Sailboat Racing:Everything You Need To Get Started

You have been sailing for a few years. You know starboard from port and you can turn your boat going upwind as well as downwind. No better way to show of your skills than by participating in some good old fashioned sailboat racing. 


Sailboat racing for beginners

sailboat racing

To get started with racing your sailboat ask around in your local marina if they have a weekly regatta. Often, there will be a sailing club which organizes an evening race once a week that is fairly low priced - and where the level of competition is somewhat suited for beginners.

You should not be concerned of the commitment to show up for racing every week as it is completely acceptable to miss out everyone in a while - that is what discards is for, right? In terms of equipment,you are not really required to upgrade anything. This means that sail racing costs - give and take - is limited to the sign-up fee for the regatta.

This fee-will vary a lot across regattas. For weekly evening races you should expect to pay 100-200 EUR per year and for a weekend regatta something around 200-250 EUR is fairly standard. 


Once you have signed up, you should browse through the “Notice of Race” document that should be accessible.

You do not need to carefully read through it to grasp each and every detail but you should pick up those few pieces of information that is relevant to you.

As a minimum, you should read the racing schedule, the location and perhaps some practical information such as where to dock your boat and how to find accommodation. 

Once you show up for the race and register for participation, the “Notice of Race” will be replaced by the “Sailing Instructions”.

This document will provide greater detail in terms of how the racing itself will be conducted. Details will include the racecourse, course area, amendments to the regular sailing rules, safety precautions, and so on.

This should be read carefully. Particularly the parts concerning the starting procedure, the course and changes to the course. Once read, you are ready to go racing.


Before docking out,you should collect your crew and agree who takes the different positions onboard.

Naturally, it will depend on the type of sailboat, but generally, you need to have the following positions. 

First and foremost,you need a helmsman. This person should be dedicated to steering the boat and not much else.

sailboat racing start

Steering the boat efficiently will require a lot of focus on the telltales and any nearby competitors. Asking the helmsman to handle more tasks is likely to compromise his ability to steer accurately. 

Second and third, a mainsail trimmer and a jib trimmer is needed. These positions are not just for sheeting but also to make sure that the sails are trimmed nicely for the windspeed. 

Fourth, a bowman needs to be appointed to handle any spinnaker-related maneuvers. This position will handle the spinnaker pole and assist when the spinnaker is being pulled up or down. 

Fifth position is the Pittman. This position is responsible for pulling and releasing the halyards as needed during the race - and to assist the trimmers if a needed adjustment require it.

With a smaller crew(3-4 people), you should not assign a designated Pittman but rather split the responsibilities of the Pittman onto the trimmers. 

Sixth and final position is the tactician. It is highly recommended that one person is assigned only with the responsibility to take you the fastest way possible around the racecourse. 

Often crews make the mistake to let everyone chime in with opinions and then discuss these to reach a joint decision.

In our opinion this will be much too cumbersome and decisions will take much too long to be reached. Instead, one person should be picked to bear the responsibility and then the other crew members are welcome to share their observations.

The tactician should outline where to start, when to tack,which side of the race course to sail, which sail to set and everything else. 

For smaller crew sizes, there is a tendency, that the helmsman is picked for this responsibility.

This is,in our opinion , not ideal. Often the helmsman is too focused on steering to get a good read on the race course while any of the other positions are likely to have many more opportunities to look around.


When all the positions has been filled, you are finally ready to dock out. And we highly recommend docking out early. If allowed by the racing committee, you should aim to spend in between 30 min to 1 hour on the race course.

During your preparation, you should as a minimum go through all the maneuvers you expect to do during the race.

And ideally, you should try to do each a couple of times to make sure everyone in the crew knows exactly what to do.

Being early on the race course should also help your tactician develop an idea of which side of the race course to prefer and get compass bearings to assist the decision-making during the race. 


Racing Sailboat Classes

In general, there is a couple of different ways you can race your sailboat. On a race course set by buoys placed by the racing committee - with each race taking between 45 min to 1 hour.

Alternatively you can participate in “distance races”. In this case,the race course will normally be given by the “natural” surroundings.

sailboat racing

This could for instance be a race around an island, a race from one sailing club to another or it could also be a race around pre-positioned buoys. The duration for such a race is normally longer and can last from anywhere within a couple of hours to a full day - or longer.

Apart from the duration, the other ma indifference is that the points of sail during the race will depend on the prevailing wind direction on race day.

For course racing, the race committee will position the buoys so that the race course is correctly placed for the wind direction and you are likely to know exactly which sail to use for your next leg.


