5 Ways to Start Racing

/SW/ editorial director John Burnham outlines a few options for people looking to get into sailboat racing.



Sailboat racing offers an unmatched range of mental and physical challenges and can take you around the nearby pond or across an ocean. You may decide to buy your own boat–even hire a professional crew–but a lack of cash needn’t stop you from competing and enjoying the many facets of the sport. Neither should a lack of sailing experience hold you back. This guide lists five proven ways of getting started in racing, and if you’re the type who likes a little adventure and learning new skills, you’ll be surprised how fast each approach can teach you to become a better sailor and a competitive racer. If you’re already a racer you know that figuring how to get from one buoy to the next as quickly as possible provides strong incentive to learn. All you need to do is leave your brain switched on each time you climb into the boat. Whatever approach you pursue, the fastest track into the sport is to find a racing sailor and let him or her know you’re interested. If you don’t know any member of the racing species, here’s a tip on spotting one we heard from Rhodes 19 racer Bob Meyer. “The guy who will be crewing for me next year happened to see me in downtown Boston wearing a Sailing World NOOD Regatta shirt,” says Meyer. “Turns out he lives in the same town I do, and we happened to need a third crewmember.” Start looking and you’ll notice sailing hats and shirts in airports and subways, at soccer games and ski areas, even Saturday morning at thetown dump. A big obstacle for some people is a sense of insecurity and concern that they’ll make mistakes or cause problems. To those folks we point out the eternal truth of sailboat racing–mistakes are normal and, in fact, nobody ever sails a perfect race. As long as you don’t sell yourself as more experienced than you are and are willing to ask questions when you need guidance, you’ll do fine. Racers are always eager to explain what you should do next, because every good explanation means another mistake avoided. Remember also that in getting into racing, you’re embarking on a journey; every time you’re in a boat–no matter what the result of the race–you’ll be attending school. Sometimes you’ll be learning from sailors who speak softly and clearly; other times from sailors who yell and don’t seem to shed light on anything. Either way, you’ll process the experiences; you’ll gain role models; and you’ll acquire new skills. You’ll also gain an ever-richer appreciation for the variety inherent in sailboat racing. 1. Connect with local racing groups If you’re new to an area, or you’re looking around for the first time for nearby racing opportunities, contact your region’s sailing association. There are close to 40 of these around the country, typically called sailing or yacht racing associations. Their purpose is to coordinate and promote regional racing; for example, the South Atlantic Yacht-Racing Association, in Columbia, S.C., oversees racing in the Carolinas and Georgia run by dozens of clubs. Many associations have a staff person who can provide you with local people to talk to, and most have websites, which also tell you who to call or e-mail for more info. At US SAILING’s website, a database of 23 regional sailing associations can be found with websites and e-mail links. If you want to dig deeper, there’s another, bigger database of both sailing associations and sailing clubs at directory/MemberOrgs.asp. Just click on your state and wait for the complete list to appear. You’ll find the regional associations here, plus both private clubs and public-access groups. Many of them have their own websites, and you can learn a lot about their race programs by having a look around. Among other things, you can find out what kind of boats are raced–small, lightweight dinghies to larger cruising boats, often labeled “PHRF” because that’s the rule used to handicap them. If a particular boat catches your eye–or happens to be readily available–search out the boat’s class association on the web. You’ll often find links on the regional association or club websites, but you can simply do a Google search on, for example, “Sunfish association.” Here you’ll find nationwide schedules, lists of local fleets, news, and classifieds; but most importantly you’ll find phone numbers and e-mail addresses of people you can contact. When you’ve done your web research–and this needn’t take more than 45 minutes unless you’re having fun and want to keep going–it’s time to get proactive. Send e-mails, or even better, pick up the phone. Once you start talking, you’ll be making connections with racers (see “3 Rules of Racing”) and often find yourself invited to sail. 2. Add your name to a crew list Every spring the San Francisco Bay area sailing magazine Latitude 38 publishes a Crew List of people who pay $5 to indicate they’re eager to crew for someone during the racing season. The fee also admits them to a Crew List Party in early April where, according to a veteran party-goer, one-third are owners looking for crew, another third are crew looking for owners, and the rest are looking for dates. For each of these purposes, the institution seems to work and has spawned similar crew list events elsewhere, such as Spinsheet magazine’s event with J/World on the Chesapeake Bay. Clubs maintain lists as well; a good example is the Bayview YC in Detroit ( although at press time in April it had yet to heat up mutch for the season with new names. The San Diego YC keeps its crew list on a bulletin board at the club, augmented by a binder full of resumes at the front desk. Crew lists can also be found on stand-alone sailing websites, such as San Diego’s and San Francisco’s One of the largest and most active stand-alone crew lists we found was the New York Area Crew List ( belov/crewlist.html). And it works, we’re told. “I’ve had six good responses to my listing in about