on. We chatted on this theme for a minute and agreed that there would be two almost totally different crews based on the teamwork, confidence, interpersonal dynamics, and experience each sailor had with each other sailor under which leader. From there, it was but a short leg to comparisons with the military teams and the similarities between sailing, especially in something like the VOR, and war fighting in the military.

Now, I was going to tell here, the tale Jeff told me concerning three soldiers, a newspaper and an Iraqi bush toilet, but some things are best left to the imagination. Suffice to say, we both laughed heartily and agreed that experiences like that, and doing a VOR, are the kinds of episodes that set the communities of sailors and military apart from people who do not participate in either.

Back in civilian garb again, a couple of weeks later I was at the annual meeting of the New England Interscholastic Sailing Association wherein all matters from the past year and the coming year are mulled over and settled. After that meeting, attended by many of the high school coaches in the region, I had a coffee with a mate of mine, Taylor Rock, a local Newport teacher, the sailing coach for Rogers, the Newport high school, and the program director for Newport Yacht Club’s junior sailing summer program. One line item on his to do list was advice on where he could bring a J/22 the club had taken as a donation to their Adventure Sailing program, to get it repaired…there is a reason it was donated. We talked about this for a few minutes, I passing the names to him of likely yards, large and corporate, small and family-owned and bush boatyards and the best guys to call, and then it happened. Not quite a bolt of lightning, but close: I had the makings of another Cooper Kaper.

A mate of mine, Chris Oliver, is the lead dog in the Mobile Manufacturing traveling road show the IYRS School of Technology & Trades has in a 20-foot trailer that Chris tows around to Rhode Island schools promoting ‘Making Things in the 21st Century.’ I emailed Chris and ran my idea by him. He passed me onto the person in charge of what I needed to get done at IYRS. I emailed that person, and sketched out my idea. ‘Let’s get together’ was the response. At the appointed day and time I arrived at the new IYRS building on the Newport Campus and found the person I needed. Since the idea had been outlined in several emails, my first question was, ‘Is this philosophically doable, because if not, then let’s stop now. Is what I am proposing something that could be folded into the IYRS umbrella?’ My contact looked at me, straight in the eye and said, in no uncertain terms, ‘Yup!’ Game on.

Now, in the best Charles Dickens fashion, you will have to come back next month to find out what the Kaper is. Hint: It is about the Newport Sailing Community, boats and messing around in ‘em, inspiring kids, training people, and helping each other out. No newspaper required.

Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, or whatever the heck you have, and that the bosun’s bag was full of all the stuff on the list.

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.