350 NW of Bermuda…
‘Sleijride’ is nearly halfway back to Newport on the return delivery following the Bermuda Race last week. We’re in cruising mode again, down to four crew (from six), and enjoying single-handed watches steered by autopilot, 9 hours of rest, reading (!), and motor sailing through the calms.
Yesterday we had a very close encounter with a sperm whale that breached not 100 yards off our port bow, then proceeded to meander across the bow and dive off to starboard, showing us his big tail on the way down. Today we’re sailing fast off the wind, fair weather cumulus clouds dotting the blue sky and the hot sun baking the decks. Aside from the relentless heat, this is ocean sailing at its finest.
Participating in the Bermuda Race last week (my first), got me thinking about the differences between ocean racing and ocean cruising, and what the former can teach us about the latter. I’m primarily an ocean cruiser (though prefer the term ‘sailor’, as cruising has an air of laziness to it that doesn’t suit me), but having done two long ocean races now (Annapolis-Newport in 2013) has altered my perspective on some points. I’m admittedly no authority on the subject of ocean racing, but I’ve jotted some ideas down here, with a few anecdotes from our experiences to elaborate. Here goes…
- There is immense satisfaction to be had by completing a voyage entirely under sail.
The racing sailor certainly feels a greater sense of accomplishment arriving at a distant landfall knowing he’s completed the journey without the aid of an engine. Few cruising sailors nowadays understand this. Miles Poor, a veteran and huge supporter of the Caribbean 1500 likes to preach that on that route, ‘fuel is king.’ No offense Miles, but I disagree. The feeling of making landfall under sail is so thrilling, that I’m planning on introducing special ‘no motoring’ prizes for the 1500 this fall. Stay tuned…
- Hand-steering with a watch partner is good fun and great practice.
Ocean racing, unless you’re in the double handed or cruising divisions, does not allow autopilots. Being at the helm puts you closer to the elements and to the marine environment we sailors supposedly yearn for. With no bimini and the dodger stowed away, we were in it, driving the boat day and night through whatever nature tossed at us. Going off watch after three hours at the helm in wet, squally conditions is a relief, to say the least. ‘Without the bitter, baby, the sweet ain’t as sweet.’ You’re more conscious of the moment at hand – no escaping into a book while you hide behind the dodger. It’s just you, the boat, the sea and the wind.
- The boat, as most cruisers already know, can handle much more than you can.
Our best day’s run during the race was 185 miles, or an average of nearly 8 knots. Not bad for a 37-footer. It was made possible mostly by us pushing hard through a dark and squally night. Beam reaching in 20-25 knots of wind, we routinely hit speeds in the double digits, topping out at over 11 knots, barreling mostly blind through a moonless night, steering by the dim red light on the compass. The hand steering was tiring, and the off watch were bounced around in their bunks, but eating up the miles was worth it. Pushing hard made the challenge that much more exciting.
- Racers are almost always better prepared than cruisers. And they don’t whine about it (as much!).
The ‘1500’ and all the rallies I work for require nearly the same safety equipment as an ocean race. In fact, the ISAF Special Regulations inform requirements for ocean races and rallies. Racers break gear for sure (they expect to), but the level of preparation, both in terms of crew readiness (with CPR and Safety at Sea course mandatory), and readiness of the boats was apparent on the docks in Newport and in Bermuda before the trip home. Racers carry more sails (more redundancy), and seem more aware of and ready for the risks they’ll encounter. They leave nothing to chance, something a lot of cruisers can learn from. And when’s the last time you’ve heard of a racing boat being abandoned (aside from the extremes like Fastnet 79 or the Vendee)?
- The shortest route between two ports is still a straight line!
Racers understand this better than cruisers. On Sleijride, we plotted the rhumb line on the chart and never deviated from it by more than 23 miles (14 miles so far on the way back). We sailed a bee line for Bermuda. We knew our boat wasn’t fast enough to take any ‘flyers’ – most cruising boats aren’t – so we sailed the weather we had on the course. In rallies like the ARC and 1500, it often pays to sail off the rhumb line to better set up to catch the trade winds, but sailing the shortest route is still the fastest.
- Racers are better sailors than cruisers.
Some of this admittedly has to do with effort and saving energy on a short-handed crew, but racers are almost always more in tune with their boats and how to get the most out of the. They’re not afraid to make sail changes, or leave sail up overnight. They know they’re boats and are happy going to the now in the dark to reef or change headsails. I learned a lot about light air sailing and spinnaker sailing from Adam Cort, fellow writer at SAIL who crewed with us last week and has way more racing experience than me. Patience is the key. Like an old cycling line I once heard about optimizing the pedal stroke, ‘slow becomes smooth, and smooth eventually becomes fast.’ Good advice.
- Overindulgence of alcohol is the bane of lots of racing AND cruising events.
I’m no teetotaler, but why are sailing and boozing so inexorably linked? We hit the dock at 3pm at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and our neighbor on a J/120 was so drunk he could barely stand. He was loud, rude and obnoxious, and about drowned himself when he decided to jump in the harbor right between our rafted boats. The DJ party music played till 2am three nights straight, and the sailors at the bar were drunk all the while. One or two celebratories is fine, but isn’t there more to see and do at these beautiful landfalls than drink? Come on people…
So, what do you think? Who have I offended and what did I forget? What can ocean cruising sailors teach the racing crowd?