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Hey racers: The cruisers are coming, tone it down

2021 March 31

Sailing can seem bicameral—like a 50/50 Senate—split between racers whose passion is intense competition, strategy and speed, and cruisers seeking fun-in-the-sun and vacations to exotic locales.

It might seem strange to be reading a piece about racing in an issue mostly given to cruising, but bear with me, this Venn diagram has some overlap. Indeed, this is a column about cruisers who are curious about racing.

To start, let’s be clear: most racers are also cruisers. One of the reasons to race a sailboat is to get to relaxing places and then procrastinate. It’s easy to fall into the timeless cruising lifestyle. Whether you are racing around buoys or across oceans, once the competition is over, shoreside clubs crammed with masts and libations become fun-in-the-sun exotic locales no matter where they are. When in Rome.

On the other hand, most cruisers are not racers, and in fact, are quick to declare that they may never be, citing a litany of reasons: lack of crew, lack of equipment, lack of experience, but mostly a lack of interest in being yelled at, especially on a congested starting line or while approaching a mark with many other boats declaring rights. If you invested in a sailboat to get away from traffic and people, why would you deliberately point your bow toward a traffic jam clogged with enraged drivers?

But pressed, some cruisers will share a more nuanced story. There are things about racing that are attractive to cruisers, like the work to make a boat go upwind well, or the challenge to learn how to fly that unused spinnaker, or the opportunity to organize the cockpit so that tacking matures from something chaotic and haphazard to a thing that folks actually enjoy and look forward to doing well. And the idea of measuring progress compared with other boats sounds exciting and fun.

So sailing has an opportunity: many cruisers would try and enjoy racing if the three daunting barriers—congested starts and roundings and the yelling that comes with them—are lowered. Some race organizers are taking note and working on solutions.

Starting lines and rounding marks are complex places where most rules apply, new rules are introduced, many boats are squeezing into small spaces and, despite physics, time can seem to slow down and speed up.

Said one cruising friend about his first attempt at racing: “We could see the committee boat but my crewmates were finding their sea legs, so it took a lot longer to arrive than expected. The first horn sounded and five minutes passed in a flash. We didn’t have our jib up. We were in irons for a while. I think we were 10 minutes late, but who knows. Time seemed to be warping.”

Organizers can take some steps. First, local rules can be simplified to account for varying levels of experience. Barging (or some version of it) is often the newcomer’s most flagrant sin, but usually happens because it is hard to visualize proper positioning in the context of all the other rules. Clear instructions (what to do and not to do) are required to get it under control. Race committees can also lengthen starting lines and the starting sequence, add offsets or gates at marks, assemble smaller fleets grouping similar boats, and, most importantly, get on the radio early and often to explain the course and the sequence. And yet, the time warp might still trip up a newbie.

Of course, time is constant and isn’t warping in the way my friend described. At issue, instead, is time management, something that isn’t intuitive if most of your sailing is done on nature’s schedule. So in our town, the sailing center will host a new seminar about how to start safely and well. Coming from a racing perspective, I assumed this class would be about how to plan the five minutes before the race, but as the feedback came in from potential students, it became clear that this is a curriculum about how to plan the entire day of the event, accounting for dock times, time to travel, time to talk about safety, clothing and roles, time for practice and tuning, time for wind observations, time to set clocks, and plan where to be at certain times, like when horns and flags start to fly. These sequences can seem new to a cruiser, but they’re not impossible to master.

Bigger spaces, better planning and basic training might also help to lower the most persnickety barrier: the yelling. But old habits can be hard to break. So here’s a call to experienced racers; tone it down and there may just be more of you. The cruisers are coming.