Ken Read headshot
I’ve read numerous articles about how “sailing needs saving.” This is a massive overstatement—sailing is alive and well—and comments like that are bad for the sport.
There are always small tweaks than can make any sport better, sailing included. The purists will protest any changes, while modern-day athletes usually want to utilize technology to bring sports into the modern era. Finding a happy medium usually works.
A few months ago I wrote about wind limits and getting sailing back on the water well into white-cap weather. Now I want to talk about how race committees can make sailing more fun at all levels and for all classes of boats. Before I get on my soapbox, though, I must stress that running races is a difficult and thankless job. It will always be difficult. But, the folks who spend their time on a powerboat moving marks and firing off guns should be praised and thanked much more frequently than they are.
Pick up the pace
We have all sailed in great events and in regattas that just didn’t seem to click. What makes a great event? One huge factor is the “pace of play” as set by the race committee.
A regatta’s pace can be improved with few simple guidelines for running races. None of these are original thoughts; just simple methods for increasing the fun on the water. When the final boat in a class finishes a race, the goal should be to get a new warning signal fired off for that class in less than 10 minutes. This does several things. First, it gets more races completed in the best conditions. Second, it allows race committees to start racing later in the day, and end racing earlier. Thirdly, it reduces the amount of time wasted between races, when sailors cool down, get lethargic, and wreck their sails tacking back and forth.
For a single-class event, this practice should be a piece of cake. Finish the races downwind; 10 minutes after the last boat finishes, the warning for the next race is sounded. Setting the finish line on the opposite side of the committee boat from the starting buoy allows the race committee to square the starting line while the race is being completed. While the boats are on the run to the finish, the weather mark can be adjusted. With the weather mark and the starting pin in place, there is no need to wait around.
For multi-class events, it’s time to stop worrying about classes sailing upwind through other classes sailing downwind. When a class finishes, get them going again even if others are still racing. Nothing is more frustrating than hanging around for 45 minutes after finishing a race, waiting for the smaller classes. Boats converge on different legs of the course all the time. It’s called sailboat racing.
If there’s concern about having sufficient manpower on the race committee boat to finish one class while starting another, look for a 5-minute gap between classes or even individual boats. The key is not to wait for every fleet to finish. It’s a colossal waste of time.
This aggressive approach may result in slower classes gradually getting further behind with regard to the number of races, or staying out on the water longer. To remedy this, set a shorter weather mark for the smaller classes. Or, start the smaller classes before the larger classes. I’ve never understood the apprehension over having bigger boats sail through fleets of smaller boats. It becomes part of the strategy of the race, another thing to think about, a new challenge.
Minimum time, maximum fun
Now that we’re getting in more races in less time, there’s no reason to send out a fleet unless there is enough wind to race. No ripples, no go. Keep the boats at the dock where people can socialize, do some work, hang with their families, etc. Once the fleet is released, the race committee should get to the course early and have the marks set by the time the fleet arrives. Then bang off a race pronto to get the wheels in motion.
Sailboat racing is competing against lots of things on weekends: family time, kids’ sporting events, golf and other activities, and chores around the house. So why not limit some events to half-day schedules? We used to do this with the Etchells fleet in Newport, and it was terrific. I’d leave the house at noon, and meet the crew at 12:10 p.m. We’d launch the boat and be off the dock at 12:45 p.m., with the first race starting at 1:05 p.m. We were back to the dock by 4:30 p.m. and home by 5:30 p.m.—approximately the same amount of time it would take for a round of golf. The lawn could be mowed that morning, the kids still got to their ball game, and the family was happy that Mom or Dad wasn’t gone for the entire day.
Talk it up
Peter Reggio, of America’s Cup fame, is a master of open communication while running races. When he’s running your races, you hear everything he’s thinking: from what he is having for lunch to the time for the next start. He tells you the course to be sailed and the bearing to the first mark. He makes sure everyone knows the time for the next start and whether he’s going to wait for an entire class to finish. Everyone is more clued into the game, and it is more fun. He even asks competitors to report the wind direction they’re seeing before the start. Imagine that, everyone working toward one goal: better racing!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are some classes that prohibit VHF radios. This is crazy. Sailors in these classes have no idea when the start is going to begin, and must sail by the committee boat before the start to get the course. If it’s a long starting line, they may not have enough time remaining to get to the pin end before the gun. No one knows whether they were over early or not until after racing is finished for the day, when they can look, breathlessly, at the results on the scoreboard. They have to guess when there’s a course change at the leeward mark because they generally have a bit on trying to get the spinnaker on board.
Race committees shouldn’t hide their conversations. There is nothing they could say that needs to be secret. It’s all part of the game. And if everyone’s listening in, they’re all on the same page.
None of these ideas are unique or even new. They simply need to be standard practice to make sailing more enjoyable and less time consuming. I’ve never met a race committee member who wanted to stay on the water any later than they had to. Which is one more reason the, “4 p.m. stand by for the another race” call has always puzzled me. Isn’t the race committee also ready to go home?