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Race your cruising boat

2022 October 1

It doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult to get out on the race course

Almost every local weeknight racing series has a cruising division filled with sailors looking for an excuse to get out on the water and away from life’s demands. The idea of racing might seem daunting, but with a few tweaks to your boat, a bit of reading up on the rules and enlisting family and friends for crew, you’ll be rounding marks in no time. 

Not everyone wants to be a racer, but there are some compelling reasons to
consider it. 

Don’t forget about the second part of “cruiser-racer.” Joining the local racing fleet is a great way to improve sailing skills, get involved with the local sailing scene and, best of all, sail more.
Quantum Sails photo

There is no better way to become a stronger sailor than by spending time on the water challenging yourself. Even simple windward-leeward courses can throw all kinds of scenarios at you as water, wind and weather conditions change and test your seamanship. Racing is also a great way to sharpen your skills for a longer voyage.

Enlisting your family and friends as crew is a great way to spend time together, not to mention a great way to pass your love of sailing onto your kids. And competition with friends and family can build team spirit while enjoying the sport of sailing together.

Racing is also a good way to become involved with the sailing community and make friends with people who share a common interest. If you’re comfortable with it, you can also help grow the sailing community by offering to teach people interested in learning to sail. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities related to racing. You can get involved on a planning committee or volunteer to help run races.

Lastly, racing can be a scheduled excuse for a bit of relaxation. Weeknight racing is a great way to set aside time each week to hit the water and leave everything else on land. The highest participation today is in the early evening races.

Get your boat ready

Depending on your level of dedication and budget, preparation can be as big or as small as you like, starting with the boat.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to run out and buy new sails. It is important, however, to have had your sails inspected and serviced recently. If you’ve noticed some issues with sail shape and performance, your sailmaker can likely recut them to help make you more competitive.

If it’s time to replace your sails, talk to your sailmaker about all options, including dual-purpose membrane sails designed with a cruising focus that will also make you competitive on the racecourse. Many cruiser-racers today come with sails provided by the boat’s manufacturer. Being a line item that affects the overall cost of the boat, these sails are usually inexpensively constructed of cross-cut Dacron panels. 

These low-tech sails tend to lose their shape after a few years. Even though they appear to be working, they lose efficiency and keep the boat from performing at its full potential. 

Many cruisers have a “set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to rig tuning. This philosophy works for the occasional sunset sail, but when performance is at stake, you’ll want to make sure your rig is spot on. Your sail loft can help with this by sending an expert to take a look. They’ll make sure key components are set up correctly and will be able to give you some trimming tips.

After your rig tune is set, look at your running rigging. Check for wear and UV damage. If you need to replace some lines, consider low-weight and low-stretch options. Cordage suppliers can assist in outfitting your boat with the right line. 

If you choose to sail with electronics, it’s important that they are calibrated accurately and that you know how to get the most out of them. Most basic packages have wind speed and direction and boat speed. If used correctly, this data can improve your performance significantly. Whether or not you invest in race electronics, make sure you have a good stopwatch on board for the start sequence and a reliable VHF radio to tune in to the race committee.

When it comes to optimizing your boat, it’s all about making it as light as possible. Remove all extra tools, spares and items you won’t need for an evening race, such as your grill and water toys. When removing excess weight, be careful not to violate any race rules about removing standard equipment like locker doors and cushions. When it’s time to race, stow all gear as close to the middle of the boat and as far down as possible. 

Next, inventory your safety gear. Everything should be up to U.S. Coast Guard specifications. 

Gather a crew

The size of your boat will dictate how many crewmembers you’ll need to effectively sail around the race course. Even if you and your partner can manage, sailing under pressure is a different animal. You want to make sure you cover the key positions: bow, pit, headsail trimmer, main trimmer and, of course, skipper. If your boat is large enough, you might consider adding someone for tactics or ballast (especially if it’s a big breezy evening). 

Finding crew can be a challenge, but a bit of creative thinking can help. Boat owners are often the most all-purpose sailors and are great to have aboard, especially if they haven’t made the jump to racing their cruisers. Like you, they’re often itching for a good excuse to get out on the water.

Your local yacht or sailing club is an obvious source for crew. Spread the word that you’re looking for crew. Keep an eye out for sailors wandering the docks with a life jacket looking for a ride.

Junior sailing programs are also great places to find crew. Although they may be less experienced on larger keelboats, junior sailors often have years of experiences sailing small, responsive boats, making them quick studies in sail trim, weight movement, timing and tactics. Juniors are often looking to gain experience sailing on bigger boats, but don’t always have access. So extend the invitation.

If you’re not as worried about results and you’re the patient type, consider creating a training program. There are a number of significant others left at the yacht club during races, not to mention people in the community who would love to learn to sail. Just make sure you’ve got a few other salty dogs onboard so you’re not the only one who knows how to sail. If you invest time in training crew, you’ll likely be rewarded with their loyalty.

Local sail lofts can also be a source for crew.  Some lofts even have lists or crew programs and can help shorthanded boats and boatless crew find each other.

Know the rules

If you’re completely new to racing, you’ll need to brush up on the rules and learn how races work. The person in charge of the local races can explain how they work for the local weeknight races, but you can also use resources on US Sailing’s website to get the current Racing Rules of Sailing. It can be helpful to sail a few races with a friend before skippering your own boat across the starting line. Alternatively, see if a sailor who knows the rules well can sail a few races with you while you gain confidence. 

If you want to become competitive quickly, look into getting a coach, pro or even your local sailmaker on board for a few races. These folks are valuable resources who can quickly help you identify what you need to work on. Coaches can assist in so many ways from pre-race strategies, sail trim, boat handling tips and fine-tuning steering skills. 

Wally Cross is a sail consultant at Quantum Sails Detroit. With nearly 50 years of experience in the sailmaking industry on all sorts of racing and cruising boats, Wally enjoys mixing his sailmaking knowledge with all the other pieces of sailing, such as rig tune, trim, and sail settings, to not only make the boats sail faster, but to help people get the most enjoyment from their boats.