Not necessarily because I come from a family of scribes, though it cannot hurt, I have been musing on writing a book. For some time in fact. One wise wag once remarked, “If you’re going to be silly enough to want to write a book, write about what you know.” Following that wisdom narrows my content field dramatically. Astrophysics is out, though my uncle was just that. Economics? Nah.

I’ll write about Sailing. The boats, the adventures, the kapers, the voyages, the places, the delights, setbacks, fear, jubilation, the characters. The lessons: In any field of inquiry you care to name – almost any science, economics, psychology – the list of things one needs to know, or learns by doing when having a life like mine, is vast. Literally global in scope.

“A Life in Boats” has already been taken by Waldo Howland. I have been thinking on something like “Sailing Lessons: What I have learned in a lifetime in the game,” or something similar.

We are all admonished in our lives, particularly our working lives, to be more productive. I fully subscribe to this principle and so this month’s column is doubling as the beginnings (today) of THE BOOK. Some of the following may sound familiar. It is. I’ve written chunks of it in columns prior. Think of it as recycling.

Let me know what you think. Personally, I’m not sure the literary community is ready for another sailing autobiography…probably as handy as a busted staysail tack fitting in a Nor’easter in the Gulf Stream. But lack of demand has likely never stopped any sailor from doing what they want to do. But if I get a massive Thumbs Down, it’ll save us all a lot of wasted time and energy. So, here begins the opening (for now) part of THE BOOK

I am in my 70th year as I write this. After leaving school, age 15, of those remaining fifty-five years all but five have been in the sailboat game. I did four years in TV stations and a year on Wall Street. Otherwise, my entire adult life has been spent around boats. The full Water Rat: In, on, under, or up (the masts) on sailing boats. I’m not certain that was ever planned. I cannot remember a time when I said (to myself, or even out loud), “I am going to work around boats.” I remember a time when I did have a positive life goal. But it was not sailing, though it has merged a bit. And I’ll get to that.

Anyway, I did end up sailing a lot, across a lot of different disciplines, and close to everything I’ve ever learned I learned in connection with boats. For the past fifteen or so years I’ve been coaching a high school sailing team. Every once in a while, there’s a spike in the discussion where a kid makes a grumbling remark about school. I inquire as to the cause of their distress. Regardless of what this is, I let it play out and then remark along the lines of, “School is overrated.” I continue: “Everything I’ve ever learned I learned after I left school.” Of course, this is close to blasphemy in modern western society. The stunned mullet looks deepen when I tell them this was age 15. Sometimes I add, “That’s such a young age for leaving school.” (Most of the kids on the team are just 15 or older). I remark further, “It might be better if you don’t tell your parents.” I don’t want to be accused of leading a school rebellion. Unless I really have to.

An evening in King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia, circa 1967   © James Fitzpatrick

School was pretty normal in Australia in the mid-1960s. There was kindergarten, a 1-6 grade called primary school, then six years of high school. After four years, most of the kids would leave high school. Our prize for this was “The School Certificate,” assuming we passed the exams. I scraped by.

Only the brainy kids would withstand the remaining two years. This gave them the Higher School Certificate, possession of which was needed for entry to Uni, that of course being the Aussie contraction for University. Australians being Australians, will contract every word then can. The morning coffee break was known as smoko (Smoking was de rigeuer of course then). Afternoon, as in, “What are you doing this afternoon?” became “Watchya doin’ this arvo?” Football was Footy. Stevedores, the guys that worked on the wharves handling cargo by crane and hand, were Wharf’eez. Grammar and punctuation were another casualty of the English language as practiced in Australia when I was a kid.

On the other hand, it’s very likely there was some kind of sub conscious battle going on in my spirit between a sailing life and the theatre. This may well have been a mental battle between parents that my brain is only now recognizing. My father was an artist and loved boats. My mother was a writer and hated them. Perhaps sailing and writing is a tip of the hat to them both.

My earliest memories are of where we lived, a flat in Kings Cross. The Cross was a bohemian neighborhood a 20-minute bus ride up the hill and east of downtown Sydney, Australia. For quite a while after the end of the second world war, refugees were being shipped out of the dust and rubble of Europe all over the world: the US, what became Israel, South Africa, and Australia. For some reason, many of them ended up at the Cross.

