Everybody called him “Sully.” In retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly creative nickname for a Massachusetts sailor, but with him it really fit. Sully raced J/24s at my local club, drank tons of beer, always laughed, and was the coolest sailor I knew. Nearly 20 years later, I can still picture how Floridays, the name on his boat’s transom, stood out to me from my Optimist-level vantage point. But Sully’s words, passed down to him from his father, struck me the most. I was about 10 years old, had just won one of my first regattas, and he yanked me aside. “It’s not the glory, it’s the chase,” he said. “It’s not the trophy, it’s the race!”
Now, at the ripe age of 28, as a coach and competitor, I realize that Sully and his dad got it right—winning isn’t everything. But what is? To the kids I coach, I offer three alternative Ws, and you might find them useful, too. As sailors, whether weekend warriors or world champions, we must always ask ourselves why we race, what we are trying to get out of racing, and where we want to go with it. Why, what, where.
The why should be simple. “Because it’s fun” would be a perfect answer, the one I always hope to hear from the kids I coach. No matter what age you are, your why should connect to your inner child. If your why has anything to do with winning, social status, or, in the case of junior sailors, parents, then you’re probably racing for the wrong reason.
What we are trying to get out of racing varies. Personally, I sail to get away from all the crap that pesters my life on land—schoolwork, paying bills, family drama, life decisions, getting a job, crazy women. You know, the usual. Sailing is my opportunity to get some peace of mind and keep my life balanced. Other racers simply enjoy the outdoors, or the thrill of competition, or the magic of exploration. Your what is unique to you. Embrace your what, love your what.
The question of where we want to go with our racing is constantly changing, because the where depends entirely on the other factors in life. Realities like going to school, getting a new job, losing an old job, and having a family can dramatically influence your where, and because life is always changing, we have to be open to a flexible where. Don’t beat yourself up when your where changes. Maybe you grew up dreaming of making the Olympic team, then you became interested in being a folk guitarist for a new-age hippie traveling band, then you decided to become a landscape architect. Sailing will always be there for you.
What I love about sailing is that it’s a lifelong sport. Few pursuits offer such longevity. Still, figuring out how sailing fits into our otherwise chaotic timelines can be tricky. The next time your sailing becomes grey, ask yourself the three Ws. They’ll help clear the fog.