I was born in 1955, and although I was a tad young to actually follow the first Observer Single-Handed Transatlantic Race, I grew up in the age of the pioneers of solo offshore sailing—Francis Chichester, Robin Knox-Johnson, Alec Rose, all Knighted for their singlehanded circumnavigations, Sir Robin notably being the first to do so nonstop.
As a kid devouring newspaper accounts of their adventures, I would forever find myself thinking, “What would I do in [fill in the blank] situation?” Since then I have come to believe this same thought process is, in fact, a critical part of learning good seamanship, or as I define it: the acquired skills and experiences one gathers that, as a body of information, one can then use to estimate and execute the actions needed to manage a boat in such a fashion as to keep the vessel, its equipment and people in good order—and so arrive at one’s destination, all in one piece.
(As a corollary to this definition, there’s also the art of the MacGyver, knowing what to do when the stuffing hits the fan.)
It is notable that in the first OSTAR—which included five entries, 80 percent of which had an LOA of 25ft or less—all five boats succeeded in completing the course, and every single one of the competitors sailed aboard a boat he already owned. “They run what they brung,” so to speak, something I’m often reminded of when thinking about offshore solo-sailing’s more user-friendly cousin, doublehanded racing.
Next time you are walking down the dock, take a moment to study the boats around you. Realistically, not too many of them are “raceboats.” What you’ll likely see is a small sampling of the pantheon of post-war fiberglass production boats most of us sail.
While you’re at it, stop and think about how you generally sail. More often than not, it is probably with very few other people aboard, or even just one other person. In fact, this is the most common boat and crew configuration one sees: “regular” production boats with just two people on them. Add to that the increasing difficulties skippers have these days finding crew, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why doublehanded racing continues to gain traction—to the point where doublehanded, offshore keelboat racing will even be debuting in 2024 as a new event at the Olympic Games.
To be clear, the growing popularity of doublehanded sailing is not so much an offshoot of the Olympics; rather doublehanded racing’s new Olympic status serves to bring into even sharper relief just how much fun it is and why it makes so much sense.
Recently, no less a luminary than Volvo Ocean Race veteran and North Sails president, Ken Read, sailed a Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300 doublehanded in the 2020 Key West Race. Afterward, an article he wrote about the race included such phrases as “embracing a new challenge,” “you need only one crew,” and “I’m just smartening up to what other people have been saying for a long time.” Toward the end of the piece he sums things up by saying, “All I’m really sure of at this point is that we had fun!”
In fact, doublehanded keelboat racing has been around in the United States since around 1977. It’s almost still universally done aboard “normal” boats, run by “normal” sailors, as opposed to a bunch of pros.
Still not convinced doublehanded racing might be for you? How about this? Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “racer,” if you are reaching along and notice a boat of a similar size overtaking you to weather, you will take steps to prevent being overtaken. Welcome to the world of doublehanded racing!
Note that as an added benefit, doublehanded racing not only encourages, but demands the entire crew be involved in all aspects of running the boat, the same as when shorthanded cruising or passagemaking. Aboard fully crewed race boats, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the time only a couple of people are actually doing anything. The rest of the crew’s simply serving as ballast, or “rail meat.” Not so with doublehanded racing. When there are only two sailors aboard, both sailors do everything. Navigating, weather analysis, sail changes, cooking and cleaning: you name it, pretty much everything you might ever need to do while out cruising is part of the drill for doublehanded racing as well.
As an example, Dave Tabor of Irvington, Virginia, frequently sails with just his wife when weeknight racing on the Chesapeake Bay. According to Tabor, the 90-minute drive from Washington to Baltimore combined with having to recruit and train a full crew just got to be too much. Sailing in the non-spinnaker class, it didn’t take long before the couple was winning races. “Sailing, racing, my own boat with my wife was a natural extension of simply going sailing,” Tabor says.
Tabor says he’d known about the Bermuda 1-2 for a good 20 years before entering and competing in the 2015 and 2017 editions aboard his CS Merlin 36. He says he was attracted by the challenge of sailing 650 miles alone on his own boat, then racing back to Newport with just one crew. In his second Bermuda 1-2, in 2017, he sailed with his wife, and the two of them took a third in class. It’s currently on their radar again for another couple of editions out.
