Sailboat racing: why it’s worth a shot

Sailboats gliding across the water. Pixy

Yachts, Dinghies, and Catamarans! Oh My!

Some of my fondest memories as a child were weekends spent at the lake. I spent hot summers on the water with my family playing on the motorboats and jet skis, soaking up the sunshine, having beach picnics, tubbing or water skiing, or even just swimming in the lake. In pristine calm weather, motorboats and jet skis fill the lake. When the wind is howling, colourful sails decorate the lake.

While I appreciate a beautiful day on a motorboat, something about the experience is so different from being on a sailboat. Sailboats fit their aesthetic, where little wind provides a smooth and peaceful ride. Without the regular hum of a motor, it shows how tranquil it is on the water. Sailboats can also be intense when the wind is howling, lurching to one side as you book along the water, ducking under the bow as you turn, or “tack”, across the lake. Nevertheless, riding on a sailboat provides an interesting perspective on the watercraft life that not many people tend to experience. However, in a place like Saskatchewan with lots of wind and lakes, I do not think enough people experience the beauty of sailing.

While seemingly niche, Sailboat racing is a certified sport played in the Summer Olympics. Sailing competitions are rampant in areas with access to water, and contests can range from four to a hundred boats competing in a regatta, meaning multiple vessels. The races consist of many different types of ships, from large yachts to little dinghies. Some ships, like catamarans, are specifically designed for cruising, while yachts are the typical racing boats. Races can occur from sheltered harbours to open ocean events varying in difficulty.

Before I explain some of the different types of races, there are some questions or assumptions about sailboats that need to be addressed. Most often, I am asked if I have ever capsized or fallen off of a sailboat. The answer is no, firstly because I have been with an experienced instructor, and secondly because at the bottom of the sailboat is the keel, a fin which provides enough stability to prevent it from capsizing. Sailboats are tipsy in some conditions, but that is because the wind causes them to heel, which is entirely normal. Heeling refers to the sailboat leaning over the water as you gain higher speeds. The incline will increase when you get up to higher rates which increases the exhilaration. Do not let your fear of capsizing get in the way of your experience; enjoy it.

Another common misconception is that sailboats are slow. While they are very slow in comparison to motorboats, it entirely depends on the wind at hand. If you are going on a joyride with low wind, it will be slower with less of a heel. In high wind, part of the fun can be standing on the leeward side, which is the lower side when heeling, and sitting on the windward side, which is where the high side is. Furthermore, it depends on what sailboat you choose to captain. Catamarans can be incredibly exhilarating, as they have you suspended over the water. Windsurfing has you in the water, where you can achieve high speeds as if you were surfing or water skiing.

The third most common question I am asked is how cold and wet it is. The answer entirely depends on you. What conditions are you going out in? What kind of boat do you plan to sail? If you are sailing on a yacht, you probably will not get wet other than maybe a few spritzes. Sailing is far from how Captain Jack Sparrow sails the Black Pearl through a storm. You probably will not get doused from waves. Furthermore, always check the weather so you do not end up in a storm, as sailboats are the highest point in the middle of water and makes you a perfect target for lightning. However, remember that you are on the water and that means there is always a chance of getting wet.

Short-course racing typically takes place in constructed harbours in a triangular form. A sailboat moves in a zig-zag pattern upon tacking, so it only fits that they move in a triangular pattern to maximize speed. Short-course contains a range of different boats, from larger craft boats to smaller craft boats, which can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to finish. Upon the beginning of the race, officials will notify sailors when the race is set to start so sailors can cross the starting line at maximum speed. Short-course is most commonly sailed as an Olympic event.

Off-shore racing is usually reserved for yachts in the open water and is considered the marathons of sailboat racing, as they usually span hours. Most famous among off-shore races is the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in Australia, which spans 1170 kilometres. The race is held on Boxing Day and has been an annual tradition since 1945. Oceanic races are another type of open-water race, like The Ocean Race that goes all the way around the world. The race is held every three or four years and takes an average of 20 days to complete. The Ocean Race has sailors racing day and night in temperatures of -5 to +40 degrees Celsius, where crew members often only bring one change of clothes. They also have a crew member who is a dedicated on-board reporter solely responsible for taking pictures of the trek and sending them to headquarters.

Event criteria differ in the discipline. Fleet racing requires at least three races to be considered a regatta and contain over one hundred vessels. Match racing is where only two boats race against one another, and team racing often includes two teams of three ships competing together for a score. Sailing is a gender-neutral sport, and many crew members often have a mix of people operating the sailboat. The events are often separated by age or by taking into account individual health conditions.

Sailing is a delightful experience. Whether you choose to take up racing of different mediums or go for an afternoon joyride, it is a delightful experience that everyone should try.

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