I usually have a decent idea of what I want to talk about here, a couple weeks before putting bytes to silicon. This month’s column was intended to be on the memories we get from our sailing. This is, after all, the biggest and most important takeaway from our sailing adventures. But then there was Pen Duick losing a hand overboard nano-seconds after starting the last leg of the Ocean Global Race, aka Whitbread Redux. This was just about the time another boat T-boned a mark at the mouth of the estuary out of Punta del Este.

Then of course there was Cole, singlehandedly lighting up the US and global media about how women can sail around the world without glaring at the video cameras and complaining about the conditions. In her case, conditions were enough to bump more than half of the Global Solo Challenge fleet out of the game. Two broken rigs, two abandonments, failed autopilots (gee), broken rigging, steering, and a couple folks who realized they were not up to the rigors such a passage inflicts on mere mortals. Wise decisions all around.

Of the six Frenchman who set off in January from Brest to lap the Marble in the Arkea Ultim Challenge-Brest, five were sailing foilers. Trying to not state the obvious, flying around the world, either on foils or not, things sticking out the bottom of the boat are at, increasingly it seems, hazard of running into something denser than sea water. One boat had to withdraw to Cape Town with hull damage where the foil case and related articulating structure lived.

A couple of others banged up their rudders and the foils themselves. The eventual winner, Charles Caudrelier, parked up in the Azores for a couple of days to let an ugly depression blow by. Putting paid to the notion of solo sailors – French in particular – being crazy, this career Merchant Marine ship captain and top offshore sailor (Figaro, TJV, and two Volvo Ocean Race wins) showed canny, and sound seamanship in seeking shelter. He arrived in Brest eight days outside the present solo speed record of 42-odd days and a couple of days outside his 50th birthday. He was happy to be back because he had told his kids he would be back for their school break and they were going windsurfing. Memories indeed.

Back here on Earth, even at the upper end of the US sailing world, the memories are the takeaway. Except maybe for the kit, the T shirt(s). Like many of my contemporaries, in age and events, most of my clothing comes from boats and regattas I’ve been involved with. Merely pulling out a shirt from say the 1993 Bermuda 1-2 brings me back to that race. Sailing doublehanded back from Bermuda with a delightful guy named Ed Jenks, the shirt brings my mind back to a photograph I have from that race depicting moi steering, in obviously fresh conditions, clad in yellow slickers and harnessed in with lovely blue sky above and gnarly sea state around us, sailing with probably two reefs and a poled-out headsail partially rolled up. Pushing what we thought was at an OK level, it turns out we won class and fleet on that return leg. I still have the pickle dish, a plaque actually.

Somewhat softer are the sweaters (jumpers in the language of the Commonwealth.) I still have (at least) three from the 1977 and ‘80 America’s Cups, and a couple of sweatshirts and a particularly lovely Guernsey from Guernsey, dark blue with Endeavour embroidered in white across the front. The word is slightly curved up in the middle, like a frown emoji, just the way you see them in the pictures of the J-Class in the 1930s. That’s J-Class, by the way. J-Boats are the boats designed by the Johnstones (Congratulations, Bob). J K4 is embroidered underneath the apex of the curve. It is such a lovely piece of apparel; I remember not wearing it much on the yacht. I did not want it to get wet.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning the late George Coumantaros, owner and master of a string of yachts named Boomerang. A prominent sailmaker was attending Mr. Coumantaros’ (I never heard anyone refer to him as George – it was always Mr. Coumantaros) office in Manhattan one day discussing the sails for next season. One wall was all shelves jam-packed with trophies. Several years later, towards the end of Mr. Coumantaros’ sailing career, the same sailmaker was in the same office. The shelves had gone, replaced by maybe pictures. There was a largish mass of metal on small side table. Sailmaker remarked on the missing trophies. Mr. Coumantaros allegedly remarked on the mass of metal, describing it as “a very expensive piece of pewter sculpture.” As the tale goes, he had the trophies melted down so there was more room for pictures. Maybe of his family. Very possibly there are some readers, of a certain age, who will have a better version of this tale.

Not all memories are pictures or nice jumpers. Likely, many are memories. The first time you got to steer the Blue Jay in a race, or even around the basin. Or maybe the family Dyer Dhow around the cove as an ambitious 6-year-old. Sort of listening to Dad’s admonition to be careful, you pushed off from the mothership, bore away and sailed away on the first of many hundreds, nay, thousands of miles across many bodies of water, even oceans, fascinated by the feel of the tiller, the caressing of air across the back of your neck. Exhilarated by the sensation of being in charge for real, no one telling you to do this that or the other thing. Visions of Piracy or swashbuckling adventures of discovery floating haze-like over your line of sight of the weather gunnel at the bow. Or the first time you goofed and (fill in the blanks).

