It’s quite possible this month’s column on boat captains is going to be of more interest to the high school sailors in the readership than boat owners, although both play a part. The topic is The Boat Captain, and more specifically how does one become a member of this august community? Much like one floats to the top of any game, it ain’t rocket science. Simply showing up on time with a plan, knowing enough, even if it’s just enough to get by, being able to talk to a hugely wide range of people, and a fair amount of sheer dumb luck, as Professor McGonigal remarks.

Wherefore this column? One of my Prout Padawans is very much of a mind to break into Big Time Sailing. When I find such an inspired Padawan with that fire in the eye, I try and give them the benefit of my experience, the gazillion things I have picked up in the best work in the world: hanging around boatyards and going sailing.

I cast the remains of my mind back through the years to determine THAT point when I took on my first Boat Captain Job, and the skills I had acquired prior to that, sufficient to get me that first job. Well, by all means jump in at the deep end. My first real, live, paying proper money Boat Captain Job was as the Capt. of the 12 Metre Australia (NOT one, just Australia). How did I get the requisite skills to be placed in charge of a million dollars’ worth of a country’s national aspiration to beat the yanks?

Remember, there is no school for Boat Captains, though possibly Oakcliff is the closest thing that may be called such. I have no engineering degree, as many of the French solo sailors do. In fact, I don’t have a Uni degree, period. I am self-taught…and there was nothing remotely like Oakcliff in Australia in 1979. There were a lot of apprenticeships in the trades when I left high school in the early 1970s. Four- or five-year programs, like IYRS on steroids. This is one reason why so many of the Whitbread/Volvo/The Ocean Race crews are Kiwis and Aussies. They can all do several other things apart from being great sailors.

What was my background that got me the nod? The two most likely starters would be having been part of a competing (against Bondy’s boat) challenge in 1977. Sailing aboard Gretel II, with the seemingly ageless Gordon Ingate, I was merely a member of the crew, for God, Queen (oops, King) and Country-style AC sailing.

As it happened, a mate of mine, another handy Laser sailor, had been hired as the “paid hand” as he was called by this lot. Geoff was a boatyard baby. His dad was in the aristocracy of one of the yacht clubs on the north shore of Sydney and Geoff grew up around wooden boats, vanish and manila line. He had all manner of skills I didn’t even know existed. He could pull down a winch and get it back together again with the pawl springs the right way around. He could use a drill press, a grease gun, splice (well, three-strand), a whole long list of things so far removed from Laser sailing and surfing as to be in another dimension.

Prior to being asked by Ingate, known universally to all and sundry as Wingnut, (an’ at about 95 he is still going strong), I had been a good and coming Finn sailor. Before that, I had worked for Elvstrøm Sails in Sydney as more or less a grunt. Sewing and doing handwork, most definitely NOT designing sails. Before that, I worked as a stagehand for a couple of Sydney TV stations. Before that, oh, I was in high school. I did take Tech Drawing and manual arts, woodwork and metal work, but tame stuff compared to the custom designed and built grinding system on Gretel II. I think I just managed to complete my little box for holding pencils in woodworking. This introduction to Wingy and the GII mob was likely assisted by being 21 and a skilled Finn sailor, but mainly by being massively fit. Resting heart rate in the 40s fit.

Probably the one thing I had going for me in the manual skills department was my dad. Trained as an artist, falling out with his father who wanted him to have a Proper Job, Dad ended up as what today would be called an industrial designer. He could draw the most fantastic sketches of what a radiogram ought to look like as envisioned by the marketing types, then convert it to a working drawing for the production guys. Most of this rubbed off on me but fell to the floor. But some of it stuck. To this day I still draw arrows in my sketches the way he did, or I try to.

I have in my AC 80 diaries a couple of pages he wrote/drew for me on the various terms used when making things. And the types of drawings the guy making the part would want. They are every bit as succinct and clear as the “proper” drawings Bob Miller/Ben Lexcen drew for making high load, lightweight ball bearing blocks we had fabricated for Australia. All the fittings on Australia were custom made from 17-4ph heat-treated metal. I learned a lot from Bob too, for everything in the rigging of
Australia was custom made. When Harken came out with 17-4ph heat-treated metal in their blocks, I knew exactly what it was.

Dad also had a bag full of tools. Hand tools. I still have some of them. Chisels for instance. He had an eggbeater drill, wrenches, fixed and adjustable, several saws, a coping saw, a jig saw, tenon saw and so on. And a vise. “Always have a way to hold the job,” he would remark as he broke out the vise to secure some seemingly insignificant piece he was going to work on. We did not have a car, so nothing mechanical. I am a bit iffy on mechanical things, but I have a portable vise.

All of these things played a part in my education. University or trade school did not. (Yeah I know, different times) Working for Elvstrøm’s taught me how to measure things. Measure things, you think? One of the biggest failings in high school kids looking for summer jobs, I was told a few years ago by a rigging firm in RI, was their inability to accurately measure the length of a line drawn on a piece of paper.

The obvious takeaway here is The Boat Captain is molded from his or her background. Gee, what a surprise. A larger dichotomy is the metamorphosis from Boat Captain to professional sailor. I know a couple of women who have done their time working on race boats, doing deliveries and generally learning everything they can about sailing boats and high-performance boats in particular. It is ALL on-the-job training.

In my case, I had three iterations of getting the boat under my care onto a ship to go somewhere else. Australia to the U.S. A 42-foot race boat named High Roler (with one L) from Brooklyn to Genoa for the Sardinia Cup years ago, and a 65-foot fast cruising boat from Auckland to Philadelphia about twenty years ago. Thinking about the circumstances of having a 65-foot yacht on the deck of a 750-foot cargo ship…this was before Sevenstar. Where will it go on the ship? How will it get to the ship? How will the cradle be held down? How will the mast get there and where will it go on the ship? All these questions and more are born in the process of sailing the boat and being around boats.

In the case of moving Australia from her Sydney docks to the ship, there was a set-up where some bolts went through the keel and using steel cables she was lashed to the cradle. Rather than screw around with doing this on the ship, I put the boat in its cradle set up, with the bolts and cable installed and towed the entire lot (very slowly) to the ship where it was lifted onto the ship, cradle and all. It took longer at the front end but was easier once at the ship. Except for moving the boat from Freo to Sydney, which was easy coz it went on a navy ship, and I had little to do with any of it other than stand by, the second move in Sydney going as the first time I had done something like that.

With the 42-footer to Italy we took the masts down. Rather than lash up all the standing rigging against the mast tube as is all too common, dinging the rigging and scratching the paint, I removed all the rods and cleaned them including under the cold heads. To transport the rods, they needed to be rolled up in fairly large circles, five or six feet in diameter. I learned from Bob not to put tape on the rods on Australia. One needed to then clean all the adhesive off the rods, (which were not rods on Australia but flat, so-called lenticular rigging (for low[er] drag). I had a spool of light line and I lashed all the rods together. I put rags over the turnbuckles and the cold heads to protect them during handling and lashed the whole lot to the foredeck of the boat.

When we unloaded in Genoa, I simply cut the lashings, and so was the first Boat Captain to have his boat ready to have the mast stepped. Then came the next skill a Boat Captain needs to develop. I had taught myself enough Italian on the ship during the passage that I was able to speak to the head of the stevedore crew in Italian, pretty rough I admit, but the fact I gave it a go, I had cared enough about his country to learn some of the language, also got me a smile and the pleasure of being the first rig into one of four boats.

So, what’s it take to be a Boat Captain? Mainly asking lots of questions and learning as much as you can about everything you can and thinking three steps ahead of the game. Just like sailing. ■

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. 

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