When describing my growing up years to Americans, I paint the Cross as a mix of Times Square and Greenwich Village. Dope dealers and worse, Methadone clinics trying to help them out. Experimental theaters, small coffee shops with Peter, Paul & Mary or Dylan imitators. Or just hanging in the park, comin’ round the mountain, before a hard rain was gonna fall. Strip joints and related activities. European coffee shops with fantastic smells and no one speaking English, or even Australian. And no one cared.

Drop-in centers with coffee paid for in the honor basket, and big comfy lounges and chairs where the problems of the world were furiously debated and blame assigned, attributed to various reasons: politics, religion, colonialism, capitalism, personalities. Artists set up on the sidewalk painting the local scene. One street away from the main drag, Darlinghurst Road, was Victoria Street. Here were small, older Brooklyn-style brownstones, the houses of the former workers around the community. They were often painted in garish lilacs and oranges. The owners had been brought up in (or arrived into) the Beatnik, Hippie, Hare Krishna age. The painting reflected the post-war breakout revolution, and the individual colors made it easier than trying to find your house number when stumbling home after an afternoon at the pub. The pubs closed at I think 6 PM then. Many of these formerly elegant houses had been divided up into small flats and studios where the writers, artists and similar bohemians who made up the bulk of the population of the Cross would retire for the evening. Eventually.

The cops were unarmed, smiling and helpful, and knew everyone. Villains and not villains. A remarkable place to grow up.

My mother knew them all, one way or another. She was a cross between a politician (whom she loathed though she almost became one) and a concierge. She gathered friends and contacts like some kind of insatiable, sticky-armed, never full creature from an H.G. Wells novel, but all in a good way.

You know that feeling we get, that clenched fist, bent elbow retracted into our side, above the hips, the “Yessss!” when we do something well; when we’ve worked hard and got the job, award, run a marathon, or just the self-satisfaction of getting to where we’ve been trying to get for a while? I had a few of those as a kid. The first I can remember was in music class in 4th grade. I was playing the clarinet. The teacher asked us to blow and hold the note as long as we could. I remember blowing very gently and slowly and I outlasted the others by, well a lot. That was my first experience with Yessss.

I had a few more in school, mainly swimming events. I was pretty good and won a few patches. Embroidered fabric patches, about three inches square which we (out mothers) hand sewed to our track suits. My suits were always white. Mum said it was because that’s what champions wore. This was not really borne out by experience, but she must’ve had a good reason for buying or making track suits in white for a 10-year-old.

If there had been a Plato-like academy across the street from my Primary school, I might not have been so easily pulled (or fallen) into sailing, but there wasn’t. The space to the north was two playing fields, the long ways running across the landscape east to west and the short ways between the school, north and south. And Sydney Harbor. That was the beginning of it all. Well, not quite. Sailing with my dad when I was pretty small was the true beginning. But the location of Double Bay Primary School was merely trying to extinguish a small scrub fire with jet fuel. By that time the epoxy was starting to think about curing, the two parts having been poured and mixed several years before.

Occasionally someone asks me how long I’ve been sailing. “All my life,” sez I, closely followed by this qualification. I have a picture of me, a small black and white print. On the reverse is noted, in my father’s elegant artist’s cursive script, “Summer cruise 1957.” I was two and a half. The subject is me asleep on the air bed we used to lay on the floorboards of one of his early boats. I am dressed in corduroy trousers and I think a plaid shirt Mum would have made. Maybe a woolly hat, even though it was January. I am fast asleep. Off watch. OK, I wasn’t sailing, but I was on the boat as it was being sailed, when not asleep.

This particular boat was an open 16-foot skiff. Formerly a racing boat, he purchased it, took a few fangs out and made it into a great get-away for he and I. Think of the Jack Holt British Wayfarer dinghy, or perhaps in the US, a Thistle, with side decks, added buoyancy tanks fore and aft, a shorter mast, and a much shorter bowsprit. It was a centerboard boat, with a daggerboard, a gnarly old, galvanized steel number. Either side and fore and aft of the case were slatted floorboards running the length of the interior.

OK, gotta stop here. Out of wor… ■

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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