How Not to Race - SailNet Community
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How Not to Race

English Harbor, Antigua, a mecca for racing and cruising sailors alike.
Many years ago, I spent four months of a year-long-cruise anchored in Antigua in the West Indies aboard a boat that my father had bought in England. Along with rotating batches of friends and family for help, he and I had sailed her to the Caribbean via the European and African coasts, the Canary Islands, and across to Antigua. Once there, we took a break from our cruising schedule while I varnished all the woodwork and was introduced, for the first time, to an alternative use for a boat—racing.

Our layover venue, English Harbor, Antigua, is picturesque, and with its protected hurricane hole, historic fort, and numerous boat-related facilities, a well-rounded popularity comes easily to the place. Here, boats from all around the world surrounded my father's Rival 38, a dependable, fiberglass cutter. Shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other vessels that ranged from obviously homemade, frumpy curiosities to sparkling, bright-worked mega-yachts, we didn't really stand out, except for the hideous robin's egg blue color of our hull. As it turned out, we didn't make any waves as a racing boat either.

The most unforgettable experience was our participation in Antigua Sailing Week. For months leading up to the big event, racing was the hot topic, Antigua was the place to be, and it seemed imperative for many of the itinerant crew I had met on the waterfront to secure a position on a winning boat. One of them, an English girl who hitched rides on boats from one major harbor to another in search of work and her elusive West Indian boyfriend, ended up joining us for the race. Since, at my father's invitation, Susan had stayed on our boat for most of the four months that I was there, she probably agreed to race with us because of some sense of obligation to him. Otherwise, there was nothing about our entry to woo such a fiercely competitive sailor like her.

Loading their boat to the gills with cruising amenities, the author, her father, and friends, took a decidedly cruisy approach to competition. 

My father saw the racing more as an opportunity to make a fun farewell to Antigua than a chance to actually win anything, even though we couldn't help entertaining a lot of wouldn't-it-be-funny-if scenarios. Most of all, the promise of evening parties, dances, and barbecues was reason enough to persuade my father to pay the registration fee and to figure out our handicap in the cruising class. Immediately following completion of the race enrollment formalities, however, my father began to prepare for the 2000-mile trip home. We filled up lockers with groceries and tanks with water and fuel. Ever-Swiss and ever-practical, this pre-race provisioning was meant as a head start on the long lines of boats with plans to leave at the end of the week's racing. That the Caribbean lapped gently at the hull inches above the water line was of no consequence to our competitiveness. "Wouldn't it be funny," he asked, "if we placed well, even fully loaded?"

Fat chance. A Rival 38 may be a fastish boat, but it's no racing machine, especially with us on board. For the first three mostly windless days, we came in dead last, even behind a tubby, cat-rigged boat. If my memory serves me well, we ended up disqualifying ourselves by using the engine on at least two of those days to get in before dark and before all the party food was gone. With the exception of Susan, our crew, which included two friends from New York, my father, and me, was more relaxed than any race participants should ever be. We spent the days admiring the beautiful big racing boats until they had left us too far behind, tweaking sails in half-hearted attempts to catch up, talking and enjoying the spectacle around us. We laughed endlessly when one of the friends, a theoretical physicist, tried to make a rum punch with lemon-flavored dishwashing liquid. "But the bottle had a picture of lemons on it," became his refrain.

Relaxing on board and enjoying the environment, says the author, won out among her crew over the more aggressive "mile-a-minute" framework of racing.

This unconcerned attitude seemed to frustrate Susan, our only committed racer, as evidenced by her muttering and facial expression, which darkened increasingly with every better-placed friend who waved in passing. No amount of beer, cigarettes, and good food, or stupid jokes that we all thought were funny, could cheer her up. At some post-race party on some beach, amid the ambient chatter about wind speeds, sail settings, heel angles, and whatnot, we lost Susan for good to another world. It was a techno racing circle that we were completely unequipped to penetrate. On the fourth race day, as we turned on the engine to get to the beach barbecue before the chicken was gone, my father decided that the novelty had worn off. Cruising was more our cup of tea. The next day we would leave early and head directly for St. Maarten.

Sure enough, in the morning, behind a flotilla of boats full of ticking chronometers, we set the sails in the steady trade winds without having to worry about readjusting them soon to round a mark with all sorts of other boats watching. Heading north and away from Antigua, we started our four-hour-long watch routine. The autopilot was engaged as we returned to our books and card games. We resumed the life of planning the next couple meals, of soaking up the simpler pleasures in the blue world that was coming to us at an average of one mile every 12 minutes.

This was what I enjoyed most about the life cruising had revealed to me, how to give up the mile-a-minute tendency of our culture and to accept a consistently slower pace. With racing I had just seen firsthand how distance and time get broken down to feet and seconds which totally defeated the purpose of boating to me. It seemed to be little more than a nerve-racking job of micro-management with no time for banter, or to read, smell the ocean, stare into the blueness, play idly with feeling the wind from different angles and watch for wildlife—all the things I like to do on board.

The excitement of close-quarter competition may appeal to some, but it fails to capture the author's fancy in the same way that cruising does.
When I'm hanging out and talking to somebody who has a passion for racing, or when I'm reading a well-written article or book about a race, I can feel attracted to the excitement of a competition. I had loads of fun on the two other officially organized events I participated in since my first race in Antigua. In Vanuatu, I entered my own boat in the Hat Island Race, and won. In Thailand, our charter boat entered the Phang-Na-Krabi Race, and came in last. Also, whenever a group of boats leaves one place for another at the same time, there is usually some hint of an informal and undeclared race, a great game, regardless of the outcome, that I've played with others many times over the years.

Still, the sport of racing has never captured my fancy as much as the cruising lifestyle. After years of crossing oceans, following the dots of harbors and islands, I have decided that cruising and racing are so unrelated that submitting a preference is like saying, "I like red sails more than flying fish." So I won't. Instead I'll just say that ever since my first taste in Antigua, I've always been more drawn to the one that allows for daydreams, lots of daydreams, and the slower paceat which to live them.

Tania Aebi is offline  
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