Our son, Ned, graduated high school in the class of ’14. By my calculations this makes his freshman debut the fall of 2010. In the fall of 2009, we attended the Prout School Open, day go see event. As we entered the campus, at the speed of rush hour traffic upstream of a five-tractor trailer crash behind all the SUVs in front of us, we found a right hand turn down a slight incline. This turned out to be an external access to the gym, the Athletic Director’s office, and related infrastructure.
Now, in advance of this visit I had been yarning with a mate of mine who remarked, “Ah, Prout. They have a sailing team.” Frankly “sailing team” and “high school” was not a sentence I had ever composed. I had a vague idea it existed, but that was it.
As we inched our way past the turn, I noticed there was a fully rigged 420 on its trailer outside the offices, adjacent to the gym. “Humm,” thought I. We made it to the parking lot and headed for the front door. I left Ned and Jill to be conducted on the many nickel tours by an enterprising senior, co-opted for the day. Guess where I went?
Bingo. I strolled down the hill and stood around the 420 admiring it. It was guarded by a couple of adults and a couple kids who engaged me in conversation. “Do you sail?” asked the senior adult. I have learned over the years that the broadside response to such a question, relating all five pages of my sailing CV, is a bit overkill. “Yeah, I sail a bit…” was my response. More light chatter around my inquiries as to high school sailing. Having gathered the information I wanted, I sought out Jill and Ned and stayed at heel for the duration of the visit.
Sometime in January 2010, we received Ned’s “You have been accepted” letter. OK, the next four years were settled, so I sent a note to Molly, the adult at the boat in the fall, so advising her and confirming my previously stated interest in “helping out a bit.” That February I was introduced to the first of what will be, in the spring of 2023, thirteen years of high school sailing.
Prout had at the time a coach. His daughter was graduating that year and so would he. The venue for Prout Sailing was on the Salt Pond to the north of Pt. Judith, a ten-minute carpool drive from the school.
The venue we sailed from had a pontoon boat (aka what I think of as a “Tennessee River Drinkin’ Barge”). This vessel accommodated the extra kids who were not in 420s. The roster was over twenty kids, I recall. So, twelve to sixteen in dinghies depending on the available skills levels on the day, and the rest on the barge. And the coaches and adults, this particular first day being three: Molly, the parent advisor, the coach, and me. There was a Whaler available too. The coach was sitting on the barge and my memory of this day reports he was not doing much. Looking up-course, I saw the kids doing laps around two marks in a W/L configuration. There was plenty of opportunity to, well coach. The coach was a good bloke and (or but) sailed on big keelboats. We chatted amiably about logistics, personalities and the mechanics of the facility all the while keeping my eyes peeled upwind. After not a long time I asked the coach if he minded if I jumped in the Whaler and watched from a closer vantage point. “Go for it, ” he replied. I jumped in the Whaler and did.
The rest of the afternoon was my introduction to high school sailors and sailing. It was fun but I did not have much clout. I was new, they did not know me, and I was “not really the coach” so my suggestions and requests had small leverage.
One of the vagaries of high school sailing is the spread of skills that show up. Now that I have been The Coach for twelve years, I’ve developed my own MO. First off is that if a kid wants to sell their parents on the idea of sailing and the cost of a drysuit and dropping them off and or picking them up, and the kids show up, then I will work with them.
This is possibly the most rewarding part of the game. I have had kids come in as rank novices and after four years go out with OK sailing skills, but more importantly, a passion for the game. My first success was a kid with a huge ‘do like the character from Mod Squad. He was new to sailing and so crewed, and I was always fearful he was going to get his hair caught in the vang. He managed to avoid this.
One last day of sailing, the kids were doing the Pirate thing and Garrett ended up in a boat by himself. I was in my Laser I think, so I sailed over to him. He looked pretty non-plussed and when I inquired as to his situation, remained calm while asking what he should do.
“Sail in if you want to, or sail back into the ‘fight’ and re-engage,” was my reply. Seeing the splashing and water cannon going on in the thick of a 420 version of Trafalgar, he calmly took the tiller, trimmed the main and promptly sailed into the melee with all the aplomb of Nelson. A skipper shortly boarded him, and I moved on. Garrett graduated from Maine Maritime as a ship driver, but not before sailing with me on Falcon 2000 for a few daysails. He did at least two deliveries with Falcon to and from the Caribbean…one of two souls aboard, he and the owner. He is, at last chat, driving a 90-foot powerboat.
Probably my most successful Kaper, in terms of getting kids totally stoked, was the 2016 World Match Racing Tour event in Newport. With the help of a lot of the Newport girls, the producer of the video stream, and Sally Barkow, two Prout sailors got to compete in the Pro-Am event on the M32 cats. I have written, and so have they, in these pages about that Kaper. Watching the smiles on these two great young ladies slowly change from “Gee, we are going sailing on a sunny day and we are off school,” to “Oh, this is really happening” was great to watch. After dressing in the special M-32 kit, hey were ushered through the secure gate to the docks where a RIB would transport them to the infield. As they walked down the dock and were putting on their helmets, they became as subdued as I had ever seen them.
They survived, and in the TV interview afterwards they were glowing. Payton was a skilled and laureled sailor before I met her and even though she is in college now, I still see her at kids’ regattas in the summer where she teaches and coaches at Conanicut Yacht Club. Mikaela, less skilled but dead keen and loving it, still calls me when she’s in town from school in California, and we meet for coffee and I hear the news.
Likewise, there are half a dozen former Prout Sailing team members who still keep up with me. One I gave a reference for him to get a crewing gig on one of the sightseeing 12 Metres in town, which he loved. He has a JY 15 in town and an old 110 at a yacht club he belongs to in California.
I once called one of the girls, (K1 by nickname) a Freshie at George Washington in DC and we had coffee, and I heard the news of her first few months at Uni. I helped her sister, K2, with an internship with Clean Ocean Access in Middletown, and she is just now a few years later finishing her Law degree in Environmental things and aiming to save the world.
Now, lest you think this is just Coop nurturing sailors (It is but wait, there’s more), we do have some sailing successes too. We have qualified to sail in the O’Day Regatta, the New England regional qualifier for the national champs of high school sailing. The girls have twice finished second in the Herreshoff girls-only Championship, a few years apart. The team does petty well in the Friday Night Lights series we hold at Sail Newport in April and May. And we have placed second in the Rhode Island states two, perhaps three times. So, all in all a pretty reasonable showing in the scheme of high school sailing.
Apart from nurturing the kids to really love sailing, I have one other task. At one of the FNL regattas, I had been busy the week before and had not washed the pinnies. They live in a tote bag in the trunk of my car unless I take them out to wash. As you can imagine, after a few days of wet sailing and a few nights in the trunk they were a bit, well, ripe. Fortunately, I apparently have a sufficiently good rapport with the kids they feel it’s OK to call me on this. One asked, “Would you like me to take these home and wash them?” Possibly the most embarrassing moment in my sailing life thus far. They are used to my theatrics, so with my head hung in shame I mumbled, “No, my bad.” They just shrugged, put the pinnies on, grabbed a bailer and headed to the boats. Good thing I had brought the bailers. ■
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.