Yacht Racing: The Complete Guide For Beginners Getting Started

General Info


Arguably the ultimate competition for gentlemen. Yacht racing will test your ability to handle your sailboat in close-call situations.

 

To devise and execute racing strategies, all while consistently trimming and adjusting your sails for maximum speed.

 

In order to accomplish that you will need excellent teamwork and clear communication.

 

But how do you get from cruising to racing. From an expert in comfort to an expert in speed.

 

From holding a beer on a day-cruise to holding your own in a regatta.Let’s go through the process step by step so that you will be perfectly prepared for your first encounter with the starting line.

Before we begin, check out all the sailing terms so you're familiar with different terminology.

 

The Crew

yacht racing

 

The most important part in your preparation for yacht racing is to assemble your crew. Depending on the size of your yacht, you will likely need around 3-6 people in your crew to handle all the assignments during a race.

 

To make sure that you actually have a good time while racing, we strongly suggest that you do most of your recruiting among people you already know.

 

Either from your sailing network or among friends outside of sailing.

 

Particularly on larger yachts, some crew members only have a few tasks. If crew sizes reach above 8, then a few of the crew member is mainly there to balance the.

 

Such roles can be easily filled by someone who has done very little sailing. For smaller crew sizes, each member will have many more tasks which usually require a bit more experience.

 

However, with good instructions and some guidance during the race, it can still be possible for an inexperienced sailor to do well.

 

The crew positions that we need to fill in, is as follows:

 

Helmsman: This is - in our opinion - the perhaps most misunderstood role in yacht racing.

 

From racing in single-handed and double-handed dinghies, most sailors are used to the helm making most of the decisions during the race, leaving the crew to be the hands executing those decisions.

 

However, in yacht racing, you probably have a larger crew but without having additional tasks.

 

Therefore, it should seriously be considered to leave the decision-making to someone other than the helm.

 

The reason is that accurate steering requires a tremendous amount of attention and focus.

 

So the helm should ideally spend a lot more time looking at the tell-tales and the sails rather than wind conditions and competitors. 

 

If you buy into this logic, the type of person you need for your helmsman position is someone that's able to focus over a long duration of time and someone that is able to receive information and follow advice instantly. 

 

Trimmer (Main/Jib/Spinnaker): This role will be responsible for trimming the sails - not only in terms of sheeting but also for trimming lines such as the halyard, the outhaul, the vang and the Cunningham.

 

To accurately adjust the sails, you need some good understanding of how each of the possible adjustments will affect the sails.

 

You also need a good understanding of race strategy as different settings may be needed based on the strategy.

 

Finally, a trimmer should be heavily involved in communication with the helmsman and the other trimmers (there should at least be a trimmer for the main and for the jib).

 

The trimmers and the helm should always be perfectly aligned in terms of how maximum speed is achieved.

 

Perhaps, the helmsman would like to bear away a few degrees but in order for that to have the intended effect, it needs to be accompanied by slightly looser settings on the sails. And communication can also be in reverse.

 

For instance, the jib-sheet trimmer may inform the others that the tell-tales on the leech is blowing consistently.

 

That could be an indication that the helm can point a bit closer to the direction of the wind.However, the mainsail will still need to play along also. Pointing higher,would require the mainsail to be pulled in a bit more.

 

This communication should persist permanently throughout the race. 

 

Also, in many yachts,the trimmers are the most physically taxing crew position.

 

Attentive trimmer swill adjust the sales constantly during straight sailing and grinding sails in and out will - particularly in breeze - require some good strength.

 

Pittman: This crew position is probably the most overlooked. But crucial nonetheless. The Pittman is basically the person that will make everything work onboard.

 

Particularly when going through man oeuvres and especially when those man oeuvres involve the spinnaker.

 

Sailing in a straight line, the Pittman will be responsible for adjusting all halyards and trimming lines based on suggestions from the trimmers.

 

During man oeuvres he will be responsible for running the barber hauls, the spinnaker halyard and the controls for the spinnaker pole.

There will be some time off during upwind as well as downwind but during maneuvers, it is crucial that every adjustment is timely and accurate - otherwise the losses could be consequential.

 

 

Even though it is crucial, a less experienced sailor will be able to perfectly fulfill this role.

 

Given some good instructions and a couple of trial-runs - and maybe a few reminders during the race - it could work out very well.

 

Bowman: This crew is positioned as the person furthest towards the bow of the boat.

 

During upwind, he will be responsible for notifying the rest of the crew of incoming gusts and lulls while ensuring that spinnaker-sheets and halyards are prepared for an upcoming hoist.

 

During the hoist, he will be responsible for fitting the spinnaker pole to the mast, pre-feeding the spinnaker using the windward spinnaker-sheet and for pulling the halyard in the actual hoist.

 

During gybes, he will handle the spinnaker pole, switching it from one tack to the other. When approaching the bottom marks, he will ensure that the spinnaker is pulled down correctly and that neither jib-sheets or the spinnaker pole will be in the way,when turning around the mark.

 

This position will also be physically demanding, peaking when the spinnaker is pulled either up or down.

