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How to Race Your Cruiser

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Take Your Sailing to the Next Level, and Have a Lot of Fun Doing It

Every sailboat is at heart a racing boat, and every sailor should do a little racing, simply because it will make you a better sailor.
This is why renowned naval architect and yachtsman Uffa Fox, in his classic work "According to Uffa," admonished beginners to get out racing as soon as possible, because: “Once you race every fault is pointed out in the way other boats sail away from you, and when you do anything well this too is revealed as you start sailing away from the rest of the fleet.”

Beyond that, sailboat racing is also deeply satisfying, if for no other reason than you absolutely, positively, cannot use your engine, which can be a pain, but means that when you’ve reached the finish you’ve done so through your seamanship and ingenuity alone. Of course, to an outsider, racing can appear not only confusing, but stressful to the point of being downright painful. However, it’s not half as chaotic as it seems once you understand the basic principles involved.

There are also plenty of races and programs expressly designed to make racing as accessible as possible, and even the biggest, fanciest regattas typically have a place for beginners, in the interest of building their fleets.

Remember too that the other crews out there want newbies like you to join in, since the more competition they have the better. So let’s get out there, mix it up a little and have some fun.

Getting You and Your Boat Ready

The first step to getting into racing, like many things, is simply to do it. As you do so, however, it’s not a bad idea to ease yourself in. Take your time. Realize that if you’re sailing a cruising boat with standard sails and equipment you probably won’t be the first around the mark—and that’s OK. Over time, and with some upgrades, you can improve your chances of getting first place, or a “bullet.” But in the beginning, just go out and have fun.

“Cruising people that are just starting out in racing really don’t know what is going on,” says Rich Stearns, co-author (along with SAIL’s executive editor Adam Cort) of the book Getting Started in Sailboat Racing. “You want to do a little research. If you don’t know the rules, then hit the starting line a little late. No one wants to get yelled at, so having someone shout ‘You’re an idiot’ at you while you’re out with friends trying to have a good time isn’t a good place to start.”

Once you’ve got a few races under your belt and decide it is something you want to pursue, then it’s time to start upgrading your kit. “You want to make sure you have enough sail power to get around the course,” says Stearns. “If you’re doing a Wednesday night race, it gets to be evening and the wind starts dying, and if you’re stuck out there it will be no fun.”

A good place to start is by looking at what you have and identifying what you need. Start with your jib. Jibs and genoas are what get a boat going fast, so that is where your first upgrade should be. After that take a look at your spinnaker, if you have one—although there are plenty of jib-and-main, or JAM races, in which spinnakers aren’t necessary.

“One of the things that cruisers don’t realize is that they will have been sold a cruising spinnaker, and cruising spinnakers are not made to go downwind, they’re made to reach,” Stearns says. “Most asymmetrical spinnakers for cruising boats are small and they’re short-luffed, so they don’t work well downwind, and everyone is disappointed that they can’t sail with the fast guys. A good running spinnaker for a 35ft boat will be 3ft longer than a cruising or reaching spinnaker. It’s not just that they’re shaped a little differently, the physical sizes are different.”

Another important thing to remember is that you have to sail your boat for what it is. If you have a cruising boat, it will handle and sail differently than a racing boat, and you just have to accept that, even if that means footing off in the interest of boatspeed. “One of the things cruising sailors always do wrong,” says Stearns, “is that when they’re at the starting line they try to point like the racers, but they’re designed differently and sail differently. Race your cruiser like a cruiser. And most importantly, go fast.”
Another tip Stearns has for cruisers who are getting into racing? Clean your boat. “You’ve got to wash the bottom of the boat. It’s a big deal,” Stearns says. “If you’re going to go racing, clean the bottom of the boat. People say, ‘Well I had it washed three weeks ago.’ Big deal, clean it again. When someone tells me they did poorly because they forgot to clean their bottom, in sailing terms that means they’re telling me ‘I’m stupid.’” And that is certainly not the impression you want to make.

