I was honored to be a part of the Seattle Boat Show Panel on How Racing Prepared Me for Cruising with Wendy Hinman, Garth Wilcox, Stephanie Campbell Schwenk, and Ryan Helling. I respect these sailors immensely, it was a thrill to be on stage with them. Especially since they all have hopped a pond either racing or cruising many times and I am in my fourth season of sailing locally.
When I started sailing in Seattle in 2016 I had a vision of cruising and relaxing at various anchorages around the Puget Sound. Never did I expect to race. However, Margaret Pommert was running an all women’s race team that year through Seattle Sailing Club (SSC) and asked me to join. She explained that racing was the fastest way for me to learn boat handling and get to my cruising dreams. She was right. (As Margaret usually is!)
Two seasons in, I was skipper and then tactitian on an all womans race team and purchasing my first keel boat to cruise. Racing got me on the water regularly. I did the Ballard Cup Monday night series for three years in a row. This meant weekly races from April-August. I added in other big races on many other boats and then the Wednesday night series because I was hooked. The Puget Sound, and particularly the Seattle area has opportunity to race every night of the week if you so choose.
There are racing classes and seminars each season if you like to learn that way. I did all of mine through SSC and learned a ton on rules and regulations as well as boat and spinnaker handling. Not only did racing get me on the water consistently, but it afforded me the opportunity to sail in lots of different conditions. They say light wind sailing is the skill of a true sailor. Learning how to balance weight, sail trim and getting the right wind angles to make boats go during our gentle breeze summer days was great experience. It was also great when the wind kicked up to 25kts and we had to make choices on reefing or not and what to do with the spinnaker.
Distance racing, like the two person Race to the Straits, really prepared me for the savvy of navigation and short-handed sailing. Watching currents, trying to calculate distance and speed, finding the right track while keeping a vigilant eye on conditions was empowering. I started to really learn about how to plot a course and have strategy, while also being flexible with what was happening and adjust course. Long hours on the water with intense focus taught me stamina, especially in cold rain. You start to learn what gear you need, what food you need, and what your edges are in intense racing conditions. It makes cruising seem easier as you have more than just one sail bag with you and can stay at anchor or shorten course if you can and want.
I also learned what I didn’t like through racing. I know I can be out in 30-35kt breeze with wave state 4-6ft, which is as big as it gets here in the Sound. I can handle it, I know what to do and how a boat can perform. I also hate it. I will never again go out in that on purpose, which is what people do to race sometimes. Nope, not for me. Other team mates found the opposite and love the thrill, speed and intensity. Good for them, I will cheer them on from my cozy warm cabin with a book!
Another great thing about racing is that when shit goes down you are with a team and a fleet. There are people around to assist on your boat or others. I’ve seen other teams bail races to help another boat in distress or pull someone out of the water. I deeply appreciate the safety minded sportsmanship of sailors. You also get to watch how other boats and sailors trim and sail, learning that there is no one way to sail a boat. If you sail on many different boats you start to learn what kind of boats you like. Do you like fast sleek racers, or racer/cruisers, or even the bigger cruise boats that come out for fun regattas? How do you like the rigging and set up? What positions do you prefer, what are your strengths and challenges. As you continue, you learn your way.
This leads me to communication. Being on a race team, if you really want to be competitive, takes lots of communication. When I was skipper and tactitian, we talked before the race about conditions, strategy and intentions. During the race we talked through tactics and communicated about every move. Then after we talked about what went well, what didn’t, what we appreciated in one another and what we learned overall. This exponentially helped us grow as sailors and a team. I do this with Eric or whoever I cruise with now. It is bonding and effective, it builds trust and skills.
In sailing the difference between a fun ride and a shitty ride isn’t always weather, it’s the people you sail with. To be good crew you want to show up on time, and with proper gear and food. Do not over-sell yourself as this is a safety issue. Be honest and forthcoming on your experience. Do not be afraid to ask questions or not know. Also don’t be shy to make requests, “I can do any kind of trim, but prefer main.” Want to be popular? People on bow can get a ride anywhere, anytime, it’s a good one to know. Try to be positive, friendly and eager to help. Some people bring a gift for the skipper like beer or snacks. You want to be aware that this is like dating or an interview, try to be valuable and make a good impression.
Also know that you are interviewing them. If the vibe or humor is not to your taste then don’t go back. If it is assaulting, rude or inappropriate then look for my future posts on how to navigate interpersonal safety on a boat. This is especially needed for women. Many people say you should speak out right away if verbally harrassed or physically assaulted on a boat. It is not always that easy to do so or even safe to call it out. I am going to bracket this very real experience and concern for future posts.
Another concern is intoxication. I am a sober sailor, so something I am always looking out for is substance use. Sailors in general are notorious drinkers, racers seem to be a special breed. Personally, I do not think that drinking and driving in any context is a good idea. When I run boats I make it clear they are dry. Before I get on other boats I often ask, “What’s your drinking policy?” Or I find out from others who have sailed with them before I reach out. This helps with my decision-making.
There are so many races in the PNW, and people often need crew. In Seattle, you can find opportunities online at the Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle. All races are listed in the 48 North SARC with yacht clubs. Contacting any local yacht club is a good idea. Seattle Sailing Club, as I said, is a great place to take classes and race J class boats. SSC also has women’s programs that run from it. Shoreline Yacht Club has small boat dingy racing and classes. SheSails Seattle is great for women learning to sail. There are many options to get on the water out there. The infamous Team Sail Like a Girl has now partnered with the NW Maritime Center to create an all woman’s racing clinic.
For many big races you need the Sailing Foundations Safety at Sea course. I cannot express to you how critical this class is if you are going distances. Take it! Take it with the pool time where you jump into the water in your full foulies and climb into a life raft. You need that experience to prepare and some muscle memory to know how to roll a raft over and how to pull yourself in with lots of weight. Take the life sling class where you have to winch your partner up from water level and practice retrieval. Then after you’ve taken all of this apply it, get the necessary gear, and keep practicing. Talk about confidence building!! SAFETY FIRST ALWAYS!!
Overall, racing helped me learn to have a sense of humor, to not hold onto expectations and get out on the water as much as possible. This is the mantra of any kind of sailing. I am so grateful for all the experienced sailors who have patiently helped me along the way. The experiences grew my confidence to cruise farther out than I ever thought possible with broader horizons ahead. I plan on moving aboard and doing more single handing in 2019. In 2021 I hope to sail the inside passage to Alaska. Special thanks to Margaret Pommert, Stephen Summers, and Eric Finn who have generously and selflessly downloaded much information to me over the years. I hope I do you all justice out there on the course and beyond. Have fun out there sailing folks!