By Joe Cooper
Published in 1979, Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff chronicles the search for, training of and finally launching of, the first U.S. astronauts. One of the core themes is that among the post-World War II test pilots who “pushed the outside of the envelope” to be the first to break the sound barrier, one either had this mythical Right Stuff or, especially after “augering in,” did not. Projected onto the first seven Mercury astronauts was this idea that they had the Right Stuff. And frankly, I reckon you would need all the stuff you could get (even if it was not completely 100% right) to sit on top of one of those rockets.
The underlying theme is that here you were about to embark on something you had never done before, never mind that only a Russian and a couple of monkeys and a dog had, circled the globe, in space, in a tiny little tin can that, rather than entering, you put on, tightly, rather like a slicker that’s two sizes too small.
Such a theme is one I contemplate myself, across many arenas. What does it take to go so far outside of yourself? One hears the phrase, “Life begins outside your comfort zone” every once and a while, so just how far outside are you willing to put yourself? In a position where you don’t really know what’s going to happen and the best scenario is you will merely live.
Sometime in the early 1980s someone made a film of The Right Stuff, and it is a good watch. There is a scene that continually captures my sense of “Oh boy, we are in for it now.” We see the Mercury astronauts on the gantry that connects the lift to the staging platform, dock-like, used when they enter the capsule. They are all kitted up in their aluminum foil-like spacesuits and wearing what look to be prototype Bell full-face bike helmets. It’s a wide-ish shot, with the guys walking abreast carrying their astronaut briefcases, aka oxygen tanks, and seems to be slightly slowed up. It is a short (several seconds maybe) but powerful scene, to me anyway.
I imagine the first guy, perhaps even then a primate, pushing off on a log to get across the river, away from that cave bear looking in the cupboard for lunch. “Oh boy,” primate thinks, “I have never done this before, but then again, I don’t want to be the entrée.” No matter how much you train for something, being the first to do it (the primate, Norse explorers, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Neil Armstrong, or the first time you ride yer bike with no training wheels) is a special, tense moment. I was reminded of all this during the first few days of high school sailing at Sail Newport.
It must have been the first Friday Night Lights; the occasional regatta we four schools sailing from Sail Newport hold and invite the other schools in the Rhode Island league to come over and fleet race.
It is a casual and open affair, usually staged off Admirals Pier. The cranes on this pier are a good visual waypoint for new schools, coaches, students and parents to get to the action quickly, and they can watch the races pretty up close and personal. A couple of the Prout parents have some swish camera kit and are not backward about using it. One of them took a picture that reminds me of that scene from the movie.
The Prout Stuff Preparing to push the envelope at Friday Night Lights at Sail Newport are freshmen Crusaders (l – r) Noah Harris, Will Ryan, Noah DeSantis and Logan Murphy.
It too is a wide shot, with four young sailors walking abreast, just like the movie, towards the camera, down to the docks. They are ready for launch, wearing the standard high school sailor business attire, i.e. Gill drysuits (three red and one black), life jackets, and Prout pinnies over all. There are three versions of looks: one is a dry, wry smile, from our newest “does not say boo, but never misses anything” fella; one is exuberant and laughing; one is “just” smiling; and one is head down in contemplation of the next couple of hours. Freshmen, all with skills ranging from a bit to a bit more. All have potential.
I muse on the unknown future these new sailors must contemplate. So much new information, experiences, words, noises, motions, things happening on multiple planes. Trying to figure out what I am saying, what it means, and the meaning of those funny words I occasionally use. Head-spinning stuff, I think. How to manage all these new inputs? Heck, learning to sail is hard enough for adults with more or less stabilized three-axis gyros and fully functioning synapses. For teenagers, some young ones with brain wiring still kicking off, the inputs must be dazzling.
Over ten years of doing this, there has never been one Prout student that has not risen to the challenge. Granted, it’s not going up in one of Wolfe’s “hurtling pieces of machinery,” but stress is relative. New clothes, for instance. Ever worn a drysuit? Wrestled with the zipper? I hope it is in the front, unlike mine, which is across the top of the shoulders and requires a mate to operate. And there is the abrasion at the neck, even with the neoprene cuffs.
Add hiking boots, life jacket, Prout pinnies (I require them to wear their pinnies at practice. Practice like you play, I say and the pinnies, being largely white, make it easier for me to see them. I wear one too for the same reasons…plus pride in being a part of their team), often a fleecy hat or ear warmer, sometimes gloves of varying shades of waterproofness and warmth and, except for the helmets and oxygen tanks, they are ready to walk across the gantry and settle in.
The gantry is of course the ramp down to the docks, so even that exists. The capsule, the 420, is likely not much bigger overall than the Mercury bean-cans that Glenn, Cooper, Grissom and the rest went up in, and for the novice teenage sailor, likely as complex. Strings all over the place, new and variously shaped metal and plastic fittings, sails, spars, the occasionally bonking on the nut (making that Bell helmet look like not such a bad idea), the noise, the instability. And THEN you push off the dock and the capsule is moving. Granted their launch is somewhat less dramatic, at least for the watchers and skilled amongst us, but I’d wager if we had the Padawans wired up to biometrics, it would be a different tale.
It is my habit to have the novices get into a boat and be sailing at the earliest opportunity. Not infrequently, I will have one of the skilled sailors rig up and leave the dock with a novice in the boat so that said novice can get some flight time. About 15 or 20 minutes is a good first chunk of “OMG.” I recall that was about the duration of the first Mercury flights: enough time to get to the edge of the atmosphere and see what real weightlessness was like. Then back to the dock for de-briefing, or more often, into the RIB and more stream of conscience talking from me.
I have an advantage over the burghers of NASA in that I can see the faces of my pioneers. Facial expressions tell a lot. Except that almost universally when the Padawans return to the mothership, they are smiling. The answers to the “Well, how was THAT?” question are equally universally positive words, indicating (rubbing hands in glee) we have hooked another one.
Other scenes in The Right Stuff show the Mercury Seven smiling, waving, (high-fiving had not yet been invented) and generally wallowing in the fact that once again they’d proven to have The Right Stuff. It is probably a stretch to suggest they are the same, but I sometimes think of the smiles of those intrepid space voyagers when I see the smiles of the Prout Padawans after their initial 20 minutes at the edge of the atmosphere. Maybe there is something to the idea that life begins outside your comfort zone. ■
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, college senior son, dog and several, mainly small, boats