five weeks,” says Ian Berger, a 27-year-old TV writer in Manhattan, who grew up sailing on his parents’ 30-footer but dropped out 12 years ago and considers himself a relative beginner. “If it works out,” he says, “I plan to sail Tuesday nights with one boat in Stamford and Wednesdays with another in Atlantic Highlands [N.J.].” There are no guarantees. “Sometimes the experience is great and sometimes not,” says Rob Moore, Latitude 38’s racing editor. “But people have been known to get married after meeting through the crew list.” A sign perhaps, of just what lengths some racing sailors will go to find regular crew. 3. Walk the docks Many clubs encourage people to simply show up on race day to see if someone needs a crew. “Hanging at the dock worked for me in Chicago,” says Paul Kueffner. “One day race led to invitations on several Chicago-Mackinac adventures.” Not everyone’s comfortable just showing up at the docks before a race, and it doesn’t always work out as it did for Kueffner, but the docks are a good place to be if you’re heeding the dictates of “3 Rules of Racing.” Sometimes you’ll get a cold shoulder as sailors rush by on the way to their boats. But it’s not unusual for skippers to be looking for crew at the last minute, and at most places, public or private, if you present yourself well, you’ll be welcome, and sooner or later you’ll find a ride. “Our club believes that no one should be left on the dock for Wednesday night races,” says Kueffner of his current club, Pequot YC, in Southport, Conn. The same philosophy holds on the West Coast, at the Corinthian YC in Tiburon, Calif., for Friday evening races. Name tags are even handed out at the dock–both skippers who need crew and prospective crews. Anyone can show up, and it’s rare that anyone is left behind on the dock. One trick I’ve seen used by boat-less crews at Key West Race Week could work other places, too. As you walk the dock asking if anyone needs crew, hand out a card with your cell phone number on it. In my experience, the skipper who needs crew usually shows up right after the crew who needs a boat has left. 4. Go to racing school If you’re the type who’d rather lay a solid foundation when starting a new venture, a good racing school is the percentage move. Working with a good racing instructor or two will boost your confidence and often help you connect with other racers when the course ends. According to Lee Parks, Inshore Director at US SAILING, there are 400 commercial sailing schools in the country. They’re not free but if you’re a beginner, they’re a great place to start acquiring sailing skills. Virtually every school will teach you the fundamentals of sailing, and most are affiliated with US SAILING ( or the American Sailing Association ( or can be found through your local Yellow Pages. But racing courses are less common and not all created equal; many schools offer introductions to racing, but few teach more advanced racing. That’s where schools like J/World and Offshore Sailing School stand out, with several types of courses at several sites around the country. Both teach in small keelboats and rotate students among the different jobs on the boat; everyone steers, everyone trims and sets the spinnaker. The last day of the class often includes a mini-regatta. Racing classes at commercial sailing schools for dinghy sailors are harder to come by, although instruction can sometimes be found at public sailing centers. However, pro sailor John Kolius runs intensive clinics in Lasers and JY15s (, and veteran catamaran racer Rick White leads “race camps” in catamarans and Lasers both in Key Largo, Fla., and around the country ( ss.html) If you go to a school out of your area, and you’re not planning to buy a boat of your own, finding a way to use your skills afterwards is important. So do your research and keep in mind the “3 Rules for Racing” both before and after. 5. Join a public-sailing center Another way into racing that includes competent instruction can often be found at public or community-based sailing centers. “There are more than 600 community sailing programs in the United States,” says Parks. “While these public-access programs are traditionally thought of as learn-to-sail programs, more and more are getting into teaching racing and running races for graduates.” A public-sailing center is typically a non-profit organization with an open membership policy, so it’s usually an easy place to get on the water and meet other sailors. Equally important, it has boats you can sail, albeit often well-used. Public facilities have strong outreach to people of all socio-economic backgrounds, and most promote education and recreational sailing as their toppriority, so racing sometimes takes a back seat. However, many of them run low-key races and, particularly for city dwellers, some of the finest moments of any sailing season are spent racing quietly along a city waterfront in the evening, temporarily freed from the hustle and rush of city living. Many community programs are based in or near larger metropolitan areas; nearly every major city in the country has public sailing available if there’s a suitable body of water. Others are located in more typical sailing areas as an alternative to private clubs. To find one in your area, look in the Yellow Pages or check US SAILING’s website ( and click “find a place to sail.” The strength of these centers are that they typically own boats in which they will teach you what you’d like to know so that in fairly short order you can be sailing, meeting other sailors, and trying your hand at sailboat racing. A note of caution, however; public-sailing centers’ strength isn’t typically in their websites–at least if you’re trying to learn if they have a good racing program for you. Our advice for these centers is the same as all the others. Get on the phone or go visit. Once you’re in motion, you’re on your way to the racecourse.


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