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Racing Meets Cruising: What Three America’s Cup Sailors Can Teach A Weekend Cruiser

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As a cruising sailor, inching lazily past a round-the-buoys race can be a real eye-opener. The grace and speed and well-oiled crews are nothing short of awe-inspiring. But hey, you may think, I actually enjoy sailing; that looks too much like work.

Admittedly, few of us are as serious on a leisurely inter-island jaunt as we might be on the race circuit – if indeed you’re the type who’d ever find themselves within a nautical mile of a start line. More importantly, we are unlikely to be as well or fully crewed as an offshore racing boat.

Even so, managing to eke out an extra half-knot of boat speed – as minor as it might seem at any given moment – will shave three hours off a 200-nautical-mile passage. On a 500-mile trip, the amount of time saved increases to seven hours.

This is where racing meets cruising.  Below, three hardcore racers, all America’s Cup veterans, give their pro tips for cruisers. While not everything is ready-made for a short-handed crew or cruising couple, there’s plenty to keep in mind nevertheless.

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It’s The Sails, Stupid

“I’d say the biggest thing is that sail trim matters,” says Dawn Riley, who is a veteran of both America’s Cup races and a member of the first all-women team to compete in the Volvo (1993-1994) around the world race. And good sail trim can prove impossible with an old, baggy mainsail.

“On my Passport 40, for example, I had an old Dacron main that was ‘good enough’. Then a crazy friend of mine, Tom Neil, insisted on getting me a new, better-shaped sail with high-tech material. The boat came alive!”


Racing Meets Cruising
Crisp new sails aboard S/V Ever After

Terry Hutchison, who served as Team New Zealand’s tactician in the 2007 America’s Cup and has earned the title of U.S. Sailing’s Rolex Yachtsman of the Year twice, says Dacron is fine and that it has many advantages, but cruisers might want to explore some of the more modern alternatives instead. Some, he notes, are nearly as durable as Dacron. “Take advantage of new technology in sails as it will help improve the performance of the boat and make it easier to sail,” he insists.

Racing Meets Cruising
Terry Hutchison, Quantum Sailing

Neatness Counts

Being organized means making sure the cockpit and foredeck are set up safely and efficiently, says Hutchison: “When you race, the boat needs to be impeccably maintained. Cruising is no different.”

You should be striving for good quality, chafe-free lines with a color-coding that is distinct and easy to understand, as well as side decks and foredecks that are clear of such obstructions as dinghies and jerry cans. It all leads to faster and safer sail handling, Hutchison declares.

Racing Meets Cruising
Well organized control lines in the cockpit of S/V Ever After

Peter Isler, a veteran of five America’s Cup campaigns, calls proper organization just “basic sailing” that should be obvious to everyone out on the water.

“Whether you’re racing or cruising, having your sheets flaked out so they can run easily in dedicated sheet bags or on the cockpit floor – not just strewn all about – is important.”

He adds, “One thing that racers do when they are short-handed or offshore is try to make it as easy as possible for the crew on the foredeck to do their job.”

This means, among other things, spinnaker poles positioned for easy access and sails ready to deploy without fouling. The less there is to think (or worry) about at the critical moment, the more likely the maneuver will be carried out with success.

Hutchison agrees. “If it is hard to do or adjust, chances are it is wrong. Making the boat easier to sail will allow for quicker trips and more fun.”

Practice, Practice, Practice

Racers get a lot of practice in a very short time, which can make a huge difference when a difficult or unusual sail change is required. Practice is key, but it all comes back to organization, Isler says.

“In general, I think that because in racing you do more maneuvers, you learn things quicker than a person who’s cruising and only tacks two or three times in the course of an afternoon. In a race you might tack 30 times,” he adds.

Fighting Fatigue

Instituting a workable watch system is something that both racers and cruisers endeavor to do. But the demands on the offshore racing sailor often make the consequences of a bad system much more apparent.

Riley says that in a race of less than 100 miles, it’s all hands on deck all the time.

“For a sprint up to about 300 miles, I prefer the buddy system,” she says. “We match up each person on the crew with equivalent skill levels and it’s up to them to make sure one is always on deck and [the other] … getting enough sleep.”

Racing Meets Cruising
Dawn Riley. Photo courtesy of Dawn Riley

It’s a system that works especially well with teams that know each other well and are more or less equal in skill levels.

Some of the systems for longer races with more crew probably wouldn’t work on short-handed cruising sailboats, but setting up a workable watch schedule is imperative for keeping crew happy and rested.

Much of it simply boils down to common sense: Have good sails and running rigging, know the best way to put them in play, keep things organized, and lastly, make sure you are rested and ready enough to make it all work!

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