Many sailors never sailing race, and that is too bad for gaining sailing knowledge and skills. Nothing will hone your skills and sharpen your awareness of what your sailboat is potential of faster than a little competition. Although you may discover a competitive character you didn’t know you had. Competitors must navigate a circuitous course of bluffs, and buoys on all angles of sail, all the while trying to predict the next wind shift and turn it to advantage. Also, you play with various combinations of the jib, main and spinnaker in the pre-start maneuvers. It’s a good challenge, you use a lot of sailing methods into a single day.

Every sailor can benefit from best practices of what happens on a race (regatta) course even if you never test that understanding in a race. You can learn how to communicate clearly, stay calm, and confident. If you decide to give it a try, even at the most basic and upper level, I can guarantee that, lose or win, you will be a better sailor and have some great memories at the end of the day.

Sail racing courses
Sail Racing Courses

How a Sailing Race is Run

A sailboat race is simple in concept. You start across an imaginary line between a buoy or pin, to port, and a race committee boat (from which the race is organized and run) to starboard. After that in the case of an inshore race over a closed course, you sail around a prescribed sequence of buoys, generally leaving each one on your port side. These buoys are often arranged in a big triangle, with the first buoy, or windward mark, a mile or two directly upwind of the starting line. After rounding this first point at the end of the first leg, the fleet sails a pair of reaching legs along the other two sides of the triangle. Because reaching legs offer only limited opportunities for passing sailors often refer to them as “spinnaker parades” many fleets prefer a simple windward-leeward course a series of beats and runs. Racing dead downwind offers far more passing opportunities than a reach, making it much more challenging.

Fleet Racing is the most common form of competitive sailing that involves boats racing around a course. The objective is simple, to be the first to cross the finish line.

Team Racing typically consists of two teams each of three boats competing against each other. It depends on excellent boat handling skills and rapid tactical decision making.

Oceanic/Offshore Racing and cruising are throughout the world. Oceanic racing is defined as any offshore race over 800 miles.

Para World Sailing is multi-class sailing and in para, classes organized by the World Sailing.

Cruising is the most commonly enjoyed sailing discipline. Cruising can be a coastal day sail or longer distance international journeys.

Sail racing signal flags
Sail Racing Signal Flags

Before the racing takes place, the race committee aboard the committee boat hoists a series of flags or displays a set of numbers and letters to let the racers know what course is being run. The committee then blows a horn (a sound signal device) and hoists a predetermined class or section, the flag to let the first group of competitors know it has exactly five minutes until its start. At four minutes to the start, the race committee blows another horn and raises a preparatory flag signal, usually a solid blue flag or the “P” flag, a white flag with a thick blue border. This gives the timekeepers aboard the boats getting ready to race an opportunity to confirm that they have an accurate countdown. At one minute to the start, the preparatory flag comes down and another horn sounds. It is at this time that race in the starting area becomes interesting, to say the least, as boats bob and weave for a position within the constraints of the international rules that govern racing. The goal of each boat is to hit the line at full speed at the starting signal, without inadvertently going over too early. Finally, the race committee blows a horn, or sometimes fires a gun, and at the same time lowers the section flag. With that the sailors are off and running, beating toward the windward mark at the top of the first leg.

Competitive Seamanship

Success during pre-start maneuvering and while navigating the course requires a wide range of skills, every one of which also applies to cruising or daysailing. Pre-start maneuvering, for example, uses many of the same techniques that are used when executing a crew overboard drill or docking under sail. You also need to be able to tack or jib crisply even when another boat is blocking your wind or you have not yet accelerated to full speed. In other words, you need to be able to handle your boat in less than optimum conditions, often at slow speeds. Inevitably there will be times just before the start when it is important to slow down maybe you are in danger of crossing the line early, or you need to let a competitor pass in front of you which means luffing your sails yet keeping the boat under control.

Sailboat racing also places a premium on boat speed on all angles of sail, in many ways the essence of good seamanship. In earlier chapters, we talked about how to fine-tune your sails for speed, but you will not know if what you are doing is working until you see how you stack up against another sailboat. The theory is one thing, but the practice is another. The mainsail draft depth that works best, for example, varies from boat to boat and depends on the conditions. Some boats sail best in a slight chop with a relatively flat main and jib, while others need plenty of bellies. When you are sailing side by side with competitors, it will not take long to figure out whether your sails are shaped correctly. Then the wind changes velocity or direction and everybody starts catching up again. Clearly, something needs to be done, so you start fine-tuning maybe you take in on the outhaul to flatten the mainsail or let it off a little to give the sail more depth. Maybe you move the jib lead forward or aft to fine-tune the draft depth in that sail as well. Taking in or easing the cunningham or main halyard a couple of inches will move the draft forward or aft, respectively. Maybe you need to adjust the jib lead or the mainsheet to increase or reduce leech twist. Keep working at it, changing your settings by just a few inches and watching for a minute to see what happens to your boat speed.

There is nothing like this kind of sailing to give you a better feel for sail trimming. Another way to make your boat faster is by changing the distribution of your crew weight. In addition to hiking out to keep a boat on its feet in heavy air, crew members can also help maximize boat speed in light or moderate conditions.

Another light air technique is to shift crew to leeward to induce a little heel. It may also help reduce wetted surface area. This helps the sails maintain an airfoil shape through force of gravity, as opposed to just hanging limp.

When sailing downwind, on the other hand, crews often gather in the stern to keep the bow from digging in and lifting the rudder out of the water, possibly causing a broach. This tactic helps to reduce wetted surface area and to get the mainsail up and away from the water where it will catch plenty of breezes.

The Result

If you’ve never raced before, you may be surprised at how many racing boats in your area are looking for additional crew. Sailing is both challenging and time-consuming, which can make it difficult for skippers to gather all the sailors they need.

The result of even the most casual sailboat racing is a greater awareness of your boat and greater confidence in your abilities that cannot fail to improve your sailing. Some sailors contend that they are not in any hurry, that they sail in order to relax and that maximum relaxation means maximum laziness. Being a sailor does not mean getting blown around like a paper boat on a pond. It means sailing. It means mastering the art of seamanship. It means tricking your boat efficiently and intelligently, if for no other reason than because that is part of the fun.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here