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Old 08-07-2003
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Michelle Potter is on a distinguished road
Becoming a Racer


If you're looking to make the transition from cruiser to racer you'll need to have good listening skills and a positive attitude. Depending on the communication style, thick skin may also help.
So, you've read all the reports about different regattas around the country and you  followed the progress of The Race last winter, and now, in your warm, couch-potato wisdom, you have the not-so-fleeting thought: 'Hey, I could do that!' Well, here's your chance to get started in racing. Just read the following pearls of wisdom and you'll start making the transition from rail meat to rock star in no time.

To find an entry-level crewing position, go to your local yacht club, sailing center, or marina and offer to join someone's boat for a beer-can race on a warm summer evening. If you luck into a crew position, all you'll need is some deck shoes, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, some gloves, and an inflatable PFD. That's for warm weather. In cold weather, you'll want to add your own set of foul weather gear, boots, and a foam-padded PFD that will give you some extra insulation while you're hanging off the rail. Once on board, if you keep your eyes and ears open,  you'll quickly learn the basics of racing. You might hear a a lot of yelling and flapping sails, and you'll probably experience some frenzied excitement with mad dashes for buoys, but you'll eventually get the idea of what is going on.

If you enjoy your first crewing experience, you are in the lucky minority. A lot of people come to racing without the proper gear and are surprised to find themselves cold and bruised at the end of the day. Other novices occasionally find themselves paired with inept skippers who yell, broach, slam into other boats, or can't make a decision. I've met every kind of  helmsman, and all I can say is this: stay with it. Just keep trading boats until you find a skipper and crew you enjoy spending time with, and at the end of the day you'll begin to see how this racing stuff is can be fun.

By all means, go to the post-race parties and introduce yourself to other skippers and crews. (You can also post your name on published crew lists or on-line notice boards indicating that you're a novice but available to race.) While you socialize with local sailors, let them know if you want to do a particular job on board, like work the foredeck, grind sheets, fly the kite or hang off the rail. As you begin to get more sailing under your belt, try out all the positions and see what works for you. Eventually, you'll find the Dream Team—a group of like-minded sailors that make you laugh and don't mind teaching you what to do on the racecourse. After I  finally found my own Dream Team, I learned a bunch of important stuff in just one day:


The beauty of racing is that you'll know when you're sailing optimally—your boat will be in the front of the pack—as opposed to the cheap seats in back that indicate less than optimal sail trim like the folks above. 
1. As we headed out into San Francisco Bay, the skipper pointed out that I was supposed to be moving my weight from one side of the boat to the other as she tacked. Finally! A light at the end of the tunnel began to appear as I could see that she was interested in balancing the forces exerted on the boat.

2. When the grinder yelled "Butt cleat!" and pointed at the three bottoms sitting on the jibsheets, I realized that I had been committing a serious error every time I sat on the rail. Not only would I have fewer bruises from the sitting on the sheets, we would be sailing more efficiently, too.

3. At the end of the downwind legs, I learned that I would have a real job! My mission was to stuff the spinnaker into its bag as quickly as possible. The crew told me to imagine that the sail was money and I wanted to collect as much of it as I could. With five women chanting, "Money! Money! Money!" I was motivated to work quickly and efficiently.

4. As I studied the course, I started to see that we were racing in circles or, triangles, really. When we zipped up and down the start line, I realized that the committee boat was not a target, it was just a place to check in and depart from.

5. For the first time, I understood why it was so important to find that guy "mark."


Not all races mean managing heavy air. Lighter conditions put an emphasis on finding clear air and correctly calling the shifts to make gains on your competitors.
Once you find your Dream Team, you'll begin adapting to a new mode of communication. When you socialize with other sailors, you'll find your hands enacting what's called bar karate to mimic boat positions and you'll pepper your speech with colorful phrases like "lay line," "dogs in the house," and "footing." And you'll find that the discussion quickly turns to gear, as you compare kneepads, hip pads, fleece jackets, and padded shorts. When you race, you'll learn how to quickly zip up for the upwind leg or slyly unzip in anticipation of a warm downwind run.

As racing gets more and more into your blood, you may experience some some strange consequences. When I fell asleep after a weekend of non-stop racing, I dreampt that I was wearing a Velcro racing suit that could kept me firmly attached to a boat with a Velcro deck. Some racers develop a strange obsession with the weather, others buy magazines and refer to Olympic racers and world champions by their first names. You'll see that the racing subculture manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Whatever happens, you have my completely unscientific, non-medical confirmation that the racing bug is a healthy one. Just a little bit of racing experience will teach you a ton about sailing. Not about anchoring, or electrical systems, or engine repair, or how to varnish teak, but real sailing. You'll see how racing sailors adjust their sail trim and balance the boat, or how they compensate for current when setting a course for the mark. You'll also learn how to read the water for a puff of wind. Just observe the experts around you and you'll really begin to see what it is to sail.

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