Strong Medicine

hat if I told you there is a way to keep post-college sailors in the game instead of letting them drift away? Of mixing generations of sailors? Stirring club spirit? Building relationships between different sailors and regions? Making the game more fun for all sorts of people? Well, I’m telling you.

I have to admit I’m not talking about low-hanging fruit. It might be a no-brainer to want it all, but it takes brains to pull this off. I’m talking about team racing. Not a new invention at all, but it is a newly important piece of the puzzle in the United States and the UK.

Team racing took off in collegiate sailing in New England. Then clubs began to pick up where the schools left off. Then it spread. Think youth recruitment, member satisfaction and bragging rights. Because boats are supplied by regatta organizers, it’s easy for a team to just show up.

Each race is between two teams with usually three boats apiece. The team with the first boat to finish doesn’t necessarily win, so team racing ups the ante on the mental side. Tufts coach Ken Legler observes, “There’s a hump in the learning curve. In your first experience maybe you don’t know what hit you. The fun begins when you learn how to make plays as a team.”

It’s perfectly OK to gang up on another boat—in fact, that is the game—in order to come out with a three-boat total of 10 points or less. That’s how you win. A 2-3-5 combination beats a 1-4-6. In four-boat teams, the numbers are even more complicated. (I’ve heard it described as “organized chaos.”) Being a good sailor is only a starting point. Until you go team racing, you will never turn around and sail downwind to attack another boat, but imagine the possibilities. The rules of fleet racing are designed to keep boats apart. The rules of team racing bring them back together again.

At the Newport Harbor Yacht Club in Southern California, they like racing four-on-four and sail in the stable, forgiving Harbor 20, which was originally an old guy’s boat. The club’s sailing director, Jenn Lancaster, says the benefits have exceeded expectations.

“We had to sell this to the owners,” she says, “so we made them the crew. We’ll put an All-American college sailor on the helm of a boat with a 60-year-old pulling strings. Suddenly we’ve bridged the generations. Now everybody knows each other, and it’s inspiring. Our big annual team race event is the Baldwin Cup. For a while it was hard persuading East Coast people to come west, but that was then and this is now. This year, we’re oversubscribed.”

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