On race courses - as well as for distance races - the participating sailboats is often a diverse mix of all kind of different types.

Therefore, the organizing committee often use complex “handicap” systems to equalize differences across boat-types. Normally,the system used is nation-based and developed based on the most popular boat-types in that nation.

Internationally, the iORC, ORC and IRC systems are the most popular.

The systems use complex formulas based on boat-length,boat-weight, sail-size, types of sails, design of sails, materials used and many more measurements to determine a factor that should be multiplied with the actual time spend to sail 1 nautical mile.

Then this factor is multiplied with the time you have spend to finish the race and the distance of the race, to reach an adjusted race time that can be compared to other participants.

One should be aware that these systems are never perfect and only to some degree can make performance comparable. 

Therefore - to truly measure your racing abilities - you need to participate in races where the boats are completely identical. Racing sailboat classes that is currently popular internationally are J70, J80, Melges 24 and Melges 32.

These classes will provide intense and close racing in fleets from 10 to 50 boats. And the level of racing in these fleets is often much higher than what is common in“handicap” based racing.


Sailboat Racing Basics

A sailboat race maybe divided into 3 different parts. The start, the upwind and the downwind.

Here's a look at a sailboat racing strategy: 


It is often claimed that a start of a sailboat race is half of the result. And truly, the importance of getting of to a good start can not be overestimated.

You should aim for crossing the starting line with maximum speed exactly as the countdown to the start finishes (normally you will get 5,4,1 min. warnings).

However,that is actually not the most important part of starting. It is even more important to have a free lane to sail toward the area of the race course that you find to be favored.

And ideally with the opportunity to tack at anytime,should you find it necessary.

A free lane means that you are not battling disturbed wind or wind shadows from your competitors- and that you can sail the exact optimal angle to the wind.


Once you have crossed the starting line, the first leg will normally be an upwind. During upwind, the further ahead you find yourself in the fleet, the more free lanes is available- which is exactly why starting well is so important.

Good tactics for upwind sailing requires you to make observations on 3 different aspects of the race course. Wind speed, wind directions and your competitors. 

You should aim to sail the lanes of the upwind with the strongest wind, the smallest possible angle to the windward mark and with the least amount of traffic from your competitors.

Unfortunately, all of your competitors are going to aim for the exact same thing.


For the downwind parts of sailing, you actually need to base your decisions on more or less the same observations  but with a few details in difference.

Mainly, you will no longer benefit from being in front. In contrast, being in the lead will make you suffer from having to sail in the wind shadows of all the boats behind.

Conversely, if you are in the back you are free to pick exactly the lane that you prefer, which should provide you with some opportunities to gain back some-ground.

Generally, however, the distances that is won and lost during downwinds are less than the upwind. The reason is that the degree of transverse separation on downwind is significantly less than during upwind. 


Racing Rules of Sailing

To get safely around a race course filled with competing sailboats that is similarly busy sailing as fast as possible, most races is governed by the International Racing Rules of Sailing.

The rulebook covers all kinds of different situations that may arise between competing sailboats during a race, along with interpretations and examples of how to follow the directions of the rules.

Here's a look at how racing rules are presented over a racing weekend:


The most basic rule is that boats having the starboard side to windward has the right of way to boats having the port side to windward.

This means in practice that when two boats on opposite tacks meet, the port-tack boat needs to either tack or bear away to pass behind the stern of the starboard tack boat. In cases where 2 boats are on the same tack, it is the leeward boat that has the right of way against the windward boat. 


However, an important detail to mention, is that the boat with the right of way is always obliged to give the other boat the time and opportunity to stay clear. This invites a substantial level of interpretation to the rules - which means that you should be very confident in your right of way in order to engage with your competitors on the racecourse.


If you, during the race, break a rule you will be disqualified from that race. So, if you are sure that you have actually committed a foul, it is advised to correct it. Most times it can be corrected by doing a 360 degree or 720 degree spin as a penalty turn(s). This will be more carefully described in the “Sailing Instructions”.


Sailboat Racing Equipment

sailboat racing equipment

So what should you wear sailboat racing? It will naturally depend on the weather during race-day. However, a couple of guidelines is nice to know.


Generally, it is often underestimated how physically taxing it is to sail, particularly during mark roundings and during downwind with spinnaker.

Upwinds are often a lot colder because of the wind-chill effect.

To prepare for both, it is important to wear a windproof outer layer that will protect against the wind-chill but it has to be breathable too. Otherwise, you will get clammy and cold. 

Finally, a good pair of boots is essential to stay warm and comfortable.     

Alternatively, you may enjoy our yacht racing guide which takes you through racing yachts.