Well, The Vendée Globe has placed its podium people. Dear old Roi, Jean Le Cam, could not, sadly, break onto the august triple stair. Pip Hare continued to impress and cheer us all the way to, and inside, the Barn. What an effort, dragging a 20-year-old-boat, sans foils, on the financial equivalent of the smell of an oily rag, spending an afternoon hanging off the side of her boat replacing a rudder, and later dragging a busted sail weighing five times what she does, days before her finish. Talk about working up a thirst.
To, I imagine, everyone’s surprise – nay, incredulity – the American Magic America’s Cup Challenge came to a shuddering, crashing halt, their defeat at the hands of Luna Rossa notwithstanding. The end likely came at the time of the near sinking. The monumental effort required to get her back on the water and sailing was off the dial. Well off the dial.
Pip and Terry: A woman and a man, one solo and one with a team of a 140 or so. Ninety-five days alone, and twenty-five minutes per race. The efforts they both put out – both teams – are stories worthy of a Norse saga of their own. Each.
One sidebar to the final act of these particular two sagas is I do not now spend three hours a night looking at video re-runs of races and snippets of life at the edge of the world. I have reverted to my usual pre-slumber activity, reading.
Over the past Covid year, I have been reorganizing the basement, from the standard basement-like copy of the wreckage of the Chernobyl reactor into the new World Headquarters of Joe Cooper Sailing Corporation. In the process of this transformation into my own private Captain’s Quarters, penetrated only by those wishing to do laundry, I discovered I have over 60 linear feet of books on sailing and related maritime topics: Sails, boat building, surveying, rigging, histories, novels, and sea stories. A lifetime’s worth, literally. My first favorite, in the stories department, is the Swallow and Amazons series. The other favorites fall under the imprint of The Mariners Library.
This imprint encompasses a series of 48 books, serious sea stories, some might think Sagas, of some of the sailing world’s original great voyages and adventures. Certainly, Slocum, but also Humphrey Barton, who with his mate, a laconic Irish cop, formerly of the Colonial Police in India, sailed Vertue 35, a wooden pocket cruiser, from Lymington to New York. Think carvel planking, wooden mast and cotton sails, natural fiber cordage, NO raft, GPS, VHF, flares, radar, watermaker, non-human steering, sat phone, yada, yada, yada. And surviving a hurricane in the Stream to boot. This easy to read and educational book oozes lessons for today’s sailor, 70-some years on.
Once is Enough, the account of the Smeeton family’s pitchpoling and seriously busted (wooden) boat in the Southern Ocean, and their recovery. Sopranino, by Patrick Elham and Colin Mudie, formerly a draftsman at Giles’ office, is the tale of an original transatlantic passage aboard what amounts to a prototype Mini 6.50: a 19-foot, decked-over lapstrake skiff. Racundra’s First Cruise, by Arthur Ransome, tells of his exasperation at delays in getting his once-in-a-lifetime dream cruising boat: “I’ll never build again,” he says in the book while grumbling about the six-odd month delay in getting his new boat afloat. His great adventure includes a classic example of a key tenet of seamanship: “When in danger or in doubt, turn around and head on out.” Clearly demonstrated when, in hard weather, after sunset and approaching an inlet, un-lit and dark, and with a damaged spar and so impaired maneuverability, he decides to turn around, go back out to sea and heave to until dawn.
The Last Grain Race, chronicling the adventures of a young Eric Newby as an 18-year-old apprentice seaman aboard the last sailing ship carrying grain from Australia to the UK. 1,700 miles in Open Boats, an account, by the master, of a survival voyage in two ship’s lifeboats, after the merchant ship aboard which they were carried, sank in the Indian Ocean. And a good read into the business of managing a crew in such circumstances.
The Fight of the Fire Crest, The Southseasman, The Falcon on the Baltic, Deep Water and Shoal, The Riddle of the Sands. Just the titles alone are enough to get the blood of the innocent 13-year-old, dreaming of sailing adventures in exotic locales, bubbling along.
