Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 1

Boat at Balmain

A boat finishing a club race at the Balmain Sailing Club, Sydney. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

I used to know nothing about cars until I met a guy who seemingly knew everything about them. He introduced me to a reality show about building custom cars called “American Hot Rod”. Initially I only agreed to watch an episode at a time with him as a way to bond and learn a little about his passion; however, not long after, I found myself hooked on the show despite my initial lack of interest. The reason was simple enough and long familiar to producers of popular TV: the show wasn’t so much about cars as it was about people, their relationships and tensions between them. And there were plenty of dramas in that shop.

It’s hard to talk about sailing in some ways; you either fall in love with being on the water and making the boat go faster, or don’t. If you don’t, I can talk all day about the primeval awe I experience when the boat slides from one wave to another in an offshore race, and it won’t move you much. The almost meditative feeling of presence, of being completely in the moment I experience while sailing can be described but not totally shared with someone who is not familiar with it. However, sailing and amateur racing is exactly the same as a TV show about building custom cars in one regard: it’s about people more than it is about the boat and the wind, and it’s as much about how people interact with each other and react to circumstances as it is about their objective sailing skills.

I won’t talk too much about points of sail here; for now I’ll concentrate on dramas of becoming an amateur racing sailor.

Humble Beginnings

Sailing is very popular in Australia. The easiest way to get on a boat for a grownup who was not initiated into sailing in a very young age by their parents is to show up in a sailing club before a race and put your name on a board or ask around whether anyone needs crew. Bringing some alcohol and/or snacks helps, too. I did that after taking a short sailing course for total beginners teaching the basics of sailing a dinghy.

The first few club races after getting on a yacht for the first time were overwhelming. I didn’t understand half of what was being said, no matter how hard I tried and how loud the skipper was. Mind you, the skipper, an old cranky man with a heart of gold who always welcomed newcomers and muppets on his boat but still cared quite a lot about winning, didn’t help much. “Pull on that blue rope! No, not that one, the other one!” – “Tommy, that’s not blue,” – someone less flustered than me would pipe in. “Well, the other blue then!”

From time to time (so rarely that I usually deny having ever done it) I would put the headsail sheet on the winch counter-clockwise instead of clockwise which made it impossible to pull it in. I also once wondered out loud about the dying wind on a downwind leg after going around the mark (you don’t feel the wind as much when the wind is behind you so this question really betrays you as a complete beginner). In other words, I made typical beginner’s mistakes.

On the other hand, I worked hard on the winch handle, grinding with all my might, and I was very grateful for a chance to crew on a boat. I was learning the timing of letting the lazy sheet go and pulling it in on the other side through every single tack and I was getting used to ignoring Tommy’s yelling. I felt invincible and very proud of myself (that didn’t last), especially once I knew that I would get a ride on the same boat for every race and wouldn’t have to compete for a spot with other absolute beginners.

There are other ways for people to get into racing; some are invited by a friend or an acquaintance, others start with a Competent Crew course. No matter what your beginnings are, however, for quite a while you are protected by low expectations of other people. If you are lucky enough to get on a boat with people who are happy to teach you, they will nurture your natural talents and show you what you don’t know; on most boats you are expected to pick a lot of the stuff yourself. Still, nobody in their right mind will expect you to know much in the beginning. And if they let you do any actual work and the boat happens to get a prize in that race (a hat or a bottle of beer), chances are, the race organiser will hand the prize to you as a way to encourage your further pursuits. Such are the perks of a total beginner in a friendly sailing club, and if you are a girl, all the better for you at that stage.

The most important thing you can do at that stage is to be reliable and always show up when you promise to. No, wait – that’s the most important thing you can do at any stage, and probably not just in sailing.

I started with Twilight races, just like hundreds of other people who come to a sailing club after a work day for a relaxed social race, with dinner and drinks after. How relaxed a race is depends on a few things. Each boat has a style, and it depends a lot on the skipper (who is generally also the owner of the boat) – how competitive and how patient he or she is.

Sometimes in the summer I go for a walk to a big nature reserve next to my place and watch a twilight race on Wednesday night from a huge rock overlooking the harbour. When you look at the fleet from that high up, it looks beautiful and very peaceful. The boats are moving smoothly, tacking near the shore, their sail trimmed perfectly (or so it looks from afar). Yet I know that on quite a few of them the skipper is yelling, “Bring it on, come on, faster!” and a poor person on the winch is sweating and trying his best to pull the huge genoa on as fast as possible. Remember me putting the sheet on the winch the wrong way a couple of times? Well, I’ve heard stories about a frustrated skipper who kept telling a beginner off for doing exactly that in the course of an entire race. At the end of the race, fuming, the skipper hit the unfortunate sailor on the head with the winch handle. They never sailed on the same boat again.

That was an exception rather than the rule, though. Skippers don’t usually go completely ballistic and get physical with their crew. If there is too much yelling on a boat, that’s not a good sign in general – and can be very demotivating, especially when you have just started doing something. Maybe there are some people who learn better when they are yelled at but I am not definitely not one of them. So the best sailing I’ve ever done has been with people who almost never yell.

Part 2