Sailors that stayed – Fred Copoolse

Fred CopoolseFred Copoolse is a man who decided to live by his own rules. After sailing charters in the Caribbean for more than twenty years and moving to a small island like ours, he sticks by his decision and refuses to belong to any group or to be a member of any specific circle, and he doesn’t mind paying the price, if there is one, for his attitude.

Most likely he feels just as good on his own, but you can almost always find some friend or another visiting him at his house and more than 40 people showed up at his birthday party that (it’s worth mentioning) wasn’t publicized through Facebook. He told me he was surprised about the crowd, but no one else was. We all knew that this easy-going, aged, Dutchman, who bears the traits – and frequently displays the manners – of a rugged old sailor, has something about him that makes people feel comfortable. Surprisingly, Fred Copoolse is sometimes the more or less quiet centre of a busy social life that revolves around him and his house. I’ve met some good friends there, and I’m not the only one.

Fred doesn’t go out much, though he could. There is no shortage of friends that would be more than glad with visit from him, and he knows his way around, having lived here for six years now. He likes his house in one of the rural villages, far from town, he likes his couch, his books, his music, his dog Speedy, but he also deeply loves the wide ocean view that fills his living room with the different lights and colours of our ever-changing weather and of the seasons running by, outside.

He is much more keen on talking about the good days, the parties, than of the tough times, the hardships, dangers and losses, that he feels are less important, even if not less meaningful.

He tells me that from the troubled times of his childhood, in the Netherlands, he kept on “fighting to be free” without compromise. “When people tell me you have to do this or that… it doesn’t work. If I don’t like something, I just f… off” he says, in his usual colourful language. His compulsive reading, the pleasure he takes in being by himself, and probably also his strong mindedness all came from a time where life made him have to fend for himself. Which he did, quite successfully in fact, relying on his readiness for hard work, his obvious intelligence and a fair amount of luck. You could say his attitude has as much stubbornness as self-reliance. I wonder if these aren’t exactly some of the qualities you need to sail the ocean…

Sailing came along relatively late in Fred’s life, as a possibility of escaping the routines of what he considered to be an unadventurous, meaningless life. “Freedom.” he repeats, as he tells me about the way he decided to quit, before he suffered the stress-related illnesses that come from having a successful career in printing and running his own epoxy distribution business in Holland. He decided to sail around the Caribbean. “I stayed too long in that business. After my first trip to the Caribbean, I wasn’t the same any more. I had to escape that life.

But still, he made good use of the time he stayed in Holland, not only to sail around the North Sea, up to Norway, for example, but also to learn and actually build boats. “At first I had no idea what I was doing. The only thing I wanted in a sailboat was a big bed!” he says, laughing.

But still he built several boats, with the help and shared knowledge of friends. Curiously, all of his boats were named “Buster”. He told me about the big Boxer dog that kept him company while he stubbornly painted his first boat, while he was in casts with several broken bones, as a result of a motorcycle accident. His friend would winch him up to the deck in the morning and pick him up in the afternoon for three weeks, clearly showing the willpower that remains still behind his clear blue eyes. “It’s a good name. People always remember it.”, he says.

Sometime after that first trip, he headed out permanently to the Caribbean with his second wife, Inike, his great love to this day! They had lots of fun sailing around, and Fred cherishes the memories of those days as the best in his long life.

Over the more than twenty years the two ran the charter business, they had more than 600 people on their boat, from the rich and famous, like the chess master, Gary Kasparov, to many others that were neither.

A charter skipper’s job has something of therapist or social worker. The cosy atmosphere of the boat, with people living in a small intimate space, the almost mandatory after dinner drinks, or “sundowners”, get people talking about their lives and problems. “They’ll tell you stuff you wouldn’t believe!” “And you had to be there for hours on end, listening.” “Some people can be so bloody boring!” He complains, as his wife would usually turn in early, leaving the open-hearted tête-à-tête part up to him. “In the end, people’s problems are all the same and you heard it all before.” You don’t learn just about the ocean and the winds and boats in this profession.