Finally, as you continue to improve your game, make sure you have the controls you need to ensure your sails are working at their best. For the jib, this means having an adjustable jib track, so you can move the sheet lead fore and aft, which in turn controls the curvature, or “twist,” in the sail’s leech. For the main this means having a vang or traveler to control twist; an easily adjustable outhaul for controlling the “draft depth,” or depth of the curvature of the sail; and a cunningham for controlling the draft’s fore and aft position. (You can also do this with halyard tension, as is the case with most jibs, but a cunningham is much easier to adjust on the fly.)

The most important thing, of course, is to have fun. That’s what you’re out there for. “It’s important to remember what you’re doing,” Stearns says. “If you’re a cruiser racing on Wednesday nights you’re not breaking records, you’re not in the America’s Cup. Keep it light, have fun and ease into it.”

How to Navigate a Racecourse

For all their seeming complexity, there are basically three kinds of racecourses: short inshore courses around a series of buoys; short inshore courses around fixed navigational features like islands and headlands; and longer point-to-point courses, typically farther offshore.

Start procedure is essentially identical for all three types of races—whether it’s a casual Wednesday-night “beer can” race or the America’s Cup. Looking from behind the starting line you have a race committee (RC) boat to starboard (the “boat end” of the line) and a buoy at the “pin end” of the line to port. Most starting lines are also perpendicular to the wind, with the first leg being a beat to the first turning point, or the “windward mark.”

If there are multiple options in terms of courses, the race committee will post a series of letters or numbers indicating which fleet is following which course. In many cases, the race committee will also post the compass heading to the first mark. All subsequent leg directions are relative to this heading.

Speaking of marks, in the vast majority of races, you leave all buoys to port. This is even true at the finish line, which is again delineated by a buoy to port and a race committee boat to starboard.

Finally, be aware that every race has a set of sailing instructions, commonly referred to as “SIs.” These specify everything from course configurations and the signals the race committee will use to designate them to the starting times to any other special conditions that might be in play. And here’s a dirty little secret: almost no one really reads them, so if you do you may actually have a better idea of what’s going on than the veterans.

Rules of the Road

Here’s another dirty secret: few sailors read the official Racing Rules of Sailing (RSS) much more closely than they do the SIs. In other words, don’t feel like you don’t belong just because you can’t recite them chapter and verse.

That said, there are a few basic rules of the road you must obey when two or more boats want to sail through the same piece of water at the same time. Specifically:

A port-tack boat always gives way to a boat on starboard

A boat to windward always gives way to a boat to leeward

An overtaking boat astern always gives way to a boat ahead

Beyond that, besides the start (where things can be a bit tricky), the most important rule to be aware of is the one that requires an outside boat to allow an inside boat room to go around a mark, provided the inside boat has a clearly established overlap at the moment it crosses what is typically a three-boat-length-radius “zone” around the mark.

That’s pretty much it. Obviously, if you plan to actually begin racing you’re going to want to want to pick up a copy of the rules from US Sailing. (In addition to providing nice spiral-bound copies, US Sailing also has them available for free online in a pdf format at However, you’ll find that 90 percent of the time these four rules are the ones that matter, especially if you err on the side of caution and don’t stick your bow into the middle of a crowded windward mark rounding, where all the yelling happens.

How a Race Starts

For beginners, the start is the most complicated and most stressful part of the whole experience. As with the RSS, however, starts are not half so complicated as they appear, especially after you break them down into their constituent parts.

A Conventional Start: The key here is a simple sequence of flag hoists and douses involving two different flags: a class flag (which is unique to each section, or group, taking part in a regatta or series of races) and the international code “P” flags, or preparatory flags.

To begin the sequence, the race committee will sound a horn and hoist the class flag to indicate the starting series has begun and that there are five minutes to the start.

At four minutes to the start, the RC will sound yet another horn and hoist the P flag—a good time to check that your countdown watch is in sync with the RC.

