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We’re Going the Distance

Distance racing is enjoying a revival. Find out why in the September 2011 Jobson Report.

September 7, 2011
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Sailing World

Marblehead to Halifax Race on the R/P 66 Aurora

Billy Black

What I like most about racing a long point-to-point course is the sustained time at the wheel and being part of a fluid watch system. And then there’s the commitment to constantly working the boat to its potential, as well as the challenges of navigating in a complex and unpredictable environment. The camaraderie that develops among a racing crew while offshore is lasting, but above all else, the satisfaction of completing a race as a true team effort always defines the experience.

Organizing a boat and crew for a long passage or an overnight race requires patience and methodical planning. The preparation can be stressful and sometimes daunting, but once the starting gun sounds, sailors quickly fall into a groove, leaving issues or burdens ashore, and replacing them with thoughts about the next sail change or what morsels will emerge from the galley. I’ve never met a sailor that didn’t enjoy a sense of freedom when starting a distance race, and from the moment I start, I’m always excited for the element of suspense. The unknown lies ahead, and perhaps that, too, is a part of the appeal: in a time when our smartphones connect us in every way, we have a chance to turn them off, reconnect with ourselves, and experience pure sailing.

Perhaps then, this is why so many established amateur distance races are enjoying robust entries nowadays. This year’s New York YC Transatlantic Race, for example, pulled in a record number of entries. The Annapolis to Newport Race, the Marblehead (Mass.) to Halifax Race, Chicago YC’s Race to Mackinac, the Bell’s Beer Bayview YC Mackinac Race, the Vineyard Race, and the Transpac are a few of many longstanding races enjoying healthy turnouts.

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There’s an inherent danger when sailing long distances, but owners and their crews can have confidence that offshore racing is considerably safer than it was years ago. Safety requirements are now a high priority. For the major races, crews must attend a US SAILING Safety at Sea session every five years, and officials conduct boat and equipment inspections before the start and after the finish. Crews practice safety drills before the start.

Race tracking has added another safety measure to the equation. Communications, too, are more reliable and easier during times of distress. Rigs, sails, hulls, and equipment are stronger and more reliable, and seasickness remedies have made life at sea better for many.

Eric Kreuter, commodore of the Storm Trysail Club, recently told me that improved safety is one thing, but distance racing’s growing popularity is because sailors are looking for an alternative to windward-leeward races. “I think that the calendar is so full that people would rather do an extra distance race and cut out some of the day racing,” says Kreuter of his Long Island Sound constituents.

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Greg Miarecki, who chaired Chicago YC’s Race to Mackinac twice, enjoyed an overflowing entry list, but that doesn’t mean CYC is sitting on its laurels. This past spring, at the Sperry Top-Sider Chicago NOOD, CYC added a Saturday-only distance race component. The course was 30 miles and extremely popular with competitors.

“This worked well for sailors that only had one day available to race,” says Miarecki. “Since 2008, the Mac has been filled to capacity months before the event. Gven the demand, we made a push to create other short distance races, including one for this year’s Verve Cup.”

Recruiting competitors is a high priority for Marblehead to Halifax Race chair Peter Barnett, who says his group emphasizes direct contact with owners. “We create a network and stay in touch with them through e-mails, phone calls, and a winter seminar,” says Barnett. “Ocean racing for the amateur sailor is a great challenge. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accomplish something special. The mental endurance helps grow one’s character.”

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Annapolis to Newport Race chair Chip Thayer adopted a Boston YC idea to build interest in his race. He hosted a seminar six months before the race. “Our December seminar was a worthwhile effort,” he says. “We had good attendance and got a positive buzz going.”

Most long-distance races have deep histories, and their traditions do help keep them relevant. Bermuda Race committee member and historian John Rousmaniere says that family participation has given the race a big boost of late. “We present prizes to boats with several family members aboard,” he says. “Ocean racing is a good way to connect the generations.”

Recognizing that longevity counts for something and encourages sailors to return year after year, the Mackinac races have an Island Goat Society for sailors who have completed 25 races. Last year, the Stamford YC [Conn.] created the Buzzard’s Society for sailors who have completed eight or more Vineyard Races.

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One excellent trend is race tracking, which allows competitors, as well as family and fans onshore, to watch as boats sail the course. Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race chair Charlie Elmer says, “The tracking system draws spectators that don’t normally follow races, and we think some of them will want to take part some day.”

“Folks at home and in my office are following us,” adds Miarecki. “They feel part of the team and are more supportive of us going on the race.”

Years ago, there was resistance to trackers because some sailors thought they were revealing their positions and strategy to the competition, says Barnett, but now the tracking is standard. According to Annapolis’ Chuck Thayer, his website statics confirm that tracking helps sell the race, and those that stay at home are more supportive.

One of the most legendary long-distance races is the biennial Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii. The Transpac is a bucket-list item, says Transpac YC commodore Bill Lee, and participation is always healthy.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. And it’s a way to commune with nature,” says Lee.

Sailing a boat to Hawaii and returning to California is a massive commitment, so Lee and his committee invest substantial funds to build interest. “We hire a top press officer and a race photographer to get high-quality shots of the boats from helicopters,” he says. “It’s expensive to do these things, but they’re very helpful. We’re always thinking about long term promotion of the event.”

The Vineyard Race [a 238-mile race starting and finishing in Stamford, Conn.] advertizes in several magazines [including SW]. “We also put the word out to the other races and share entry lists,” says race chair Ray Redniss.

A distance race doesn’t have to cross an ocean, though. Krueter points out that some races on Long Island Sound have trimmed the length of their courses from 120 miles to 50 or 60 miles, and consequently, watched participation grow. Another trend at several events is to include a shorthanded division and a cruising class for non-spinnaker boats. A club might experiment with modest length races that last four to eight hours to see how sailors react. Perhaps a retired trophy could be brought back to life for a new event.

Time on the water is valuable, and during a long-distance race more people get to steer, there’s always work for everyone, and friendships made at sea are special. You can never guarantee a podium finish, but as the saying goes, “if you’re competing, you’re already winning.”

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