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From Cockerill to Rooster: Steve's story in his own words - part 1

by Mark Jardine 10 Nov 2016 12:20 GMT 10 November 2016
Steve during the Pompey Perisher in 1987 © Peter Bentley

We spoke to Steve Cockerill, the founder of Rooster Sailing, about how he first started sailing, where it led him, his career and how he started in business for himself and created the Rooster Sailing brand.

Mark: When did you first start sailing and what boat did you sail in?

Steve: It was in the early 60's - I would find myself sat on the thwart of my Mum and Dad's Merlin Rocket at Tamworth Sailing Club. Later, I became the lightweight crew in my brothers' Cadets, Tony or David, whichever one happened to need a crew at the time. As soon as I was big enough I started crewing for my dad in the Merlin. Finally, I got my own Cadet which I sailed relatively badly! My first taste of Laser sailing came when I was just 12 years old - Dad bought me a full rig Laser, which I sailed for 3 or 4 years. I was very competitive in light winds but not so once the wind got up as you might imagine.

I started developing a competitive streak at the age of 15 when I was attracted to racing against some of the better sailors at the club. There was a large and very competitive Graduate fleet at Tamworth at the time, so I sold my Laser and converted the cash into a rather tired Graduate.

I then went on to Aston University to read 'Physics with Team Racing'. By my third year we had won the Polytechnic Team Racing Finals and then the big one.... BUSA. I had already got a taste of Europe sailing, coming second at the Nationals the same year.

When I came out of university I worked for a sail maker in the Midlands for a short time, making the sails that I used to win the Graduate Nationals before putting my degree to good use as a Systems Design Engineer at British Aerospace. It was about this time that I started Europe sailing more seriously and spent every bank holiday weekend racing them in Holland and Belgium. I had a fantastic time sailing the Europe. Nobody in the UK had taken the Europe seriously.

Mark: Which year was this?

Steve: It must have been 1984/85 - I was using all my holiday to race at events in Europe. I was the strange Englishman, the Italians called me 'Barber' because I had a beard, and the Dutch used to put me up in squat houses if I was doing an event in Holland - it was an interesting environment. The sailors that I sailed with then have won a lot of medals, like the Finnish pair of Thomas Johanson and JJ (Jyrki Järvi) who won 49er gold at Sydney 2000. All these Europe sailors of that ilk have become medallists or top sailors and they are all in the industry around Europe now, such as Sebastian Godefroid who is the head of the Belgian Sailing Federation - I used to race against him in Belgium. It was an interesting environment to be in which was totally not British.

My passion to win the Europe World Championships led to me selling my house and taking some time out from work to do the European Circuit. My plan was to join the Navy at the end of it.

Mark: How did that campaign go?

Steve: Not that well! It was all about the gear. Boat speed came down to how much time you could put into your rig development. I don't think I was as good a single-handed sailor at that stage as I am now either. Things came together for me the moment I got into the Laser, I remember doing the first Olympic Regatta at Palamos and beating all the hot shots from the Europe.

Mark: So you had a campaign where you were not getting the results, but you must have learnt a huge amount?

Steve: Yes, the Europe was a fantastic boat for transitions, making changes in direction and sailing by the lee - they are super-technical boats, I engrossed myself in it. I remember putting up Clive Everest (of all people) at my house and we went training together for six weeks. We made a few foils and - you know what Clive's like in terms of designing, improving and bettering products - he was a laugh to be with.

Mark: So after this, you the joined the Navy?

Steve: Yes, after coming 17th at the Europe Worlds, which at the time I was disappointed with, I went on to pass my AIB and joined the Navy. I went to Dartmouth and was quickly picked up by the team racing team. During the first six weeks of indoctrination you're not supposed to leave the place, but on the second weekend I was team racing for the Navy, which was great fun.

The Navy brought me down to the South Coast which was fabulous because I could start sailing at some great venues like Stokes Bay and Lee-on-the-Solent. I was still sailing the Europe at World Championships but had started a 470 campaign. I had some great results with some great crews, but was not really able to afford to insure my boat, let alone buy new sails for it, so I abandoned the helming for crewing for Paul Beddel. It was an interesting move considering I'm not the ideal shape for trapezing. A fond memory of mine was winning the first race at the 1992 Olympic trials due to a wind shift we had spotted on the left. I remember a young Ian Walker was a bit annoyed about that, but he was confident that our lead would not last for very long. Of course he was right!