While on the subject of the Bermuda 1-2, it’s worth noting that in 2017 skippers’ “significant others” raced as crew aboard 10 of the 37 entries. This translates into 27 percent of the fleet and 13 percent of the sailors overall.
Personally, I have been involved in promoting and sailing in doublehanded racing for 30 years. I was the guy who proposed a doublehanded class in the Block Island Race in 1990, which included 18 boats in two classes. A few weeks later the Vineyard Race got into the act as well, also offering a doublehanded class.
Recently I took a look at the state of doublehanded racing across the country to see how things stand and found there are seven or eight regions where it is prospering.
The oldest group is the Bermuda 1-2 community, based out of the Newport Yacht Club in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to being the official organizing authority for the Bermuda 1-2, which has been held every odd-numbered year since 1977, the club also hosts a 160-mile, solo race around Block Island sound (which serves as a qualifier for the main event) and the New England Solo Twin, a race for both solo and doublehanded boats in which 90 percent of the boats race with two sailors aboard. Again, the boats and crews are 95 percent or more “normal” boats and sailors.
Closely following this group is San Francisco’s Singlehanded Sailing Society. Among other events, this group runs the Three Bridge Fiasco, an annual event that regularly attracts some 300 boats, among them a number of doublehanded entries, and the Single Handed Transpac. Similarly, in Southern California, the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association hosts a dozen or so races throughout the year dedicated to both solo and doublehanded sailors.
In the Great Lakes, two groups are currently leading the region’s shorthanded efforts. The first of these, the Great Lakes Single Handed Society, focuses mainly on solo racing, but is a great source of information on shorthanded sailing in general. The second, the Lake Michigan Singlehanded Society organizes both solo and doublehanded races, with a mission statement that might as well be a cut and paste for pretty much every other shorthanded sailing group out there: “To encourage adventure, self-reliance and competition in the tradition of singlehanded sailing.”
Finally, in recent years the Chesapeake Short Handed Sailing Society has also begun creating a community of likeminded sailors, both by running its own races and working to organize shorthanded starts at a number of existing event in the area. Bottom line, opportunities to give doublehanded keelboat racing abound, so what are you waiting for?
Doublehanded racing is becoming popular for a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is the difficulty of recruiting, training and managing reliable crew in an increasingly busy world—a problem that becomes exponentially more different the more sailors you have on board. Beyond that, the reasons for the growing popularity of doublehanded racing include the fact that:
• Doublehanded racing is a fantastic adventure and personal challenge
• You need only one crew, making it the perfect sport for a couple. As an added benefit, it’s also great practice for the “Exit Plan,” i.e., casting off lines and sailing over the horizon as part of a sabbatical or retirement
• The best boat to go racing aboard is the one you already have
• Any upgrades you may need to make to your boat for “racing” will also be perfectly useful when you are in cruising mode: examples include liferafts, EPIRBs and heavy-weather sails, all just as useable in coastal waters as they are 1,000 miles off-shore
• From the standpoint of a regatta organizer, a doublehanded division is an easy add-on, bringing with it yet more participation and entry fees.
The following is a list of shorthanded sailing organizations in the United States and a sampling of the regattas that now include a doublehanded sailing division.
Bayview Mackinac Race bycmack.com
Bermuda One-Two Yacht Race bermuda1-2.org
Chesapeake Shorthanded Sailing Society chbaysss.org
Chicago YC Race to Mackinac cycracetomackinac.com
Great Lakes Single Handed Society solosailors.org
Ida Lewis Distance Race ilyc.org/distancerace
Lake Michigan Singlehanded Society lmssonline.com
Marblehead to Halifax Race marbleheadtohalifax.com
Newport Bermuda Race bermudarace.com
Newport Yacht Club newportyachtclub.org
Pacific Cup pacificcup.org
Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Society pssala.com
Singlehanded Sailing Society sfbaysss.org
Joe Cooper is a sailing coach, instructor and consultant specializing in shorthanded offshore sailing. He is also a consultant for Quantum Sails. Learn more at joecoopersailing.com