Truly a Team Sport

Looking for a way to reinvigorate your club’s sailing program?Try the fast-paced and exciting discipline of team racing. From the Jobson Report from our November/December 2010 issue

Gary Jobson 368

At the Hinman Masters Team Race Regatta hosted by New York YC this past summer, our rivals from the Noroton YC were fully engaged with our Annapolis YC team during the pre-start. With one minute to go, all three of their boats stopped their “man-to-man” attack and broke off for the leeward end of the starting line. Just before the gun, a 20-degree port windshift arrived. As the horn sounded, all three of their boats tacked to port, leaving us spread out on the line and well behind. It was an impressive performance. Somehow, during the action, the Noroton sailors communicated to each other about changing their strategy for the anticipated wind shift. In that moment, we learned how an experienced team takes control, and this is the essence of any team sport.

My experience at the Hinman reinforced my feelings about team racing. It’s great fun, and every yacht club should consider building a team-race program as a means to reinvigorate their sailing and attract younger members. It combines all the tactical and physical attributes of both sailing and team sports at a supercharged pace.

There are several team-race formats. The most popular is three boats versus three boats. Granted, a sailor must be good at mathematics to keep up with the ever-changing score, but that is part of the intrigue. Tactics constantly change whether you are winning or losing. There are many maneuvers that can turn the tables. And in the heat of the action, it feels as if you’re playing a basketball or football game on the water. When you’re winning, you’re on the defensive; when behind, you’re on the offensive. Some teams yell like crazy, while others are silent. Though interestingly enough, at the Hinman Masters, the quiet teams finished at the top of the leader board.

Every race takes on its own personality, and there are many moving parts that influence the outcomes during a regatta, including boat rotations, umpire calls, and coaching (for some teams). When it’s over for the day, competitors return to shore completely pumped and ready for the all-important social program. It reminds me of rugby players who maul each other on the field and then party as best friends after a game.

Team-race events need to be well planned and managed, and it’s important that the boats are identically tuned. Within each race, sailors with similar ability tend to end up maneuvering against each other. At the Hinman Masters, there were no professional or amateur requirements. Each team seemed to have some of each. Most of the teams were also coed. Principle race officer Colin Gordon stated at the skipper’s meeting that the courses might not be perfect, but they were going to run races quickly. The shape of the course was a square, and I found it refreshing to sail on beam reaches. The biggest opportunity to pass, or hold another sailor back, was at a turning mark. Good crew work was essential.

To prepare, our Annapolis YC team held four practices before the Hinman. With the aid of several recent college graduates as training partners, and AYC director of sailing Jay Kehoe serving as our coach, we prepared as best we could. Our three skippers, Rod Jabin, Mark Hillman, and I, had a steep collective learning curve. The last time I participated in a team race was in 1973 at the College Nationals. Fellow team racer John Loe summed up his key advice succinctly: “Upwind, stay on the starboard side of the fleet. Downwind, stay on the port side.”

If only it was that easy. But it was a good rule of thumb.

The Hinman Masters is for sailors of at least 40 years of age. (You must be 45 to steer). In our first race against St. Francis YC, we had a 1-2-4 combination, but I sailed through the starting line on the downwind leg and promptly received a disqualification. Ouch! After that, we won half of our races, which was respectable for a first-time team. We were in the game against every team except, of course, Noroton, which went on to win the event. Noroton YC’s skippers were Lee Morrison, Tom Kinney, and Steve Shepstone. Our best race was a come-from-behind thriller to defeat New York YC, but they defeated us in the semifinals.

The final day featured puffy winds and heavy downpours. At one point during the rotation, our team and two other teams waited on a float for our turn to race. It must have been a comical sight with 36 sailors standing in the rain in Newport Harbor. But no one minded, and we cheered for the other teams that were careening on the edge of control in big gusts with spinnakers up, still trying to get an advantage. It was great theater.

During our off races, the umpires invited competitors to ride on their boats. I watched several races and learned that umpires work hard to keep up with the action and make good calls. Some rulings were wrong, as all field decisions can be. After racing each day, the umpires held a debriefing to explain what they observed. Among the umpires were high-profile veteran sailors like Steve Van Dyck and Peter Wilson. Both are America’s Cup winners who give back to the sport by umpiring. Van Dyck calls as many as 25 events per year.

As a team-race competitor, it’s hard to wrap your head around the concept that it does not matter how you finish. What counts is the result of the team as a whole. But this is the point: you try to get one of your boats holding back two of the opposition. The superstars in this discipline are collegiate sailors. The best teams are fluid and make it all look like ballet, and they communicate using coded moves. It’s mentally exhausting, so I can understand why the social aspect is so essential after racing.

Yacht clubs looking to recruit members should include team racing as a regular part of the sailing season. I’ve seen firsthand how fielding a yacht club team builds both interest and pride. Jay Kehoe organized team shirts for our Annapolis YC squad. They were bright yellow, and I asked, “Why this color?” He said they were the cheapest available. “Well,” I thought, “at least they are similar, and, after all, we are a team.”

**Get Your Club Into Team Racing **
Two-time world team-racing champs, the New York YC's team Silver Panda (Pete Levesque, Liz Hall, Colin Merrick, Amanda Callahan, Clay Bischoff, and Lisa Keith), share their tips.

  • Find six of the same class of boats (3 for each team), which accommodate a crew of two to five sailors. They can be club-owned or belong to individual members of your club and nearby clubs. They should be roughly evenly matched, but they do not have to be identical.
  • Organize an introductory chalk talk meeting with the help of an experienced team racer to guide the discussion. Review in detail the rules of racing. Share team-racing material and discuss the basic strategy of team racing. Explain winning combinations and primary maneuvers.
  • Do informal racing amongst yourselves where three boats are clearly designated as one team and the other three another. This can be done with bow stickers, colored streamers, or T-shirts.
  • Be sure to have a full debrief to discuss what happened on the water. Debriefs enable all of the participants to learn from the event and have more fun on the water.
  • When your sailors and race committee are up to speed, host an event. With six boats, you can run a regatta with four teams and every sailor is racing half of the time. The teams not racing wait on a spectator boat or nearby dock and rotate onto the boats when it's their turn to race. When they're not racing, sailors can help serve as umpires to monitor any rules disagreement. Encourage club members to be spectators and cheer on the teams.