It is perfectly normal for me to have three or four books on the go at one time. After the demise of my evening video watching, the current reads are two books set in the Baltic, though in the case of The Riddle of the Sands the scene shortly moves to the shoal-riven sand and mud flats off the coast of northwest Holland and Germany, circa 1903.
The Riddles protagonist is Davies, owner and master of a 30-foot converted ship’s lifeboat, Dulcibella. She is at first disdained by Davies’ mate, Carruthers. He, the promising young chap at the Foreign Office, is lured by Davies to the Baltic with a plea for crew embellished with tantalizing offerings of “yachting,” glorious scenery, and shooting. Well, in a classic case of “plans rarely survive contact with the enemy,” Carruthers finds himself biting his tongue after arriving at the grey and drab Dulcibella, far removed from the image in his mind’s eye. Carruthers is finally persuaded to leave the placid Baltic and return to the North Sea by Davie’s quite outlandish proposition that he, Davies, was intentionally lured into a situation where he would be shipwrecked and, in theory, certainly die. The villain had underestimated Davies, who by instinct, pre-planning, and basic seamanship, managed to avoid a turbulent death. The rest of the tale plays out in a wonderful picture, painting a plot worthy of LeCarre in terms of the people, personalities, and exploits.
E. F. Knight, on the other hand, sails his converted ship’s lifeboat, complete with persistent and impossible to find, for half the book, small leak, rendering the interior a seriously wet blanket moist, across the English Channel through the very thin water of the Dutch canal system, the Zuider Zee and into the Baltic. Neither of these admittedly small boats had engines. Though I grant you Knight takes a tow through the worst of the canals astern of a tug whose skipper shows many of the worst characteristics of low tide water life, yet when the time comes, he steps up. I could almost identify him in a police line-up, so clearly is he painted in Knight’s description of his adventures with this character.
Of course, both these two books, in fact the entire 48 volumes, were written in another time, preceding everything we take for granted on our boats today, yet they are full of lessons and thinking we can use in our sailing adventures.
In late September 1995, I was returning to Mystic, CT from several hundred miles towards France, having realized that my level of preparation for my Mini Transat campaign was considerably in arrears of my bravado. I was approaching the eastern side of Block Island after midnight. Beating in a moderate nor’wester, on a dark night and very thin on sleep, I could not for the life if me find anything like a light on Block Island. The further in I sailed, measured by the bearing of the lights of the Newport Bridge, the less confident I was about just exactly where I was, more particularly where Block was. In the end, Arthur Ransome’s decision on that night aboard Racundra washed into my straining brain, and after contemplating the risk-reward of my actions in the next few minutes, I pulled the sails down and just sat for a minute.
There was an element of sense perception involved too, over and above simply staring into the dark. I often try and smell the air around me, as well as listening, and invariably those two extra sense inputs play a role. There was the impression I sensed land, perhaps felt it, certainly smelled it. Turns out I was closer in shore and further north than I reckoned and so staring at the unlit and largely unpopulated, and certainly, at 0300 the unlit eastern shore bluffs north of the Old Harbor. It was perfectly possible that, had I kept sailing for another few minutes, I would have found Block Island in no uncertain terms.
On the one hand, I was cranky at myself for not really knowing where I was. Remember, as some kind of lame excuse, it was 1995 and I had a simple Motorola handheld GPS of generous proportions and a compass, log (both the meter and the written one) and a Windex. The sextant (mandatory for the Transat) was below. Sailing up along the track from Davis Shoal Light, I had taken a couple of bearings along the way and had a rough idea of where I was, the lights on the dear old Newport Bridge being like the glow behind the curtains in the upstairs bedroom window when you arrive home after a late-finishing Vineyard Race.
Then again, I was smiling for half an hour at the execution of such a simple lesson picked up from Ransome and frankly the lessons from my Dad, who had of course read Ransome himself and likely taught me the heave to concept before I read it for myself.
Such adventures are minor in the scheme of sailing, and do not remotely stand up to the Sagas of Hutch and Pip. But as a wise mate of mine once remarked, as we were in the midst of another bun fight somewhere, “Well mate, ya gotta bake yer own adventures.” Indeed. ■
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.