They say every cruiser turns into a racer when there’s another boat in the vicinity. I’m not so sure that’s true. I’ve sailed with plenty of people who could not care one iota about staying ahead of the boat coming up from astern, or catching up to the one that’s just appeared on the horizon; the journey’s the thing, not the rate at which it’s accomplished—why be in a hurry to end it? I’ve also sailed with plenty of people who see every other boat as a foe to be vanquished; maximum pleasure comes from getting the boat sailing at maximum efficiency—why would you settle for less?
Somewhere along this spectrum lies the sweet spot for every sailor. Most of us, I suspect, swing both ways. We know how to relax and let the pleasure of being on the water on a perfect sailing day infuse our souls. We also know when to let our inner racer out of the cage. There is a time and place for this. If you have a cockpit full of non-sailing friends out for a pleasant afternoon jaunt, you won’t score any domestic points by leaping around the boat fiddling with your sheet leads or tugging on your Cunningham and giving the overtaking boat your best gunfighter glare. On the other hand, if it’s just you and your regular crew, knock yourself out.
Even in the heat of battle, it is best for the competitive cruiser to proceed with some decorum. Rule One is to appear nonchalant. Few things are more distressing
than to be seen working hard to trim your sails, but then be overtaken anyway. In order to avoid this embarrassing scenario, you should have a fair idea of your adversary’s speed potential. In some cases this is easy—if he has a sportier-looking boat, just lean back and do not under any circumstances make eye contact. As he overtakes, act surprised to see him and give him a friendly wave. You weren’t really trying, right?
Laminated sails are a dead give-away of a sailor’s attitude to boatspeed. So too are worn-out, yellowed Dacron sails, but beware—off the wind, such sails will be no slower than your own and sometimes faster, given that they are already nice and full with no need to ease halyards or outhauls or any of that stuff.
If you judge the other boat to be potentially no faster than your own, you can engage, but be subtle. Limit sail trim to a couple of sneaky cranks on the genoa sheet winch or a surreptitious tweak of the mainsheet when the other skipper is looking the other way. Ideally, you will approach from slightly to leeward and then work up to windward to steal your unsuspecting opponent’s wind, having first positioned yourself comfortably with a beer in your hand and an I-wasn’t-really-trying expression. A regal nod of acknowledgement is all that’s required here, and it’s probably all you’ll get back from your victim, who wasn’t-really-trying either. It’s hard to smile while you’re grinding your teeth.
Photo by Peter Nielsen