Becoming a Racer - By Michelle Potter

So, you have read all the reports about the various regattas going on around the country and followed the progress of ‘The Race’ last winder, and now you have the not so fleeting thought… ‘Hey, I can do that!’. Well, here is your chance to get started in racing. Just have a read of the following pearls of wisdom and you will start making the transition from rail meat, to rock star in no time.

Go to your local club, sailing centre of marina and find an entry level crewing position. Try and join someone’s boat for a race on a warm summer evening. If you luck into a crew position, all you will need is a hat, sunglasses, some deck shoes, gloves, an inflatable PFS and some sunscreen. All of this is for warm weather. In the cold weather, you will also want to add your own boots, foul weather gear, and a PFD that will give you extra insulation for when you are hanging off the rail. Once you are on board, by keeping your eyes and ears open you will quickly learn the basics of racing.


You are in the lucky minority if you enjoy your first crewing experience. Many people come into racing without any of the proper gear and are then surprised to find themselves bruised and cold at the end of the day. Other trainees find themselves with incompetent skippers who broach, yell, can’t make a decision and slam into other boats. I’ve met every different possible sort of helmsman, and all I have to tell you is to stick with it. You can just keep trading boards until you find a crew and skipper that you enjoy spending time with, and you will soon learn that this racing stuff can be a lot of fun.

You might like to go to some of the post race parties and introduce yourself to other crews and skippers. Another idea is to post your name onto online notice boards, or published crew lists, indicating that you are a novice but available to race. Let the local sailors know if you are interested in doing a particular job on board, like fly the kite, grind sheets, hang off the rail, or work the foredeck. As you sail more, and gain more experience, you will be able to try out all the different positions to see which one suits you best. What you are looking for is the ‘Dream Team’ and this will finally happen. You will find a group of like minded sailors that don’t mind teaching you what to do on the racecourse, and make you laugh. After I eventually found my Dream Team, I learnt a huge amount in just a few days.

1. The skipper pointed out as we headed out into San Francisco Bay, that I was meant to be moving my weight from one side of the boat to the other as she tacked. Finally- I had found a light at the end of the tunnel as I could see that the skipper was conscious of balancing the forces exerted on the boat.

2. When the grinder pointed to the three bottoms sitting on the jibsheets, and yelled ‘Butt cleat!’ to me, I realised that I had been committing a sin every time I sat on the rail. We would be sailing more efficiently, and I would have fewer bruises form sitting on the sheets too.

3. I learned that I would have a real job at the end of the downwind legs! My task was to stuff the spinnaker into it’s bag as quickly as I could. The crew gave me a tip to do this- I had to imagine that the sail was money and that I wanted to collect as much as I could before it all blew away. With the five other crew members shouting ‘Money, Money Money!’, I was encouraged to work efficiently and quickly.

4. I started to realise we might be racing in circles, or maybe triangles, when I started to study the course. I could see as we zipped up and down the start line that the committee boat wasn’t a target, it was simply a place for us to check in and depart from.

5. After all the experience I had, I could now understand the importance to find that guy ‘mark’.

Once you have found your Dream Team, you will begin to adapt to a new kind of communication. You will be socialising with other sailors and you’ll find your hands enacting out what is called ‘bar karate’, to mimic boat positions. You will pepper your speech with colourful phrases like ‘dogs in the house’, ‘footing’ and ‘lay line’. Then you will find that the discussions will turn to gear, and you will start to compare hip pads, fleece jackets, padded shorts and kneepads.

As you become more involved with racing, you may encounter some strange consequences. When I fell asleep once after a weekend of non stop racing, I had a strange dream in which I was wearing a Velcro racing suit that could keep me firmly attached to the boat because of the Velcro deck. Some sailors develop strange obsessions, by purchasing magazines and referring to World Champions and Olympic racers by their first names, or becoming preoccupied with the weather.

Whatever happens with your sailing, you can have my opinion that the racing bug is a healthy one to have. Just a small amount of racing experience will teach you a huge amount about sailing. Not about how to varnish teak, repair engines, electrical systems or anchoring- but real sailing. You will get to see how racing sailors balance the boat and adjust their sail trim. You’ll also learn how they compensate for the current when setting a course for the mark, and how you read the water for a puff of wind. Just by observing the experts around you, you will and have an insight into what it is to sail.

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This article was written by Michelle Potter and is copyright