Friends Don't Let Friends Finish Last

Two-time ISAF Team Racing World Championship winners lay out the advantages of team racing for sailors and yacht clubs. Supplement to Jobson Report in our November/December 2010 issue

Sailing World


NYYC Silver Panda protects the leeward mark in a 2-3-4 combination at the 2008 Wilson Trophy.Courtesy NYYC Silver Panda

At 30 seconds before the start, you're on a beam reach, ducking two boats to windward that are luffing near the boat end of the line. One of them is on your team. At 25 seconds, you're chasing the other team’s middle boat down the line, but you know the line's only 20 seconds long and, in this breeze, you're both going to be early. At 20 seconds, at the pin end, your teammate is to windward of his opponent, ready to steal his hole and push him over the line. As your teammate trims his jib and turns his tiller to go for the kill, the boat you’re chasing to the middle bears off and swoops to leeward of your teammate. At 15 seconds, the pin-end boat from the opposing team jibes out and is heading at you on port. You bear away and face him bow to bow. His choice is to tack or to go behind you; as you pick up speed and are now reaching, he goes behind you. At 10 seconds, your teammate at the pin tacks away onto port and plans on ducking the fleet. At five seconds, now you're low on the line, but so is the boat you chased. At the gun, your bow is even with his chain plates, but now you have to pinch too. The race starts, and you both make it over the line, struggling, and you think to yourself as this team race begins, "What combination are we in?”

This is the excitement of team racing, an ever-growing game within the sport of sailing. Simply put, a team race is a race between two teams, who use boatspeed, boathandling, tactics, strategy, the racing rules, and, most of all, teamwork, to cross the finish line with a lower overall score than the other team. The most common form of team racing, used at events such as the U.S. Team Racing Championship (Hinman Trophy) and the ISAF Team Racing World Championship, is three on three. However, other popular events, such as Optimist team racing, the British-America Cup, and California’s Newport Harbor YC Team Race Invitational, use four-boat teams. Some love the ultra competitive two-on-two team racing, where the team with the last place boat loses. No matter what the form, team racing, which began as a distraction from fleet racing, breathes new life into sailing for many people.

Team racing has had two major sources to thank for its growth: U.S. college sailing and the 60-year-old Wilson Trophy in the United Kingdom. In college, it's a great spectator sport, with colored sails and team pinnies constituting the team uniform. Years ago, college sailing adopted the 360-degree penalty turn after a foul to keep the competition on the water and out of the protest room. But when the protest room is required, many team-race events employ the “three-minute justice” protest procedure. In the first minute, the protestor tells why he/she is protesting. In the second, the protestee defends themselves. In the third, the two judges, one selected by each the protestor and protestee, come to a decision.

As in match racing, team racers often rely on umpire boats to decide the outcome of protests instantaneously. This is the ultimate form of "leaving it on the water." When you cross the finish line at the Wilson Trophy, an announcer blasts the race result from the PA system to the cheering, or often times booing, crowd in the grandstands.

The post-collegiate, team-racing scene has grown into two active circuits of dinghy and keelboat competition. During the summer, coeds team-race in Vanguard 15s with a grass roots, low cost, no frills approach to events. Meanwhile, yacht clubs around the country have embraced team-racing keelboats as a way to invigorate their current membership and attract new members. Clubs around Long Island Sound have a challenge series on Tuesday nights, and the New York and St. Francis Yacht Clubs team-race Sonars and J/105s in alternating years to decide their Madcap Challenge Cup. The Annapolis Interclub Fleet team-races every Sunday in the winter. "After two years of dabbling with part-time team racing, we made a full-time switch this past winter with superb results," says IC team racer Jesse Falsone. "The veteran IC sailors really enjoy the challenge of team racing and have found that it's opened up a new sport.”

For longtime sailors and first-time team racers, team racing can be, at first, a very foreign concept. It's not just sailing fast, it's sailing smart. To the average fleet racer, what occurs during a mark trap makes no sense at all. A boat from one team slows down or stops completely, forcing an opponent to avoid them. This allows a teammate’s boat to pass both of them. In many ways, the mark trap is a distant cousin of the pick and roll used in basketball. But in team racing, both teams can try to run this play simultaneously, making the racing that much more exciting.

Team racers often refer to “combinations” when they describe the order of boats within a race. A winning combination is one in which the score of your team is lower than that of the other team. For example, a team finishing 1st, 4th, and 5th defeats one that finishes 2nd, 3rd, and 6th. There are 10 winning combinations, but good team racers will always work toward three of them, 1-4-5, 2-3-4 and 1-2-anything. Friends do not want teammates finishing last, as it limits the winning combinations. These three combinations are “stable,” because they are difficult for the losing team to break up.

The team-racing experience also helps your fleet-racing skills in unexpected ways. It teaches sailors to focus on their boathandling. Team-racing sailors also become versed in the nuances of the rule book. With teams sailing as many as 30 races in a weekend, team-racing sailors get lots of practice on the starting line and in crowded mark-rounding situations. With this added experience and new perspective on sailboat races, says Roger Williams sailing coach Amanda Callahan, team racers sailors are often found “sailing laps around their non-team-racing competitors.”

The thirst for team racing has manifested itself with events for all skill levels, classes, and ages, including Massachussetts events such as Falmouth “Mid-Summas,” the Charles River Open, and the Buzzards Bay Bash. At its Harbor Court in Rhode Island, New York YC hosts a wide variety of team-race regattas all summer long, including the Hinman Masters, the Morgan, and various V15 events. The club even has a team-racing logo. Other clubs with active team-racing programs include Southern Yacht Club, Larchmont Yacht Club, Seawanaka Corinthian Yacht Club, and Nassau Yacht Club in the Bahamas, which annually introduces team racing to as many as 120 youth sailors, many from inner city schools.

Southern Yacht Club’s Corky Potts says that team racing energizes those that may have tired of long-distance, big-boat races or regattas where you may sail two or three windward-leewards a day, without much interaction between the boats. Team racing in keelboats accommodates sailors who may have outgrown dinghies and their physical demands. “It allows the older generation of competitive sailors to compete with the younger hotshots," says Potts. "My personal experience is that it has allowed me to crew for my son, Cardwell, and has effectively brought about a reversal of roles. As long as he will tolerate sailing with his father, I'll continue."

Potts believes that the sailors at SYC have learned more about boathandling, rules, and teamwork in the last few years of team racing than, in his case, the past 40. “The team-racing program at SYC has rejuvenated sailing amongst people my age, and has allowed us to be part of what I believe to be the next generation of sailing disciplines. It's simply more F. U. N.—which is why we all sail."


****US Sailing and ISAF can help. Contact US Sailing's team racing chair, Martha Carleton, any team-racing committee members, or Lee Parks. Go into US Sailing's online store and buy Gavin O'Hare's book or CD, "Contemporary Team Racing," or Steve Tylecote's "Team Racing for Sailboats." "Team Racing Callbook," on the ISAF website, is one source for state-of-the-art team-racing calls; also check out these quick calls published by the ISAF umpires.