I can remember my first big goof; written about here before I think. Running my dad’s plywood boat into the corner of a plank on a dock, puncturing the outside layers of the plywood near the gunnel at the port bow. The incident is powerful in my RAM due not only to the incident and the Holy Expletive moment and fear of the bollicking I expected, but mainly for the matter of fact fashion with which my dad dealt with it. No muss no fuss, he inquired about how it happened, what I was doing, the weather conditions, what I thought I had done wrong, and how I might avoid such a situation in the future.

I am not sure The Prout School Sailing Team would agree, but I try to bring the same calmness and thoughtfulness to the incidents the kids I coach get into. T-boning the dock on a flawed downwind approach at the end of practice, for instance. There is good reason to have foam fenders glued to the bows of 420s.

At the other end of the mental memory spectrum is the first time I sailed on Gretel 2. I had been invited to “come for a sail” on G-2 in January 1977. I had met Gordon Ingate (presently still sailing at about 97 years old and having won the Dragon Gold Cup (Worlds) just a few years ago, north of his 90th birthday) a few times around the waterfront, and his successes and character were well known around town. And I had been crewing for his daughter on the family Tempest in the local winter racing in late 1976.

I showed up at the dock at the appointed time. The 12 was on a mooring. We were taken out in a launch and seven or eight of us scrambled aboard. There were some aboard already including the boat Captain, a fellow Laser sailor.

I was tasked with being a grinder. What else would you assign a 6’4” 20-year-old top Finn sailor, with only one Hobart to his credit, to do? The rest of the crew probably had 60-80 Hobarts between them, this being the post-war heyday of having guys familiar with heavy gear, wire sheets and guys and big loads involved with the America’s Cup yachts. Bicycles were used only for getting to The Candy Store and back.

We hoisted the main and cast off the mooring. The foredeck crew sorted out a headsail. The other grinder, an affable banker and rugby player, (ah, the glory days) John Friedman, showed me the technical details of changing gears on the custom-built grinder set up.

We reached to the east, under the Harbor Bridge and over towards the Opera House. A few minutes or so of pleasant reaching along, chuffed at being on a 12 Metre, I was watching the goings-on at the bow as the guys set up for a kite and listening to the conversations of the afterguard.

Soon enough we came on the wind, and I had my first taste of grinding. It was actually not “so bad.” We settled into upwind in about 12-14 knots or so of true wind. Watching and listening, I was a bit tense but had not run into anything that was way out of my league as yet. Yet…

Eventually the ready about order came up. John set the grinder gearing for tacking and the new tack. Grind in slowly as the boat came head to wind. I was NOT prepared for the racket galvanized wire made on stainless steel drums. The screeching from the wire on the drums made verbal commands impossible to comprehend. I watched John for instruction.

The (Dacron) headsail started to luff, and fall into the centerline as the boat came head to wind. We had merely been ticking over with the grinders, as the new side tailer was able to take in the slack pretty easily. Then all hell broke loose. The noise from the flogging sails and wire sheets banging the spar was deafening, and then…

We were tacking from port to starboard. I was on the starboard pedestal when I felt a thwack on my outboard shoulder. Halfway between the top of my left shoulder and elbow. To this day I don’t know how I reacted, but I guess I must have known it was a wire headsail sheet, from the oncoming side. The tailer had gotten crossed up somehow and the sheets were loose and a fall had jumped my head, and John’s too I guess, and whacked my outside arm.

Instinctively I ducked and got my head down under the line of my shoulders and the sheet dragged pretty fast across the top of my back. John was doing the same and still grinding, as was I, I guess. It was all over in the blink of an eye. I don’t particularly remember any screaming or yelling or anything untoward, nor any recognition of a stray length of 5/16” galvanized wire flailing around the ears of the two grinders. John was still grinding, into the final trim now. The tailer was looking at the sail, piles of wire sheet laying on the deck and not down in his hole, instructions were coming from the back concerning speed build and trim. We sailed on…

There are many more memories of the 1977 AC season. The next particular one was a group of us leaving Hammersmith Farm at sunrise on the Newport Dixieland band’s fire truck and driving north on Thames Street, the morning after the Swedes beat us in the semis and then hosted a party for us both. The memory of that evening is not as clear as my first tack but remains a remarkable memory notwithstanding. ■

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.

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