The Masters, Sailing’s Edition

San Diego YC's Invitational Masters Regatta pulls in the wise men and women of sailing for a regatta of age and cunning.
Scott Harris
Scott Harris, at the helm of a J/105 at San Diego YC’s International Masters Regatta, led his team to victory after a 12-race series this past fall. Mark Albertazzi

One of the greatest attributes about racing sailboats is the opportunity to learn and relearn techniques that help us perform better on the racecourse. When I was invited to participate in San Diego YC’s most recent International Masters Regatta, I was excited to give it another try. In my first attempt, I finished fourth. I was fourth again the next time, and then fifth in my third go at it. Suffice to say, masters racing is tough, especially considering the collective wisdom shared across each of the teams. I was the second-­youngest skipper when I first raced this regatta in 2014, but at the most recent edition, I was the second oldest. Let’s just say that my goal this time around was to finish on the podium, because I am, of course, not getting any younger.

The first step I took when accepting the invitation was to recruit a strong crew. The roster of my celebrity squad included former National E Scow Champion Bill Campbell; last year’s Lightning Class World Champion, David Starck; Sailing Scuttlebutt editor and Etchells World Champion crew, Craig Leweck; retired three-star admiral and one-time All-American at the US Naval Academy, Dixon Smith; and San Diego-based J/105 veteran Sam Paterson. It was an all-star crew, and I quietly hoped that I would be worthy of sailing with such an experienced group. To qualify as a master, each ­crewmember must be at least 45 years old. The helmsman must be no younger than 60. I easily qualified at 73. Twelve skippers are invited each year, and the races are run in donated J/105s, which are tuned to be as equal as possible. Still, some boats were clearly different in speed. I know…excuses, excuses. 

I had spent the summer of 2023 racing as a tactician aboard a 50-footer and occasionally with the Harbor 20 fleet in Annapolis. My only regatta at the helm was aboard an 8-Metre on the New York YC Cruise and at Nantucket Race Week. All of that didn’t quite prepare me for the masters. I’ve been a longtime advocate that practice is important, but unfortunately, we had a only few hours to tune up the day before the first race. No one was allowed to use any electronic instruments, which for me was a refreshing change from racing on boats with endless streams of data that tend to overwhelm the art of decision-making.

In the regatta’s opening race, we got off to a fast start on the right side of the line and took the lead, but the wind shifted, and the race committee abandoned the race. We used the same tactic for the restart, only to watch the wind shift 30 degrees to the left. Positioning ourselves way out on the right side of the racecourse was doom. It was simply humiliating to round the first mark in last place. Race No. 2 was better with a fourth-place finish. I learned many years ago that the key to winning regattas is to maintain a good, consistent average. To achieve this, I had to discipline myself to concentrate on sailing fast and to avoid looking around. From that point on, Campbell and Starck kept their heads out of the boat while I dutifully listened to their wise counsel.

In Race No. 3, however, we finished a dismal 10th. After three races, we were in last place. Now what? I asked myself.

The strength of a veteran crew is the ability to promptly identify weaknesses and immediately apply solutions. Happily, no one got upset, and there was no finger pointing when we returned to the dock. We simply needed to sail better. The first idea was to keep things simple. Don’t try to win the start; just get off the line with a clear lane, and head for the favored side of the course. The second priority was to reduce the number of tacks and jibes. Third was to be more aware of keeping our air clear. In the tight 12-boat fleet, it was easy to get into match-race-style skirmishes with other boats. We had to avoid that as best we could.

The racecourse on the second day of racing had two windward legs. Campbell and Starck carefully watched the wind trends, and with each race, we consistently improved our position on the second windward leg. We religiously stayed clear of packs of boats, so our finishes improved dramatically
—we even won a race and posted two third-place finishes. At the end of day, with three races remaining in the series, we had worked our way up to third overall in the standings. The podium was in reach. 

Over nine races, nine different teams had won a race, and everyone had also finished ninth and often worse, which is to be expected given the impressive résumés of my fellow skippers. Among them were Olympians, America’s Cup sailors and world champions. As competitive as the racing was on the water, the atmosphere was collegial around the waterfront. There was considerable mutual respect among all the competitors. In a good way, the International Masters keeps veteran sailors relevant when so much emphasis these days centers on high-level racing for younger people. 

The San Diego YC has run this regatta since 2012. It was first held in 1979 on San Francisco Bay, organized by great Laser sailor Don Trask. He sailed in the masters in 2019 at the age of 86, which gives me hope for the rest of us, although we are aging faster than anyone might admit. On Saturday evening of the regatta, each skipper gave a short speech that ranged from good-natured barbs to soaring admiration for everyone on the water. I sat there listening and feeling good about being a part of this elite group of elders.

In a good way, the International Masters keeps veteran sailors relevant when so much emphasis these days centers on ­high-level racing for younger people. 

The race committee operation for this regatta is impressive too. The committee anchors a set of floating docks near the starting area for boat rotations that take place with great efficiency after every race. There is no wasted time as everyone hustles to pack spinnakers, straighten lines, swallow a sandwich, and get ready for the next warning signal. 

On-the-water umpires kept us honest. It seemed that Green Flag (no foul) calls prevailed most of the time, while the boats that fouled (including us) ­completed penalty turns immediately after an incident. There was very little yelling on the water because I think that everyone was conserving their energy but, as with any major regatta, controlling emotions is part of a winning mindset. It takes work to recover from a bad race and get ready to restart within a few minutes, and it always makes me realize how hard it must be for professional athletes to shake off a bad play and keep going. Emotions use energy too. Once I realized that every boat was having its share of good and bad races, my emotions leveled out and our scores improved. It reminded me, once again, that a positive attitude usually nets positive results.

The effort by the San Diego YC and its many volunteers serves as an example of how to host a signature regatta of this caliber. There were many logistical challenges, which included inviting the ­skippers and crews, arranging for a fleet of matched boats, providing insurance, ­running the race committee, and orchestrating the boat rotation. A busy repair crew worked diligently to keep the races rolling; club members sourced ­housing for out-of-town competitors and race officials, and hosted social events, all while working with a modest budget. The reward for the club is having top sailors become ambassadors for the event and giving local sailors an opportunity to race against top sailors from afar. 

The San Diego YC hosted a similar regatta one week later called the Lipton Cup, which has no age restrictions. And, as you might expect, it is a mighty competitive regatta. Interestingly, Scott Harris, who won the masters with a ­4.5-point average, finished fourth in the Lipton Cup with a 5.5-point average. Based on Harris’ performance, I surmise that the masters fleet was not too far off the pace of the younger sailors in the Lipton Cup. Tad Lacey, from San Francisco, was the ­runner-up master, and both he and Harris have raced in the masters many times over the years. Cory Sertl was third, and we finished…fourth. I guess I’ll have to give it another shot.