By Joe Cooper

The word “last,” or phrases including that word (i.e. “came last,” “was last,” “is last”) has, in our society today, a three-kilo bucket of negative connotations hung around its rudder. Anyone being tarred with such a sobriquet likely wants to shrink from view faster than a foiling SailGP 50 passes another in displacement mode. The psychologists amongst us might debate that this negativity is behind the “every kid gets a prize” at T-ball games for 5-year-olds. That is probably OK for a while, but the reality is our society is geared around winners and losers.

One of the more interesting books I have read is one of Malcolm Gladwell’s, a great yarn on just how much work “successful” people put into their success. The book, Outliers, proposes that successful people put in an average of 10,000 hours before they become successful. (I was crushed to read just now while searching for the name of the book that Gladwell is being sniffed at for such a proposition. Bloody internet…) Anyway, in the world of sailing consider this list of winners: Jörg Bruder, Sir Ben Ainslie, Paul Elvstrøm, John Bertrand (both of them), Cam Lewis, Peter Barrett, Sir Russell Coutts, Andrey Balashov, Valentyn Mankin, Serge Maury and many more – Finn sailors all, in case you were wondering where this list came from. You know they did not start winning medals their first day on the water, or likely the first week, month or year. I think about this proposition of “last” pretty regularly, particularly around high school sailing.

There are four high schools sailing from Sail Newport in the spring season, and several years ago Kate Wilson (see the J/22 Kaper pieces at started something called Friday Night Lights. The four of us (The Prout School, Newport High School, Middletown High School and Portsmouth High School) host a regatta and invite other schools from around the Rhode Island league to come and play. It is a “demonstration” regatta – scores account for nada in the big scheme of high school racing. We do keep scores, mainly as practice for the adults when we run proper regattas that do count. But, as is the nature of the game, some kids win and some come last.

I run the on-the-water part as principal race officer and seem to have become something of a senior ranking member; the one people come to for info or help. In any event, I announce the finishes from last to first. There is an A fleet, a B fleet and an overall winner, so I get to go through the schools three times. The success, or lack thereof, in high school sailing is a function of many things: helpful adults, capable coaches, interest from the schools’ administration, and skills of the schools’ sailors are but a few variables, so the actual placings of each school/team is driven by a lot more than just the skills of each individual sailor or pair.

I have developed the habit of making reference to this idea of society’s view of last: accessibility to support, the number of hours involved to get good and so on, and one aspect in particular that I find helpful for all the kids not winning.

In order to be FIRST, there must be at least one other competitor. As a few hundred sailors over the years have found out, one can be second, but it does you not much good when the regatta is the America’s Cup. If the guys who came last did not come, then the second-to-last guys would be last. They find this a drag and so don’t come next time, and so on. Pretty soon there is no regatta, so no one is last. On the other hand, no one wins either, so it’s all a bit of a bust. It is therefore essential that someone come last.

I point out to high school sailors that “last” is not the end of the world, and touch on the thoughts covered in the preceding couple of sentences. I mention the list above plus names more readily known to teenagers – Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are two I use (they are used as examples in Outliers)

I don’t want to fall into the “trophies-for-all” T ball chasm, but I want the last-placed kids to know that their involvement is important, and simply by being here, they will improve. All this is me addressing the assembled throng, usually while standing on one of the picnic tables adjacent to the Robin Wallace Youth Building at Sail Newport, adopting my best imitation of a Roman senator in the fullness of his oration to the senate.

I purposely find out where the kids from the last-placed team are in the throng. Mostly the schools stay for the announcements, and I try to engage the sailors and acknowledge their coaches and the effort. If you can believe it, high school sailing is not a recognized sport within the Rhode Island high school leagues administration, so we are all on our own. This of course impacts the schools with less of a sailing base in many ways. Providing boats, a venue, decent coaches, and transport from Providence to Sail Newport is a push for many schools. Then there’s sailing gear: more than one school has a communal bin for sailing kit, new drysuits being $500 a pop. So simply showing up is in itself a challenge for a lot of kids and schools.

I am perfectly happy discussing the proposition of “last” with the kids in this fashion. Sailing teaches us all so many lessons, good, bad and ugly, and coming last once in a while is just one of them.

Oddly enough, I have a very recent experience with coming last, and all the foregoing not withstanding I cannot recall the last time I was last in a sailboat race. Given it was Newport and with my experiences in 12 Metres in the America’s Cup, I was part of the Defender/Warrior Sailing crew who finished seventh out of eight. We take the last because the eighth-place boat was never anywhere near in the hunt.

Turns out a mate of mine from California picked up the canceled charter of Defender (12 US 33), and continued with supporting the Warrior Sailing group out of the USMMA Sailing Foundation in Kings Point, New York. In very short order, he corralled a motley selection of sailors and made a decent crew out of all in about five hours…a long way from Gladwell’s 10,000.

Out of the 13 people we sailed the 12 Metre World Championship with (versus 11 in the ‘Ole Days’), five of us had sailed 12 Metres in the America’s Cup including one who had sailed on Defender in 1983. Half of the rest had sailed 12 Metres before, mostly on Courageous, and as a crash team we did pretty well on the boat. Our first gybe set was actually in anger, in a race, and was textbook. It is really helpful to have great guys on the bow – this is you, Stevo!

But one cannot simply H.A.L.O. into a regatta, especially one at this level, and in such complex and temperamental boats and expect to be in the hunt all that much. Just developing the harmony of steering and trimming one of these leadmines is a showcase for the 10,000 hours proposed postulated by Mr. Gladwell.

But, like our last place high school sailors, we got better and better with each race. The last few races we were in the hunt at the first mark most of the time, but “complexity of boat” does not apply just to upwind. Sailing a 12 Metre off the wind is a delicate balance of a zillion elements that, without the tiller time, is hard to get really good at.

So, odd as it may seem, your humble correspondent once again defies his fans and finishes last, in a World Championships of all things. But all the other aspects of why we go sailing were on hand in abundance. Goofy gags, great teamwork, a bunch of new mates…I think I had everyone’s name down by the evening of the final party.

I guess we all go sailboat racing for some purpose. I am at the point where I am not so worried about the boat – a 12 Metre looks lovely, but as a sailing boat it’s like trying to take a fully loaded 18-wheeler around the Formula 1 circuit at Monaco. Rather, I enjoy all the other elements of the sailboat racing milieu. But the really best part is I now have a few more elements to add into my oration for the Friday Night Lights next season. ■

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, son, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

Next Article