He recalls many stories from these days, being as he is, more humorous than dramatic, describing problems and hardships with a heart-felt laughter, like the one about the well-off Hollywood producer and her two young daughters, that came on board “Buster” for a ten-day trip. The girls were problematic at first. They disliked the food, the accommodations and were usually sleeping in the cockpit while sailing – much to Fred’s displeasure – up until the moment he decided to confiscate the drugs they were using. “Just give me the f… pills!” he shouted at them, with his Captain’s authority. Strangely, or not, the girls accepted it meekly and the rest of the trip was actually a breeze.

That is until the last night of the trip, when they ended up in a bar (“Of course we always ended up in a bar somewhere, to get a drink”, he tells me) and Fred decided to ask Vicky, the mother, what was inside the heavy looking plastic bag she would always carry around and had brought to shore with her. “Well Fred: that’s John!” she said, and explained. She had got to know a charter captain, whom she sailed with for five years before getting involved with, and ended up bringing him home with her to Hollywood. But not long after that, he suddenly dropped dead on the kitchen floor, so she decided to take his ashes along in a last trip to all the places John used to know and love.

Some hours and many, many drinks later, when they were in the dinghy to get back to the boat, Fred felt the moment: “Now Vicky. Let it go. Throw it out!” he told her in his commanding voice. She looked at the urn in the light of the moon and said: “John: I loved you so much, I really loved you… Now I’ve seen all the places you loved so much, so now… be on your way!”, and she started shaking the urn in the air, getting Fred and the two girls covered… in John! A moonlight swim in the warm Caribbean ocean washed away ashes and past loves. A freedom story, just as Fred likes.

Fred Copoolse has always cultivated the talent for laughing at things that are no laughing matter. That is his way. Fred was in Grenada in September 2004, when hurricane Ivan caused catastrophic destruction in the island and serious damage to his boat, which ended up a few metres inshore. But still laughing, he tells me about the way he was sitting in the yacht club drinking beer, and how he and his friends had to move from one side of the bar to the other when the roof of the place was blown out. Or the hotel he went to later that night, where a real party was going on, with lots of people drinking and dancing, while Ivan ravaged the island outside. Not the portrait you’d expect from a hurricane survivor, but then again “Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?”, as he puts it.

Some years later, like many times before in his life, Fred got bored and decided he needed a change. All the problems facing a charter skipper, the crew troubles after separating from his wife, and the same trips to the same islands, with the same tourists, made him weary of the life he had chosen.

By chance he came to Faial Island, where a close friend was staying, and got the opportunity to buy a plot of land with a ruined old house, in the isolated, rural, north coast of the island. Where others saw a pile of old stones, Fred saw the house of his dreams, overlooking the ocean, in the middle of the green pastures that make up the Azorean landscape. After his many travels, he was finally home.

The indescribable beauty of Faial, the unstable but always mild climate, that fact that it’s never too crowded but yet has nice, helpful and welcoming people; the safety of being far away from the conflicts and dangers that now threaten mainland Europe, were all contributing factors to his decision that this was a pretty good spot to live in.

Quite meaningfully, he drew the plans for his new house on the back of an old chart onboard his boat. “It can’t be done like that, you shouldn’t do it that way!” people told him looking at his drawings, but they got a characteristic Freddy Copoolse answer: “F… you! Don’t tell me what to do!” It is a great motto for a man that never stopped fighting for his freedom.

“What’s the meaning of it all, then?”, I asked him. “I had a fantastic, wonderful life. I did what I wanted, as I wanted. I can look back on a fantastic life”, he tells me sitting in his living-room, with his dog, Speedy, lying close to him, an open book, a pack of cigarettes and a drink on the table between us. What else is there, in fact?

Tiago Redondo

%d bloggers like this: