Hone Your Cruising Skills By Racing
by Vicki Staudte

If the prospect of becoming a better cruiser is your goal, try racing for a season or two. Beware though, you may get hooked. The sailing skills used by racers and cruisers are the same, the differences are, simply put, timing and tweaking. Actions happen quickly and precisely when racing. Adjustments to steering and sail trim are constantly being made to adapt to every little nuance in the prevailing conditions. These are the skills that make racers better sailors.
Sydney 41 Scoutís consistency brings them success in PHRF 2 - Verve Cup Offshore. Photo provided by Boatingshots.com.

Whether you come to the sport of sailing from large boats or small, or accustomed to sailing on oceans, lakes or rivers, much of the fun is being on the water with the wind in your face and having to strategically maneuver the boat from one spot to another using your intellect, your experience and your gut to guide you. Racing assembles these things neatly for you. ďRaise the main, raise the jib, trim, tack, tack, trim, ease the sheet, pole up, spinnaker up, douse the jib, jibe, jibe, raise the jib, douse the spinnaker, trim inĒ, etc. are all accomplished in short order. Before you know it, the race is over and youíre a winner, no matter the actual outcome.

The racerís attention is focused. Starting hours before the race, racers are researching the weather updates and observing the weather conditions. At the dock, the rigging is tuned and decisions are made as to what size sails to start with, and what other sails should be ready in case conditions change. Pre-race sailing allows the crew to hoist the sails, adjust the cars, and practice some tacks and jibes. At the start of the race, the focus is on the clock, your starting position, the preferred side of the course to be taken and the compass heading. During the race, the focus is on steering a smart course, tacking and jibing expediently, perfecting sail trim during the wind shifts, and using the spinnaker. These maneuvers are exercised on the upwind and downwind legs of the course, allowing crew to hone their sailing skills. After all, practice makes perfect, and racing means lots of repetition in rapid sequence.

Racing takes place in a variety of weather conditions. Races are held rain or shine, although they are cancelled if lightening is in the area. Most sailing clubs have a minimum and maximum threshold for wind, e.g. below three knots and above 30 knots. Knowing the strength and direction of the wind, and the forecast for diminishing or escalating winds has a bearing on the size of sails to be used and reefing considerations. While sails can be and are changed out during a race, this pre-planning is more practical and safer.

There are generally two forms of sailing races: buoy races and long distance, point-to-point races. Buoy racing is the primary form of racing on most lakes in the Upper Midwest. There are many different configurations of courses, but they all have racers going upwind and downwind generally having boats sailing close hulled or on a broad reach, but that can change if the winds clock around after the racecourse has been set. No matter what the course, the compass is a necessary tool for any race. Itís important to determine the compass heading of the first mark at the start. This should be noted and used on windward/leeward courses. The compass heading may help keep you in the race if the next mark to be rounded is out of sight, (not unlike when the next waypoint is out of sight when cruising).

Both cruisers and racers watch their wind indicators, telltales, the water surface, the clouds and the effect the wind is having on other boats to help determine their strategy. A race boat generally has a tactician who takes in all this information, then will direct the helmsperson and crew how to best react. Itís generally the tactician who decides what sails to use at the onset, when to hoist and douse the sails and spinnaker, the exact moment of tacking and jibing, and directs tweaking for sail and car adjustments. For larger boats with spinnakers, there generally is a person in charge of the foredeck who communicates with the tactician. Other positions include mainsail trimmers, jib trimmers, a mast person, a pit person, and more. When cruising, the skipper is generally responsible for making all decisions, or decisions may be made ďby committeeĒ.

Not all parts of racing are glamorous. Boats in racing mode arenít necessarily set up for cruising. The boats may be pared down inside and out to reduce weight. Creature comforts that get in the way of racers are removed from larger boats such as cabin cushions, the bimini and dodger, the cocktail table, etc. This allows more room for the numerous racing sails needed for all kinds of weather. Fear not though, the boats are generally provisioned with more than enough food and beverage to last the duration.

After a long day of racing, itís relaxing to come ashore. Granted most boats donít anchor out when racing if thatís what you prefer, yet itís fun to socialize with like-minded sailors. When away from home, it does feel good to get out and stretch those legs that have been scrambling around a boat all day, take a relaxing shower, and explore quaint little sailing communities.

Now that youíre persuaded that racing is for you . . .

There are myriad ways to get involved in racing if you are a sailor living in the upper Midwest. It could be on the lakes in and around the Twin Cities, e.g. Medicine Lake Sailing Club, Minnetonka Yacht Club, Wayzata Yacht Club, White Bear Lake Yacht Club, or closer in on Lake Calhoun. For college students, thereís also the University of Minnesota Sailing team. All these offer racing on boats under 30 feet, though there is a fleet of sleek, low-riding 38-foot A-Scows on Lake Minnetonka.

Opportunities on larger boats abound on the Great Lakes-for the annual Race Week through the Apostle Islands Station of Wayzata Yacht Club on Lake Superior, the Chicago to Mackinaw Island Race sponsored by the Chicago Yacht Club, the TransSuperior (from the base of Whitefish Bay to Duluth), and the International Triangle (a triangle race from Bayfield to Houghton/Hancock to Thunder Bay and back to Bayfield). Sail Fest is a one-day pursuit for cruisers and racers at the end of Bayfieldís Race Week. Itís a day in which cruisers can host a racer aboard who is there to give pointers on how to sail their boat more effectively. Then thereís the Lowisa in Lake of the Woods, alternately hosted by clubs in the U.S. and Canada, which has people bringing in their boats from hundreds of miles around.

No matter if youíre racing or cruising, you already know there is something majestic about being on the water. Sailing combines the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of us all at the same time. With all this stimuli, where else can you find such likable people? By combining racing and cruising, youíll have lots of fun making great friends along the way.

Vicki Staudte is freelance writer and photographer, seasoned traveler and sailor from the Midwest. Sheís cruised, raced and/or taught sailing in the Great Lakes, on the coasts and internationally. She can be reached at Nauticalnomad@gmail.com.

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