How Offshore Racing Improves the Soul

Published on March 20th, 2017

Wally Cross with Ullman Sails Detroit shares how offshore sailing offers vital therapy for our fast-moving lives.

Life is busy – more today than ever before. In addition to family and work obligations, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram all demand our attention. Because of all this, our minds are constantly inundated with information, and many of us are looking for ways to escape the hectic pace of the modern era.

2017-03-20_10-48-08Americans spend millions on yoga, meditation, mindfulness and other forms of relaxation to break from the fast-paced life. For me, a long-distance race is truly the best way to unplug, literally and figuratively, from everyday life.

My favorite long-distance sailing memory is the 2013 Transpac Race on Bob Pethick’s Rogers 46, Bretwalda. With a distance of 2,600 miles from LA to Hawaii, this was the longest race – in both distance and days – of my career.

Among our crew of eight, I was fortunate to have good relationships with everyone, and, as an added bonus, had my closest friend on my watch. While we had a satellite phone/Internet connection, we all agreed not to contact anyone during our voyage.

Just prior to the start, our owner turned off his cell phone for the duration of the race. At that moment, I felt a sense of relief. We were on our own for the next nine to 11 days.

I decided not to think about the length of the race, but to take each day, each hour at a time. I chose to think only about the two S’s – Sailing and Surviving. Sailing is such a part of who I am, I can do it without thinking, which could be described as “mindful.”

Our watch system was four hours on, four hours off. One watch quickly turned into four watches, and the days evaporated one after another. During that 10-day window, I didn’t have time to focus on life’s usual distractions. Life was now about the very basics of survival – sleeping in small pipe berths, desalinating water for drinking, and hydrating food to eat.

By the middle portion of the race, days and nights blended together creating a strange yet incredible reality. The three other crew members on my watch became my family. We all shared a box of wine at the 1,300-mile mark, the halfway point. Being that far from civilization, and knowing that no one could help if anyone was sick or hurt, was enlightening. We had no time to worry about things beyond our control. That feeling was worth the price of living in these extreme conditions.

While I certainly thought about my family, job and all that life on land demands, 99-percent of the day, I thought about sailing and safety. During this experience, it’s almost as if my brain was filtering out any unnecessary information, and living simply became such a joy.

I would look forward to brushing my teeth once a day or taking a solar shower once in the race. Even the freeze-dried food became an obsession – debating on ways to prepare it with olive oil and hot sauce. Often, we would sit on the floor, eating, sharing stories and reflecting on the last four hours. Your watch team became your brothers – the bond between us was tangible.

There is nothing simple about the Transpac Race, but it felt that way to me. It was windy, wild, wet and, yes, sometimes scary. However, it was everything we hoped it could be. As we approached the islands, we became focused on the finish. Even though the end of our race was still about a day away, it was an incredible feeling to see land after only seeing water for nine days. We entered the Molokai Channel, greeted with 30mph winds that allowed us to finish early on the tenth evening of our journey.

Reaching land also meant my entry back into the normal world. I was ready. My 10 days across the Pacific put life into perspective. I found a new appreciation for ordinary day-to-day activities such as a sitting down to a real dinner, speaking to my family, taking a shower, and, yes, even watching the news. The race was a sort of cleansing, a refresh period, leaving me more focused on my everyday life more than ever.

Of course, we sail to win, but just like climbing Mt. Everest or running a marathon, sailing the Transpac was an award in and of itself. Doing something that few would or could do makes you feel proud of your accomplishment. I ultimately felt this race was more of a test than a challenge. The test was to see how I would react to the extreme lifestyle change. I am so grateful for the experience and look forward to doing it again.

Offshore racing is a unique experience that I recommend to all seasoned sailors. You can enjoy the benefits of unplugging by participating in the Mackinac Race, sailing to Bermuda or Jamaica, or traveling any distance longer than your typical race. Next time you race offshore for a day or more, turn off your cell phone and your brain. Experience the beauty of the water and focus on building lasting friendships with the crew. You will be rewarded for the rest of your life.

Requirements of a Great Offshore Experience
A true offshore race needs to be long enough for you to break from your phone, computer and all of society for at least two days at a minimum – yet preferably six or more. Offshore races are very different than buoy sailing. The boat must function well on deck, as it has to support a crew for many days below.

Here’s a list of requirements to maximize the experience:
• A safe, fast boat to race (based on the race, choose a boat that performs well in those conditions)
• Enjoyable team on and off the water (less is more when it comes to the total experience)
• Current Sailing Gear
– Sails designed VMC (Velocity Made to Course) strong with low stretch
– Instruments that provide true values, polars speeds, true wind speed, boat speed and true wind direction. Also, a computer with routing software and capable of downloading weather. Communication system for reports and safety.
• Running rigging that is strong and durable. One or more halyard locks are helpful for long races. A good spare halyard that could double as a sheet works well.
• Flexible, dry foul weather gear. Combine this with a reliable safety harness with inflatable life jacket.
• Make the race an enjoyable experience before, during and especially after, by sailing to an exciting destination. Looking forward to the finish based on location is the ultimate carrot.
• Great preparation for the race
– Research weather, routing
– Sail crossover chart for wind speed and angle
– Dry boat inside
– Comfortable sleeping berths with pillow and blanket
– Water maker, salt to fresh
– Great freeze dry food (olive oil and hot sauce are my favorite extras)
– Practical toiletries and cleaning wipes
– Watch system that allows you to sail and rest with the same team
– Fans below to circulate air (smell and temperature)
– Individual thermos cups for all liquid with personal spork for eating


A crossover chart and freeze dried meals are two of the essentials needed for successful offshore sailing.

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