 

Tactician: This crew position will be responsible for making the strategic decisions before and during the race.

 

Ideally, this individual should be focused solely on this but depending on the size of your sailboat, you may have to mix this role with one of the other positions.

 

Traditionally, the role of the tactician is taken by the main-sheet trimmer, but it is not set in stone and it is really up to you and your crew.

 

The responsibilities of the tactician is as a minimum that your boat find its way around the racecourse. All maneuvers should be clearly communicated in due time for the rest of the crew to execute.

 

The next step for the tactician is to find the fastest way around the race course. This include staking advantage of wind shifts, sailing those patches of the race course with the most breeze while sailing in free undisturbed wind. 

 

To achieve that is truly an art form and even the best tactician will get it wrong every now and then.

 

However, you give yourself the best shot at getting it right by selecting an experienced racing sailor for this position. And by relieving the tactician from as many other tasks as possible.

 

 

 

 

Preparing your boat

 

Once, you have put together a crew for each of the positions, you are ready to go race.

 

We strongly advise that you squeeze in a couple of training sessions before race day to help everyone in the crew to settle in and get to know each other. 

 

Aside from training,you also need to go through your equipment and make sure that everything is ready to go.

 

The most important things to check are as follows:

 

Sails:

 

Make sure all the sails you expect to use for your race is in good condition.

 

First, the eye-fittings in the top of the sails and in the clews should be checked.

 

Then all the batten-pockets should be checked and if there is signs of tears, either the sail-cloth around the pocket or the batten itself should be taped up.

 

Then go through the leech of your sails and make sure that there are no signs of tearing there either. And also make sure that all tell-tales are in pristine condition.

 

If not they should be replaced. Because the cloth is a lot thinner, the spinnaker may show more signs of wear, and is likely to have a few tears.

 

Therefore, take extra care when going through the spinnaker and tape it up when needed.

 

Rig/Mast:

 

First make sure that the mast settings is the way that you like and as a minimum that the mast is straight when looking from up along the mainsail wedge.

 

If it is not, then you need to adjust your side stays. For the side stays you also need to make sure that there is no chips in the wires.

 

Very very small chips may be acceptable (should be taped up) but you really need to be careful. 

 

 

It is also worthwhile to hoist a crew-member up into the mast to make sure that the fittings along the mast tube is in good condition.

 

Particularly the spreaders and the fore stay fittings should be checked.

 

Partly for signs of wear and tear but also to make sure that all bolts and pins are in place and taped up.

 

 

Boat:

 

First, make sure that grinders and furler systems works smoothly.

 

Then checkline-locks, vang system, boom and that the mast itself is positioned nicely inits mast station in the bottom of the boat.

 

Also check that the mast tube is not wearing into the deck as it passes through.

 

Finally, you should go through all trimming lines, halyards and sheets to make sure that they do not shown sign of ripping.

   

The equipment check should ideally be carried out a couple of weeks before the regatta.

 

In this way, you will have time to fix the issues that you find and hopefully also have time to check that your repairs are working.

 

Going through all of your equipment may not bet he most fun you will ever have but we can assure you that there is nothing worse than having your sailboat breaking down during a race.

 

So please do not underestimate the importance of this step.

Here's a video of the carnage /fun when racing: 

 

On race day

 

Now you have your crew ready, your boat is ready and it is finally race day.

 

When you register for the regatta, you will normally receive the “Sailing Instructions”.

 

This is a document that will tell you how the race committee will conduct the race in details.

 

Before you dock out,spend some time to review these instructions. As a minimum, you need to understand exactly how the starting procedure runs.

 

Which flags will be displayed and which sound signals will be given.

 

Then make sure you understand the geometry of the race course, colors of the marks/buoys and in which area it will be located.

 

As you pass around the marks during the race, it is crucial for your tactician that you know precisely which direction the next leg will take you.

 

And who knows. If you're in front you will not have any of your competitors to show you the way.  

 

 

When you have clearly understood the race details, you are finally ready to dock out.

 

It is highly recommended that you spend at least 30-60 minutes on the race course to get a feel for the conditions on race day.

 

Trimmers will need some time to figure out the best sail settings, the tactician will need some time to get compass bearings,read the current and check out the different wind patches that he sees and the remaining crew would also benefit from going through a few man oeuvres before the race is begun, It is always much better to clear up misunderstandings before rather than after the gun. 

 

If you are able to go through these steps, you will end up finding yourself very nicely prepared to participate in your first yacht race.

 

And just as in most other sports, you should always keep in mind that it is what you do in your preparation that determine what you are able to do in your race. 

 

Having gone through this list should help you keep your butterflies in check as you reach the startline.

Simon Nielson

Simon is a former world class sailing athlete, winning medals in European and World Championships while being ranked no. 1 in the world in the Olympic 49'er class as part of being in the Denmark national team. He has contributed many articles to the Deepsailling blog. If you'd like to learn more, you can read our about page. If you'd like to share your photos or stories from your sailing adventures, simply email us and we'll share them on the site.

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