By Joe Cooper

Facebook is many things to many people, from the keeping up with Grandma and the grandkids to yelling back at bot-driven political memes. During this morning’s coffee-lubricated graze through my various FB pages (Yeah, I know I’m looking for the 12-step program) in a full DeLorean moment, I came hard aground against a post from a fella I used to work with. Cue the Flux Capacitor and file the following under ‘Little known details of Cooper’s past.’

My father was trained as an artist and his media was not limited to painting. He was fluent in pencils, crayons, charcoal, as well as watercolor and oils, and later screen printing. He was not too shabby with a camera either. To get me out from under Mum’s feet on weekends so she could write, he and I would wander off into the bowls of Sydney and its array of interesting things, including of course the waterfront. He equipped us with a small plastic water bottle, a sketch notebook and pencils, some very yummy dark chocolate, and his Leica camera. An honest-to-goodness Henri Cartier-Bresson Leica on which one needed to set the aperture and shutter speed manually…Gasp.

We would wander the streets, wharfs, ferries, museums and art galleries for most of an afternoon, and he would occasionally break out his sketchbook and quickly dash off a few outline ideas for later gestation. The Leica got exercised too and he would carefully explain to me the details of aperture and shutter speed, composition, holding the camera steady, and so on. Once home, we would take over half the flat and turn it into a darkroom and print shop. Many of my earliest memories are working with him developing the negatives and then printing them. He would fiddle with the printing process to totally change the way the same image looked…roughly what one might do in two minutes with one’s phone today. One of the by-products of all this visual exposure, as it were, was what became, ten years or so later, my first ‘life goal.’

No, such forward looking Tony Robbins thinking did not exist in Australia in my day, at least around me. When I left high school at the ripe old age of fifteen, my mother, being both a writer and a finagler of the first order, got me a job as a stagehand at a local TV station. I could write about four columns on the fun and education dished up to me over the few years I worked at that station, then later on at another one. The ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ theme was never really discussed; rather it was a job that paid, and had possibilities. The former was of immediate use, and the latter, well I kind of eased into that.

The studio camera guys (they were all guys, at least in the beginning) with whom I worked with very closely on a daily basis, were generous in letting me fiddle around with these big, heavy and seriously cumbersome studio cameras when nothing important was going on. They helped me learn some of the basics of TV camera work, how the cameras are arranged around a studio for different shots, and so on.

But back to this morning’s Facebook and coffee moment. There, right slap bang in the middle of all the rest of the static that FB largely is, was a photo of a letter. It was posted by a guy I used to work with in Sydney. I was flabbergasted, and how he had kept it all these years is beyond me, but he had.

The letter was a memo to directors, lighting directors and technical directors, stating that three others and me, Joe Cooper, had “been selected as Camera Trainees and should be given the opportunity to gain experience whenever it is practical.” I was soooo excited. After a while I even got to do some camera work on simple things like the cooking show and the yoga show. For a while I was “the” cameraman in the one camera studio that presented the kids afternoon show.

One of the studio cameramen owned a 16mm Bolex wind-up, clockwork movie camera. I forget why…I think he might have had art-house aspirations. Anyway, he let me handle it and use it after a while. I even went so far as to take a film course at the local tech. We made up stories, shot them and had to edit them, including the mechanics of scraping the emulsion off both ends of the intended edit and gluing them back together very accurately so the edit would not jump the sprockets whizzing along at 25 frames per second, or whatever it was.

I was hooked. I loved it, the entire package: figuring out a story, learning how to set up the cameras to get the right images, editing, the whole shooting match. As I look back on this time, I attribute my first intentional take on ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ as: I wanted to be a cinematographer for National Geographic magazine. The idea was that I would have a creative outlet, a technical skill, and I would get to travel. Well, close. I do have a technical skill: boats. I certainly have traveled, and I do think of the way I look at boats and sailing as my creative outlet.

In 1976, I was at another TV station and had somehow wrangled myself into the same trainee camera position and would often spend of hours, on my dime, sitting in the back of the news studio control room, soaking it all up. One weekend, during the Olympics in Canada with the sailing at Kingston I was so situated in the back of the news studio control room. A chunk of the evening news was of course the Olympics and at one point, after a segment and throwing to a commercial break, the director was scrolling through some footage of sailing, since he knew I sailed and thought I might like to see it. Well, did he hit THAT shift spot-on.

The clip he was looking at was of that day’s Finn race. It was breezy, and sailing a Finn in breeze is an acquired taste and skill. (It was in these Olympics that the Australia 2 John Bertrand won his bronze medal.) We were all lazily watching the clip and it was of the Russian, a guy named Andrei Balashov, sailing hard down the first reach. They used the Olympic Triangle in those days. A beat, reach, reach, beat, run, beat. There was a decent sea running and he was working the boat hard. The gybe mark slid into view left of screen and almost faster than you could absorb it, Balashov gybed. Rather stood up in his boat, picked his wave, bore off down the wave, pulled the sheet, all three falls of it at once, as smoothly as you like, in towards him, ducked slowly as the boom crossed over him, then stood up, jumped hard on the new weather gunnel and gave a mighty heave on the three falls and took off around the mark, surfing hard towards the bottom mark. I must have exhaled an involuntary gasp. “THAT was amazing!” or similar words emanated from me. The control room staff all looked up and the director looked around at me and inquired what the matter was. I told him he had just seen one of the best athletes in the world perform one of the hardest maneuvers in (Finn) sailing as effortlessly as Rudolf Nureyev making a 15-foot leap across the stage.

The director picked up on my excitement and respooled to the front of the clip and ran it again. I said run it in slow-mo. He did and I described all the details involved in the process of gybing a Finn in breeze. We ran it again and I repeated the narrative. The control room crew was mesmerized by this slow-motion view of sailing. They had never ever thought of it or seen it in the way I did. Punchline? Going out of the next segment into the commercial break, he ran the clip in slow motion, edited up as I suggested and they, the control room crew, loved it.

So, the National Geographic Idea? Well, after about 25 years it dawned on me that there was a thing called digital video. A few years ago, I made a five-minute video of how to handle a winch to show the high school kids I sail with. Using the leftover clips, I made a seven-minute video of the guys and girl on Interlodge, a TP52, who took me out one day to capture winch footage, during a practice. I cobbled it together and sent the link (YouTube, Joe Cooper Sailing) to my contact at the boat to share with the crew, as thanks for the opportunity to sail with them, kind of appreciation. National Geographic it ain’t, but it sure was a blast. ■

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,, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

Previous Article


Next Article