By Joe Cooper
The entrance to Fort Adams, and Sail Newport, is a right-hand turn off Harrison Avenue in Newport, RI, on the way to Brenton Point and Castle Hill. There’s a slight rise as one heads north and as you crest the rise and gaze across Brenton Cove, one feels as an 18th Century general sitting on his horse on top of the hill surveying his troops, might. In my somewhat less martial view, this pause gives me the first intelligence as to what kind of day it will be for High School sailing.
On a recent Tuesday the conditions on the cove were shaping up to be, well interesting, to say the least. Fresh southwesterlies were the order of the day. Humm, me thinks. The High School sailing milieu is fraught with decisions on skill levels, pairs for any particular day, crew weights, forthcoming competition, and so on.
This particular day I was musing on who to pair with whom and what to do for practice. Who is showing up is a bit of a lottery too, Sailing being a club sport at Prout. Because my preference to have the kids keep coming back and not get ‘cut’ for some reason, I am pretty relaxed about coming to practice.
The Prout team comprises 10 girls and two guys, who share the same first name, just to make things easier for the coach. At any event, I did the prep talk and we got five boats launched including one with the two lads as crew. I had two Padawan Learners with me in the RIB. “Just a tad brisk for sailing lessons today,” I had said. They were nonplussed and took their places in the boat. As we sailed downwind towards the green nun south of Goat Island, the lads were caught in the middle of a gybe, in a hefty squirt, in with damp consequences. The rigs are taller than the cove is deep, so we commonly get stuck in the mud.
I jilled around in the RIB, waiting and watching for them to get the boat upright. The water in the cove was about 50 degrees, and that’s good for about 10 minutes before your fingers get pretty cold. I am inclined to let the sailors battle with getting the boat upright for almost as long as it takes them to get numb, immobile fingers. Well, the clock ran down on this episode and I eventually said, “That’s it, I need you in the RIB.” That done, I grabbed the tow line and secured the dinghy to a mooring. For some reason this was amusing…“Well, what else am I gonna do with it?”
Actually, it was a tad humorous motoring away from the mooring attached to an upside-down 420 complete with centerboard poking up, as though The Great White Whale, wearing something Ahab had tossed at its back, sticking up, like an apprentice baby Stonehenge monolith gone off course. On the dock, I got the lads to change out and get dry and asked one of the other coaches to keep an eye on them…joys of four schools all there at once.
There was a third coach there and I asked him what he was up to. Not being available to come and help me with my boat, I headed back out to the Monolith. At this point the two Padawan learners were still in the RIB. I asked the pair, two young girls, why I’d asked the coach what I did. Bear in mind, I did not ask him for help; I asked what he was doing.
One of the girls responded, “So you could get him to coach our team while you got the boat.” Pretty quick, these girls. “Well actually no, but that’s a perfectly good answer,” I continued. “I was seeing if I could get him to come and help me get the boat upright.” That prompted a question from the same girl. “How are you going to get the boat upright?” she asked. “Good question,” I replied. I walked through the issues. Rig in mud, lots of mooring tackle strewn around the bottom of the cove, and the sails inhibiting the ease with which the boat will want to come upright being the first few things I could immediately think of. By then, we were alongside the boat and mooring.
First order of business: tie RIB to mooring roughly abeam of inverted boat. “This is so I don’t have to worry about keeping the RIB on station”…include definition of the phrase ‘on station’ for the Learners. In the time-honored fashion, I applied a goodly portion of my former Finn sailor’s heft to the centerboard, with not much ROI. I summoned one of the girls to a) grab hold of the centerboard and b) keep one hand on the railing on the RIB, and c) let go if the dinghy got away from her. This was, remarkably, enough oomph. The White Whale transformed back into the side of a 420 as we finally got the boat to 90 degrees. I asked the other Learner to hold the boat by the shrouds close to the RIB. So far, so good. Next problem: how to get from 90 to zero degrees.
At this point, I had the centerboard perched on the side of the RIB, my goal being to cast off the main halyard and lower the main, then push the CB back into the trunk and fully right the boat. I eyeballed the distance from my perch, standing atop the tubes of the RIB, down to the main halyard cleat. While musing on just what I was going to do next, or rather how to do it, I was keeping up the perhaps infamous Cooper stream of conscience monologue as to what I was doing. One of the larger themes I try and bring to High School sailing is the idea of seamanship…that is, all the stuff that happens around boats that is not actually sailing the things…tasks like this, thus the monologue.
At length I got both the Learners, 90 pounds each, to sit on the CB on the top of the tube. I stood on it too, and reached over the boat and cast off the main halyard. It took a few bites at the apple, but I eventually got the main down, at least enough to go to the next phase, rolling her upright. I asked one of the Learners to make sure that, as I pushed the boat, from aft of the CB trunk, away from the RIB, she was to hang onto the chainplates, but just let the boat drift off the side of the RIB, just a bit…“You will see how much by how far the board is in the trunk.” Remember, the RIB and dinghy were both secured to a mooring, so there was a fulcrum, centered at the bow, too. The next minute or so was a fine balance between pushing the CB back into the trunk (after casting off the control lines) as the boat was rolled upright. I pushed the board in and the girls rolled the boat upright, in almost textbook fashion. With the mainsail almost all the way down and the girls holding the dinghy close aboard the RIB, we had done it.
Next stop was having one of the girls climb in and steer the boat while I towed it back to shore. When I asked this question, one was right on it. “I will,” said she. Now these two girls are not biological sisters, rather sisters by neighborhood and affection, and they neither take nor ask any quarter from each other. The second girl argued, “You said that too fast!” (See what I mean?) “Well, you can get in, too,” I interjected. “Actually, having both of you will balance the boat…balance the Force,” I remarked using one of my favorite Yoda lines.
At length, they were both in the boat, aft, the CB was up, the main and jib were down, and I had explained the procedure for following in the RIB’s wake, not cutting across it as I turned. I asked if they were all set, got a couple of pretty confident nods, so I cast the dinghy off and secured her to the railing on the RIB, then cast me off from the mooring and idled back to the docks.
I motored slowly back to the Youth Docks, keeping an eye on the Learners, and where I was going. The girls did good, great in fact. As we were debriefing, after getting the boat sorted out (I had called everyone else back in advance of forecast thunder squalls), I remarked to the rest of the team what a great job the Learners had done today with their seamanship. I was delighted when the rest of the team gave the Learners a round of applause.
I really love my high school sailors.
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, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.