True class in the J Class

Guest perspective/Greg Coppa

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to receive a press pass to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, sponsored by the Herreshoff Marine Museum of Bristol, R.I. Inducted were a photographer (Morris Rosenfeld), a noted British yacht designer (George Watson) and a clutch of pretty good sailors from both sides of the Atlantic (Arthur Knapp, Jr., T.O.M. Sopwith and Henry Sears).

The poised and polished master of ceremonies was Halsey Herreshoff, grandson of the legendary Capt. Nat Herreshoff. The tributes to the inductees were interesting and befitting; the anecdotes, humorous and memorable. And Mother Nature provided a perfect autumn day for the ceremony, conducted under a tent on the site of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, which launched so many Cup defenders and other notable vessels. The guests at my table were pleasant, and the discussion was eclectic, not limited to yachting.

But what I will remember most about the day of the ceremony was something that occurred after the guests had left and all the tables had been cleared and broken down. The flag bedecked J Boat, Shamrock V, was moored directly in front of the tent, lending dignity and splendor to the occasion. The guests had been invited to take a launch out to see her before she returned to Newport later in the afternoon, and someone had also thoughtfully invited the employees of the catering firm as well.

The young, bright-eyed, well-scrubbed and -groomed waiters and waitresses, barkeeps and busboys rushed to complete their chores and excitedly chatted on the floating dock as they awaited the next launch out to Shamrock, the 1930 Cup challenger.

The launch soon appeared, discharging well-heeled guests as the catering staff politely stood aside. But as the first of the kitchen helpers moved toward the launch, a Shamrock crewmember informed him that, regrettably, no more guests could be taken aboard, that they had missed the time deadline for the tour. Evidently, there had been a misunderstanding about the time, but I had heard what the helpers had heard.

Without anger or hostility, the young people looked at one another. Nobody muttered or swore. One pretty thing said simply and without malice, “Oh well, we are just the hired help.”

But their feeling of disappointment and hurt was palpable to me as they walked up the ramp away from the dock. They had so looked forward to this unusual opportunity after working hard and well to make the day a special one for relatives, ancestors, friends and admirers of some of the greatest names in yachting. And it somehow didn’t seem right that they were being turned away from this particular vessel, Shamrock V. I knew I would have to write a story about this someday; I just didn’t know how it would end.

You see, Shamrock V belonged to the beloved Sir Thomas Lipton. Lipton was born of a poor Irish family, and he found employment in a variety of low-level occupations. Nevertheless, through diligence and great effort, he became one of the more successful merchants of his time, with worldwide business interests. Yet he always remembered his roots. In 1898, in recognition of his talents, success and fine personal traits, he was knighted.

Sir Thomas Lipton had a passion for yachts and yacht racing. In his five challenges for the Cup, spanning a three-decade period, he became well known and esteemed by the American people, who respected his sportsmanship, graciousness and, especially, his gentlemanly conduct. All agreed that the sport of yacht racing was better for his efforts and presence. Yes, in the context of Sir Thomas Lipton, it wasn’t right that these people were not going to get to go aboard his former yacht.

As I turned to leave the dock, I heard a hail from the launch, which was turning back toward shore. A crewmember from Shamrock was trying to get the attention of those who were making their way to the parking lot. He waved to them to come back to the dock. They were surprised, and I wish you could have seen the smiles on their faces as they called out to one another, “He’s coming to get us!”

A person less perceptive than this crewmember would not have noticed how disappointed these people were at being turned away from Shamrock; a more calloused one would not have cared.

The “hired help” had a wonderful time aboard Shamrock as they walked the teak decks in stocking feet, carefully caressed the varnished trim, and looked up in wonder at the tall mast which seemed to pierce the blue sky. They marveled at the cabins and appointments, and left the vessel chattering happily about all that they had seen that afternoon.

As I drove back home with my wife, Abby – past the many farm stands filled with orange pumpkins, and dried cornstalks illuminated by a golden sun low on the horizon – I considered how nicely things had turned out. I reflected how easily a simple decision can transform an ordinary day into one forever remembered by some as a very good one, forever recalled with a sense of regret.

And I can’t help but think that Sir Thomas would have been pleased to know that, on that day, his boat was in good hands.

Greg Coppa lives in Wickford, R.I., and has been sailing in New England waters for over five decades.