Cruiser Or Racer?

Published in the June 2018 Issue May 2020 Feature Tim McKenna

It may be safe to say that, at heart, most sailboats can be racing boats. It may not be safe to say that most sailors are racers. But then again, there is that saying that when one boat sails it is cruising but when two boats sail, the race is on…even if both boats are not fully aware of the situation. One certainty is that if you race just a little bit, it will make you a better sailor.

There are different types of races around the Great Lakes. Many sailing clubs have weekly and often Saturday races that will welcome a “newbie” to join in the fun. Or, if you feel you are not ready to make the plunge on your boat, just show up a couple hours beforehand. Walk around and introduce yourself and let the folks know you are looking to crew. This is a great way to get out on the race course and learn a little about the racing rules and procedures. Everyone in this community is willing to teach and share the experience with new crew. Remember, the idea is to have some fun out sailing on our Great Lakes…enjoy!

And, They’re Off!

Your first racing experience may seem a little bit daunting. As crew on an experienced boat you will have an excellent opportunity to learn. I’ve always maintained that each sail is an opportunity to learn something. As an aside, if you happen to get on a boat where the skipper says he knows everything, my recommendation is to get on another boat.

Your initial confusion will subside as you begin to understand the basic principles of the sport. It is a fun way to be exposed to the racing side of sailing. When you decide to enter the racing scene on your “cruising” boat, it may be a good idea to sort of ease into it. Take your time and recognize that you may not have the high-tech sails and crew that have often raced together. You may want to be a little late at the starting line until you get more comfortable sailing in crowds. You may not be first around the marks and near the back of the pack at the finish, but the idea is really to just get out and have some fun.

Once you’ve done a few races you can then make a decision about whether to make the investment to upgrade your sail inventory. A cruising boat most likely has Dacron sails that might be a little weathered. Those high-tech racing sails really do make a difference, but that comes with a price. If you have a cruising spinnaker, keep in mind that it may not be cut for downwind sailing. In any event, your cruising boat will sail significantly differently than a boat designed to race. The cruiser will not point as high, so keep this in mind when getting to the starting line…sail your boat for what she is. If this means falling off to keep speed up, just do it!

Equipment Check

There are many ways to begin to upgrade you sails and equipment…too many to delve into here. But take a look at what you have and look around those weeknight races to see what you need. How is your jib, main and spinnaker? Are your sail controls easily adjustable? One thing that you should do, even before spending money on new “stuff,” is just to get out and clean the bottom of the boat. This will give you an immediate improvement in the performance of your boat.

Because boats by design sail differently there are ratings and handicap systems. These are designed to allow boats of different design to be raced against one another. The hope is that the rating will allow the results to be based on the abilities of the crew as opposed to the boat and equipment. There are different ratings systems used around the Great Lakes. The predominant ones on the Great Lakes are PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet) and ORR (Offshore Racing Rule). The ORR is the system used for both Mackinac races.

The Great Racing Lakes

There are opportunities across the Great Lakes for racing, but generally only three types of races: “Around the Buoys” races which are shorter inshore races; inshore races using islands, etc. as marks on the course; and longer races that are more point-to-point. Each of these has its own characteristics, challenges and preparation needs. Your Saturday around the buoys race requires a different approach than the Chicago – Mackinac Race.

Most races have JAM (Jib and Main) classes where you do not fly the spinnaker, which are great for cruisers. There are “big” races on each of the Great Lakes as well as many other races in every venue where there are sailboats. Even the big races have “cruising” classes designed to get the cruising sailor out sailing the distance races. Race organizers will publish a set of instructions, most appropriately called “Sailing Instructions.” These will tell you everything you need to know about the course configuration, starting sequences, race committee signals and other special circumstances that may arise.

A few of my favorite distance races are the Biennial Trans Superior International Race across Lake Superior and the next will be held August 3, 2019. Lake Michigan has the famous Chicago – Mackinac Race. Lake Huron does something similar, but on the other side which goes from Port Huron to Mackinac. Lake Erie hosts the Mills Trophy Race and the Trans Erie Race, and Lake Ontario the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge.


Basic Rules

Just remember that there are a few basic rules of the road that should keep you out of trouble:

  • Port Tack Boat is the give-way vessel to a boat on Starboard Tack.
  • Windward Boat gives way to a boat to Leeward.
  • Boat overtaking another from astern is the give-way vessel.


For More Information

Racing Rules of Sailing

US Sailing

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