What Racing Taught Me About Sailing

"I have learned for the first time that the fastest yacht does not win the race." 
- Charles Nicholson (British yacht designer)

I learned to sail through simple trial and (mostly) error* on our first sailboat and while crewing during the local Wednesday night races and a few longer distance races. The racing was fun and often exciting, but I was there for instructional gain. I was raised a boater, so I felt I knew some basic seamenship, yet sailing seemed technical and more involved than most of the boating I had done previously. I'm pretty sure I shared the common misconception that sailing was overly difficult.

My experiences while racing did little to dispel the misconception. Whether doing laps around the cans on a short 0.5 mile course or crossing Lake Michigan during the Queen's Cup, we were constantly trimming sails by adjusting the cars, fiddling with the backstay, messing with the topping lift, tweaking the vang, and easing the outhaul only to then tighten it again moments later. All the while I'd keep my eye on the speed display and watch the numbers fluctuate in 10ths of a knot. Did our adjustment give us a better turn of speed or were the swells more responsible for variations? It didn't matter because I was part of the crew and was enjoying the learning process. But this sailing stuff did indeed seem complicated.

The race is on! (from the '08 Queen's Cup, by K. Walters)

I've since learned that sailing can be simple too. It's really only as involved and complicated as you wish to make it. Racers tend to relish the details involved with obtaining perfect sail shape. They like to stay proactive and make the boat perform to their competitive standards. Theirs boats respond to lots of attention and crew input.  Me? I'd rather let the boat do most of the sailing and just enjoy ride. The cruising sailboats I prefer are forgiving and comfortable, and perhaps slow by some standards. I don't race anymore and never really got into the competitive spirit when I did. In fact, part of why I sail at all is because it forces me to slow down and get away from all the people and events that seem to make life race by.

Racers tend to push the limits of their boats and sometimes their crews too. Most racers I know will carry as much sail as is needed to move as fast as possible, for the longest time possible. They may reef or make a sail change, but it's usually at the last minute. And that's probably ok if you've got a full and experienced crew who can make it happen quickly.

There have been at least a couple of instances where we left port during a cruise with a reefed main because I was overly cautious and didn't really care if we were going to sail at 5 knots or 7, only to find that we needed more sail area to make any headway at all, so we ended up shaking out the reef. You know the saying that says "It's time to reef when you think about it"? Well, I guess I take that to the extreme and will tie in a reef at the dock if the wind forecast is borderline. I don't have enough time at the helm of our new-to-us Catalina 34 to know exactly when we'll want a first and eventually second reef, but I knew s/v Island Bound was much happier with the first reef at 17 knots, and a second reef at about 20-23 knots.  If the predicted winds were approaching either, I'd put a reef in at the dock because it was lot easier than doing so on the water.

Clearly, speed isn’t usually the top priority when sailing as a cruiser. Or at least it isn’t on our sailboat. In fact, we put a lot of things above speed when we’re out cruising, even if it's just a weekend cruise. Safety, comfort, enjoyment, and relaxation all figure prominently above speed except in rare instances where one of the aforementioned priorities necessitates sailing as fast as possible. For example, if we need to outrun a storm (not likely) or pick up the pace to avoid a collision we’ll focus on making the boat move faster, but in general, we really don’t care if the knotmeter reads 6 or 7.

So I guess it goes without saying that to the eyes of a racing sailor, we’re probably out of trim most of the time. There are probably also occasions where our boat is under- or overcanvased, though we do pay more close attention to our sail selection and reefing than we do to our trim and sail shape. If we know a storm, squall or gusty winds are imminent, we may just sail undercanvased even if it means sailing along at slow speeds until the conditions change. Or maybe we're enjoying lunch in the cockpit so sail adjustments will just have to wait. Can you imagine a racer saying that? 


If you're a sailing cruiser (full-time or weekend warrior) or have aspirations of cruising under sail, I think you probably realize there's something about the cruiser mentality that sets these folks apart from racers and day sailers. Perhaps you've even read my thoughts on the cruising mentality in the post I titled "Water Wanderlust and the Cruiser's Spirit".
But understand that sometimes the contrasting mentality of sailboat racing can be beneficial for getting to know your particular boat. There's plenty to learn from entering a race or two. And probably even more to be learned by crewing for a race aboard someone else's boat. I wouldn't know the intricacies of changing headsail shape with car adjustments or the perceived benefits of variable backstay tension if I hadn't spent time as part of a racing crew. Most of all, spending a bit of time racing gave me the confidence to try different things on my own boat on my own time. Confidence (and competence) is a key ingredient for safe sailing and fun cruising.  

*A bit about some of those errors: The first time we hoisted the main on our first sailboat, we didn't thread the mainsail's bolt rope in the mast track. You've probably heard of a loose-footed main, but how about a loose-luffed main? And then there was the first time we dropped the spinnaker, and literally let it just drop into the water in front of the boat. Turns out that big ol' sail can wrap itself quite nicely around a keel and rudder. Always keep a mask and snorkel onboard!


  1. Anonymous23 February

    I enjoyed reading this article from the point of view of one who has experience, but yet is still learning. That is really the draw to sailing for me is the learning curve, it just keeps going! There is no end to what one sailor knows versus another. The truth of your story and what really hit home with me is that you simply love sailing for the truly wild spirit, constant adventure , and peace of mind that it really is! There is nothing like it on the planet simply put and whether you are sailing in a 12 foot dinghy or a 40 foot cruiser there really is no substitute for the wind in your hair and the salty spray on your face! Good or bad, I love sailing! I have taken the adult learn to sail course, watched endless videos, and read countless books on the subject, but I have come to find out that the best experience one can possess is their own. Sailing is an activity that requires you to be present and all acounted for each time you set off from land. While I like to wear my headphones in most of my activities, I have found that sailing is such an amazing experience that no music is necessary. Thanks for posting the article and I really liked the last part concerning the "errors" (this is how we learn best).

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Michelle! I agree, "no music necessary"!


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