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Ken Read on Doublehanded Offshore Racing

Professional sailor Ken Read enters the strange new world of doublehanded offshore racing and shares his insight into its appeal.

Updated:

March 17, 2020
Ken Read and Suzy Leech
Ken Read and Suzy Leech start the 2020 Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race on the Sun Fast 3300, their first event as a coed doublehanded team. ©Sharon Green

Ken Read, one of the ­biggest names in sailing, admits he’s seen the light. Looking out from his ivory tower at the top of the sport, the 58-year-old ­yachtsman’s view has been clouded by the ease of his grand-prix lifestyle. Jetting into superyacht regattas in the Med and tearing across open oceans on a 100-footer was easy for this guy. In the distant past are the experiences that made him the natural sailor he is today. Back when he was ­making a name for himself in the J/24 class and racking up world championships and scoring a Rolex or two, he and his buddies had to do things themselves. Then came America’s Cup gigs, big-boat programs, two Volvo Ocean Race campaigns, and his ascent to the top of the food chain at North Sails. Charmed life and all, Read is now back in the trenches, among the mere mortals of shorthanded sailing, feet-first into the next big thing. With a new Sun Fast 3300 on loan from Jeanneau, Read teamed up with professional navigator Suzy Leech to give coed doublehanded racing a shot in Florida during January’s Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race. They won their two-boat division, but more important, Read says, they had fun. The sailing was the easy part. Getting to the start—not so much.

How do you go from maxis and superyachts to this double­handed offshore thing—a 100-footer to a pint-size 30-footer for two?

When it comes to projects that I think are good for the sport, I like to get involved, especially if it can help build a little bit of momentum in a sport that’s in desperate need of renewed momentum. Time is a prohibitive factor in sailing today; the amount of time it takes to go racing is just too much. It’s not only the time to participate. It’s all the preparation. If there’s one thing I’ve learned recently, it’s that putting together a two-­person team in a semi-stock boat is way easier than recruiting eight or 10 of my buddies and hoping like hell they show up. Not to mention the flights and food and logistics and hotels and the personalities and the WhatsApp group ­messages—it is bloody hard.

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Is it really that much harder today to go racing? Back when you were campaigning big IMS boats, you didn’t have the tools that simplify things today.

Yes, that’s true, but I think there’s more competition for our time now. Also, there’s been an interesting byproduct for me from this whole doublehanded experiment. I started in dinghies, then went to college and sailed in little boats, and then I graduated to J/24s. I did everything myself. I bought the boats, I rigged the boats, I faired the keels—half the time at least. We did everything ourselves, and we figured it out. I got the van, made sure it was full of gas, paid the entry, got the hotel rooms, or found people’s couches to sleep on. Whatever it took, I was in charge. Then, I got very good at delegating. We graduated to the next level, and all of a sudden, I’ve got a couple of people helping. By the time we got to the America’s Cup, the Volvo, the Comanche and the big programs like that—I got a staff. To enter a regatta and get support, I’ve got staff. And I mean staff. Now, with the doublehanded stuff, all of a ­sudden, I have no staff.

It’s been a real wake-up call for me to try to enter an event, to get a boat measured, get it to the starting line. To figure out how to get it all together to do a short, little distance race—it’s too hard. And we wonder why more people aren’t signing up for events. I’m ready to sit down with anybody who wants to talk and figure out how to make signing up and getting to and participating in a sailboat race way easier.

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But it’s all online and ­paperless nowadays. What exactly is so hard?

Yes, getting a certificate is probably as easy as you can get, but the fact that there’s still IRC, ORR, ORC, ORC Club and PHRF is obscene. Someone with common sense needs to stop the madness. We should all be sailing under one rule and get over it. Until rating rules are not-for-profit, we’re going to continue with too many rules, and it’s going to be wild frustration for everyone. I mean, I have to get multiple sail certificates because a code-zero “tweener” doesn’t measure in for IRC, but it does for ORR? It goes on and on.

The fact that the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race—which is only 150 miles and within the sight of land the entire way—has an ocean-race classification is crazy. It adds another layer of onboard safety equipment that isn’t even close to being needed. I know there’s a great reason for all of this stuff, but it is too hard, and until we can simplify everything, it’s not going to improve. It’s been a great lesson learned for me to not actually have staff and have to do it myself.

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I want to be seen as the latest person who finally woke up one morning and said: ‘Hey, you know what? These people aren’t crazy. This is a lot of fun.’ I’m excited, and this is something completely different for me.

The volunteers who are ­putting these races together are doing a phenomenal job, by the way. They’re not making the rules, but common sense has to prevail at some stage. Shame on me for not doing this sooner and realizing how good I had it. I give a ton of credit to all these volunteers for knowing what they’re getting themselves into, which is probably months and months of complaints and questions from people like me trying to figure out how to ­register for the race.

This discussion of having too many rating rules has been ongoing—for a long time.

Yes, but in the Key West race, for example, there are 35 boats registered, sailing under ORCA, ORCB, PHRFA, PHRFB, ORC double­handed, ECRA Performance Cruiser. I don’t even know what that is. So, there are essentially four rules for 35 boats. That’s crazy. If we’re going to get people to want to do this more, we’ve got to make it easier for everybody. Make it easier to sign up and get measured—and don’t get me started on the required equipment. For a 150-mile race, it just seems like overkill to me.

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Is this what you’re hearing from customers as well?

All the time. I know I’m going to get a lot of grief for saying stuff like this by the many people who’ve been working on these systems over the years, but I don’t think anybody would disagree with the fact that it’s just bloody hard. We, as a sport, need to figure out how to make it all easier.

What makes you so certain doublehanded sailing will catch on in the United States, with or without Olympic appeal?

There have been plenty of ­people doing doublehanded racing and preaching about it for a long time, and maybe we’re all finally starting to listen. There are a lot of people who may be interested in this, and the more the merrier. If boats like the J Boats, the Jeanneaus and the Beneteaus are fun to sail and safe offshore, then even more regular sailors will get involved.

My reason to do this really has nothing to do with the Olympics. It has to do with trying to grow an aspect of our sport here in the United States that I think has real potential. Maybe I can use my name a little bit in order to gain a little more momentum. It takes people like us to stand up and shout into the rafters and hope somebody is listening. I want to be seen as the latest person who finally woke up one morning and said: “Hey, you know what? These people aren’t crazy. This is a lot of fun.” I’m excited, and this is something completely different for me. Remember, you’re talking to a person who got so sick of windward and leeward sailing, he sailed around the world twice. I’m not afraid to switch it up.

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