Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: London, UK
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You are very, very lucky on two counts:
1) You have picked up sailing at a young enough age to actually develop your skills from a young age - which is a huge predictor of success if you want to start racing
2) You live in Southern California, which is perhaps THE best place to be a racing sailor in the US, due to the very long season and favourable winds. That's not my opinion - that's Dennis Connor's, and he only won the America's Cup a few times, and every other conceivable race in his day...lol.
Simply put, the skills you use to race are a "superset" of the skills you learn to cruise - you will learn more racing than in a cruising class. And racing - even if you turn out not to be the best - will teach you more about boat control in a shorter amount of time than any classes. Most importantly, it will teach you how to "feel" the boat - how it moves, how it responds, and how the wind can be felt and used.
The fact of the matter is that most successful large yacht skippers started racing in small dinghies. My advice is to follow their lead. Go borrow books by Dennis Connor from the library, learn how HE started way back when, how much he did by himself, how he learned to cut his own sails because he couldn't afford to buy any, how he did jobs for adult racers to get materials and their help, etc. Even if you can't turn out like Dennis, his books can help you dream big.
I didn't start sailing until college, and I took up racing in Lasers. I did that for several years, and although I wasn't very good (compared to those that started younger), I learned a lot about boat handling. I moved over to cruising on larger boats after I left school, and now all I do is cruise. But the lessons that I learned in my dinghy sailing now let me single-hand a 32' cruiser fairly easily...