By Joe Cooper
Friday morning of Block Island Race Week, I was on the press boat riding out to the Red Circle. I was in company with three photographers, none of whom I had previously known, and their bags of expensive camera kit. We were yakking about the week, the weather, the pictures and so on. I asked them, politely, were they on retainer for the race, magazines or other contractors, or out here on their own dime? “Oh no, our own dime,” all three laughed. One shooter lived on Block and one was from Boston, but one came from Atlanta. On her own dime, with all that stuff?
This struck me as a curious business model, at least for three marine photographers whose names I had not known before the week. The discussion carried on. It transpired that marine photography is only one aspect of their work and, it turns out, one of the less lucrative. One of them described the difficulty in getting even a credit for his marine work in one of the magazines. In this day and age, with the ability to copy and paste anything from anywhere, getting credit for something is hard enough, let alone getting paid. Having your photos pinched, or on a good day, getting some money for, suggests to me that the activity is of low value – low cash value, that is. Why is this, I wondered, since all the people I know would give up an arm or leg to keep sailing? Sail to Prevail and/or the disabled Olympics confirm this thought. This got me thinking on the value of sailing.
Value in sailing terms is an interesting concept. The ‘value’ we all get from it is intangible. It is neigh on impossible to put a dollar amount on the sunsets, beautiful days, a week at BIRW with your mates, landfall in Bermuda and so on that make up a pretty normal round of sailing adventures. Or frankly, the emotions we experience looking at a particular boat that moves us. What if you added up all the costs of Race Week and said that cash cost was the value of competing? But that seems to be a fairly rigorous and cold green eyeshade way to look at what sailing gives us. Obviously, there are things in life that have value beyond the cash. Our families, kids and love spring to mind. (In fact, to me my family is priceless.)
I have often remarked on the subject of the cost of sailing, and only slightly in jest that boat owners ought never to total the yearly costs of owning their boats and divide this amount by the hours spent actually using them. If you did, you’d be appalled at the cost per hour that owning a sailboat incurs. I have a vague memory of doing this in 1980 for “Australia” team in the America’s Cup, and it was perhaps $150 an hour (actually sailing), and that was with a volunteer crew paid ten bucks a day all found. I think Larry’s costs per hour are a wee bit higher.
That this dictum – NOT calculating the cost per hour of sailing on your own boat – is being challenged is apparent by the creeping establishment of sailing opportunities that do not require actually owning the boat. Many sailing schools have programs where once you are certified (in the sailing sense, that is…) you can continue to sail by renting their boats. Sail Newport has a pretty thriving business in doing this with their fleet of J/22s. After a brief checkout sail with an instructor, one can rent their boats in three-hour increments (today’s version of “a three-hour tour…”). Ida Lewis Yacht Club has, in summer, a similar scheme using Sail Newport boats one afternoon a week.
I have a mate who is succumbing to age and the financial obligations of owning a boat. When I suggested the Sail Newport option, he wondered how much a membership is…twenty-five bucks for over 65, I found out on my phone. During the week you can, as a member, rent a J/22 for 75 bucks for three hours. This is not quite rental car rates, but close. Yet we generally do not get the same psychic enjoyment from a car rental as from sailing. OK, a week in a Ferrari on the cornice in Monaco may be an exception. But unless you’re going somewhere to sail: Cowes Week, the BVI or the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race and are chartering a boat for the event, the actual sailing (time) seems to be only some portion of the value. Then this means there are other elements to the value of sailing. In the case of Block Island Race Week, it’s the camaraderie, the dinners, the parties, The Tent, catching up with old mates, meeting new ones, and of course the Yellow Kittens for the young’uns.
Kenneth Graham was prescient of the value of pottering about in boats when he gave the Water Rat the immortal words about messing about in boats. Just being on a boat, at anchor, on the mooring or in the slip can bring an entirely fresh approach to the day. I have written in earlier columns of the effect that a 60-minute beercan race can have on brushing out the cobwebs and its leverage on attitude adjustment. My wife and I both write, and we are getting close to buying a Wi-Fi hotspot for ourselves. The idea being that we can row out to our boat, on its mooring at third beach in Middletown, and simply sit under the awning and write and research as the whim takes us. Admittedly writing, even Coop’s Corner, instead of gazing up or down the Sakonnet, is close to a Herculean task.
At least in my admittedly whacky worldview of sailing and boats, even working on them has value. Not simply because by doing something myself I can avoid paying the yard and save all that cash (assuming I value my own time at about $10 an hour, since I am about ten percent as effective as a yard at doing things on my boat). But I’d much rather come home dusty, smelling of paint and epoxy, and with stiff, sore shoulders and a bung knee from kneeling and sanding the bottom, or working inside the cabin of my Mini than pay the yard to do it. (To all my boatyard-owning mates…no offence intended.) To me, that is all part of the fun. And fun, of course, is invaluable.
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.