At one minute to the start, the P flag will come down accompanied by another horn.

A minute later, the class flag will come down at the same time another horn sounds signaling the start of the race.

Beyond that, all the bobbing and weaving you see is just the boats positioning themselves in an attempt to hit the starting line at full speed when the starting signal sounds. In the event anyone is over early, the RC will also blow a series of horns and hoist any number of different flags. They’ll also typically call out the names of all violators over the VHF. The SIs will detail exactly how this is done.

A Pursuit Start: Not quite ready to embroil yourself in the same starting format used by some of the world’s most elite sailors? Fair enough. Then a “pursuit race” may be the thing for you.

With this approach, the RC runs a staggered start based on each boat’s individual handicapping rating, with the slowest boats starting first and the fastest boats last. Obviously, this cuts down substantially on starting line congestion. Better still, in contrast to a conventional race in which finish times are “corrected” based on the various handicap ratings to see which boat actually won, in a pursuit race the first boat to the finish wins—simple as that. You haven’t lived until you and your humble your 35-footer have fended off a last-minute rush by a grand prix racing machine with only a couple of hundred yards to go to the finish.

What is My Boat’s “Rating?”

One thing cruising sailors have to deal with when they decide to race is determining their boat’s Performance Handicap Racing Fleet rating—commonly referred to as a PHRF (pronounced “perf”) rating. Essentially, this is a handicapping system that race organizers use to level the playing field by subtracting time from a boat’s finishing time depending on how fast it is. (If you’ve ever heard of a boat winning on “corrected time,” this is why.) While there are a number of other ratings systems out there, like IRC or HPR, most cruising sailors race under PHRF.

In principle, the faster the boat the lower the rating. For example, a Catalina 30 typically has a PHRF rating of around 180 (which means 180 seconds will be subtracted from its finish time for each mile raced), while the slightly larger and substantially faster J/109 has a PHRF rating of around 70. In this case, the J/109 “gives” the Catalina 110 seconds, or just under 2 minutes, for each mile raced on the course.

It is important to note that the handicapping system is based on boats being sailed to the top of their potential—the PHRF rating is designed to handicap boats, not sailors.

In addition, it’s important to be aware that PHRF ratings change depending on where you sail—due to things lke the sailing conditions or the success a particular design has had in years past. (Unlike other handicapping ratings like IRC or the old IOR, PHRF ratings are entirely subjective.) Since the ratings are developed locally, if you’re looking to get into doing some races, whether it’s a Wednesday night series at the local yacht club or a local regatta you’d like to try your hand in, reach out to your local sailing authority and they should be able to get you a PHRF rating. You can also find out more about PHRF ratings through U.S. Sailing at

Racing Insurance

All yacht clubs or sailing associations that host regattas (be it a championship regatta or Wednesday night races) need adequate insurance coverage for the event—US Sailing says that at a minimum the club or association needs a Regatta Liability policy. However if you really want to be protected, US Sailing recommends that clubs or associations have a more comprehensive program, one that will cover not only the club and its assets but the board members, flag officers, volunteers and employees as well. Chances are that your local sailing association or yacht club will have plenty of insurance, but if you’re looking to get into racing asking about the details of the policy can’t hurt.

Get Race Ready

A few more quick tips for getting your boat race ready

  • If you are sailing in a spinnaker class but do not have a spinnaker pole, you can use a piece of line attached to a foredeck cleat and the bow pulpit as a makeshift tack line. Attaching the line to both the cleat and the pulpit will allow you to pay out or take in line more easily if you need to adjust the tack height while under sail.
  • Get some padding to put on your boat’s lifelines, it will be a welcome bit of comfort for the members of your crew who will be hiking out on the rails.
  • Secure everything belowdecks. A run around the racecourse will have you heeling, pitching and tacking more than usual, so make sure that when you get back to the dock your saloon has stayed in good condition.
  • And again, clean your bottom.

Do You Know Your Racing Signals? Take a Quiz to Test Your Knowledge!

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