Mark: So in your early years of sailing, you sailed a huge number of boats at a very high level?

Steve: Yes, I was the anorak who wanted to sail boats as fast as I could. I sailed two-man boats on gravel pits, which is tight and tactical, and I sailed single-handers and trapeze boats. So whenever I sail a boat now - like when I sail a Laser Radial in big breeze - I try and think of it as a 470 which feels lovely going upwind - it's just like the Laser, where if you hike really hard you almost plane upwind, or at least it feels like you can. So you kind of relate to the different boats you've sailed.

Mark: Which year did you leave the Navy?

Steve: 1995, literally just as the Olympic trials finished. I was on the last couple of days of my eight year short-career commission.

Mark: Did you have an idea at that point that you were going to start up a company or what you were going to do?

Steve: My first priority was to pay the mortgage so my aim was to get a job. I was applying to companies like Marlow Ropes, working on rope development. I'd done a couple of developments during my campaigns where I thought I could improve mainsheet design. I also thought I could do marketing, but if you are a 'systems design engineer', then the industry think of you as a 'systems design engineer!' I applied for a job at Marlow but didn't get an interview. Interestingly about four months later I came up with the idea for Polilite®. I got a company to make it for me by the machine load, which was a pretty ballsy thing to do as you had to order a minimum of 1000 metres of it. I was already importing rope from the USA; 12-braid spectra ropes which I sold to Laser sailors because it worked better on their cunninghams and kicker systems (in those days we had no pulleys). It was called 'Spec12'. In the UK nobody had even seen a hollow 12-braided rope as they were just given normal, traditional things.

Mark: Polilite® was designed as a Laser mainsheet. Why did you decide that Polilite® was better than anything else out there?

Steve: I wanted it to be really stable, because when you let the mainsheet out in a Laser, the first thing you come across is a knot or a twist. I was fairly convinced that you get these twists in the rope because the rope became unstable. If your inner core is the one that takes the load, the outer core can rotate around it, making it unstable. So I filled the rope with a more stretchy centre core. The other part of the theory was that, if you want to fill a bit of a rope with something, you may as well fill it with something that floats. The outer core can be hard-wearing polyester and the core can be a floating more stretchy polypropylene. Between those two that's where we came up with this idea. I remember talking to the rope manufacturer who said, "We don't make ropes that way," and I replied, "I really want you to try one for me because I really think that it is going to work."

I was not enjoying working on the Design Specifications of the next aircraft carrier in my engineering job and was doing some coaching of Europe sailors for the RYA on the side. During this process I had given a couple of Polilite® mainsheets to Robert Scheidt, saying, "give them a go mate, I think you'll find them really interesting."

I later received a fax from Robert thanking me for the mainsheets and asking for six more! I've still got the fax as that was the moment that I thought, 'yes, we can do this, it's going to work'.

Mark: Was that the moment when you decided you could start a business?

Steve: Well, at the time it was like a building block because I was still working, coaching and selling rope. There was a point in late 1998 where I actually decided to coach full time, both on a private basis and for the RYA. I also managed to get a dealership to sell Laser spare parts locally. I was travelling up and down the country coaching at clubs whilst trying to sell rope to dealers and distributors around the world - it was an interesting time. I was also coaching a Belgian Europe sailor for the Olympics in Sydney, which just got too hard being away from my family, so I had to tell her I couldn't coach any more. Suddenly, I found myself in a position to work from home so I had to get on with developing Rooster.

Mark: Is that the moment that Steve Cockerill selling mainsheets and selling Laser sails became Rooster Sailing?

Steve: Yes, I think so. I think I called it Rooster Ropes for a bit and following a conversation with Dave McNamara about logos, he went away and came up with the classic Rooster logo. So that was it, in 1999 I went to the Marine Equipment Trade Show (METS) and worked for free for a guy for the three days; he gave me a metre width to display my items. That metre width featured products from my mainsheet, accessories and stuff. I networked with all the dealers, which was interesting as only 18 months before I had been applying for jobs with the likes of Marlow; suddenly I'm there with a mainsheet that everybody wanted to get their hands on.

Read Part 2 on how Steve grew Rooster Sailing later here!

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