What is it that the scroll reads…? “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Or perhaps, “I had a farm in Kenya.”
Regardless, I had a Laser. Built by Performance Sailcraft in Australia. My boat was #14172. Turns out I was an OK Laser sailor. Pretty slippery in breeze and OK the rest of the time. NOT as good as in a Finn, but there ya go. (Cf my column on transitioning, at light speed, to the Finn in 1975 at windcheckmagazine.com/article/the_finn_dinghy_the_olympic_singlehander/)
A bunch of us sailed out of the Royal Prince Alfred YC (aka the Alfred’s) on Pittwater, about 30 miles north of Sydney. As often as possible. Several weekday afternoons and most weekends. We’d go off and set up our own rabbit start races and when the breeze was easterly and soft, some of us would take our boats over the hill to Newport Beach and sail in the surf. When it was blowing, it had to be REALLY blowing before we would not sail. I think my best big time regatta finish was inside a tenth in the maybe 1974 Nationals including a second or third in the last race. On the last day it was blowing the oysters off the rocks, a solid 30-plus and big seas.
The racing was held off the beach in the Gulf of St. Vincent in South Australia. The Gulf is large body of water, well exposed to the southwest and the demons of the Southern Ocean. All that sailing in big breeze and the beach off Newport came in handy because the surf on the beach at the regatta site was, on this last day, about 3-5 feet. A lot of skippers simply could not negotiate the surf line and get to the racecourse. This diminution in the fleet numbers, from perhaps 80 to 70 notwithstanding, the Alfred’s crew were seven or eight of the top ten. That race was won, no surprise, by a local. My only means of transport, in those carefree teenage days, was my bicycle so I was pretty fit. It was a hoot surfing down let’s say six-foot seas, and at 200-odd lbs. sailing upwind in them. Ah, the memories. The stuff of sailing.
Pulling out of the Hyperspace trip from Australia then to Newport now, what do I see? Little Joey Cooper from Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia sailing in a Laser?
A few years ago – yikes, at least fifteen as I think about it now, a mate of mine gave me a Laser. I forget the provenance of it, but it was green and a 5-digit number that might have been a 14xxx number. I kept it at Sail Newport and sailed it for chuckles, and with breeze on at the Narrows off Castle Hill and an ebb current made for fun surfing.
We took it to Michigan on summer vacations and sailed it out there. Ned was old enough to sail with me, so father and son would reach up and down the foreshore on Lake Huron and coming in through THAT shore break, Ned would stand on the bow and hang ten. He could not really sail properly but could kinda manage the boat in light air, as I discovered one afternoon.
Jill and I were taking the afternoon air on the deck of an uncle and aunt’s home several houses down the beachfront and what did I see but Ned pushing off in the Laser. He might have been ten at the time. “This will be interesting,” I thought to myself. My parenting style was of a kind that said, “Well, let him go for a bit.” It was light air, there were several small outboard fishing dinghies, jet skis and kayaks nearby and, well, why spoil a great adventure and lesson? He got out a few hundred yards and was reaching around when the breeze finally passed out, leaving Ned drifting on a Coleridge Sea: “We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”
I let him enjoy the afternoon and approaching dusk for a while, mainly to see how he’d do. He looked fine, no signs of stress, just sitting in the boat, tiller and mainsheet in hand, a kid, in a Laser, in no wind. After about twenty minutes and sensing the stress building in Jill and the relatives, I took one of the kayaks and paddled out to him. He knew he had not asked to take the boat and his face suggested he thought he was in for a bollicking, something I was NOT going to give him. I paddled up casually and said, “Giday mate. How ya doing?” He visibly relaxed and said he was fine. We chatted for a bit on the vagaries of wind, how he thought he had done, how had he been enjoying himself, and so on.
After a few minutes, I suggested that as the day ends the wind expires and the chance of him sailing back was small. I offered him a tow in the kayak, an offer he closed on promptly. I gave him some instructions on being towed: board half up, stay in my wake and so on and we shortly arrived at our bit of beach. Together we unrigged the boat and I suggested he come up to the relatives and say hi. Altogether, a great little adventure for the Nipper.
Sorry, I got rather distracted by that great memory. Fast forward to about 2018. There was a freshman fella in the Prout Sailing Team who was the proportions of a Finn sailor. He was OK in the 420s we sail, but it was hard to watch him negotiating his way around the boat. At the end of the season, I told him he could use my Laser for the summer and so we made that happen.
That fall, we were in Michigan and there were a number of hard weather days in Newport. The car/boat transporting logistics of his family dictated the moving of the boat back to me, including a stopover at the home of the woman, a coworker of the kid’s mum, who did have a Laser transporting setup. It is worth noting that said kid was so taken by sailing a Laser and was reportedly getting much better that his parents got him his own for an early Christmas present. He continues to improve in the 420s, too.
Well, as sea stories often go, this was the moment when the green Laser met its match. Stored on its dolly in the backyard of co-worker’s house, a tree blew down during one of the fall storms, landing right across the jolly green Laser and basically breaking it in two.
The poor kid’s mum called me in shock, all apologetic and so on as one would be. She threatened to buy me a new Laser, a proposition out of consideration from my point of view. I said, “Hang on a minute. All we need is a hull. Let me see what I can find.” A few minutes on Newport’s Laser Fleet 413 classified site brought up a Laser for sale in Maine for $1,000. It was sailing’s version of having been driven to church by a little old lady. The gent who owned it had bought it in 1980 and sailed it on a lake near his home. It was for sale because he could it manage no more. I told him the tale of the demise of mine, and he was suitably sad, yet slightly amused – who would not be? – at the story. I have a sailing mate who lives nearby, and I asked if he could go and take a look at it. I told him the situation and he chuckled and said, “Sure. Give me a day or two.” I called the owner and told him, and called the mum told her. Her response was, “Where do I send a check?” “Well, let’s see what this thing looks like first,” I replied. All this worked out simply fine. The hull was sound although the rigging was ready for the Smithsonian, and it seemed perfectly fine for this situation and my use. Accordingly, I went up one day and picked it up. Mum had previously sent a check, and the dear gent was as pleasant as could be and happy the boat was going to a good home.
This past winter, my boat was back in racing harness, alas not with me. I managed to get four Padawan Learners sailing with Fleet 413 in Newport. One in my boat, two in the fleet-owned boats, and the Big Fella in his boat. One of the kids’ families ended up getting him a Laser, too. The sailor in my boat is home schooled. Her dad is a yacht captain, so the family goes off to where he is in the winter. So after January, my boat was available to me. The adventures I had in the last four races of the Fleet 413 season were what I was actually going to write about, but hey, a sea story is a sea story, right? I guess My Great Laser Adventure, 2021 version, will have to wait. Happy Summer. ■
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.