Offshore racing is good for the soul

Published on May 7th, 2018

While racing a 40-footer in an overnight race on the Puget Sound, with rampant attrition among the fleet, the conversation among the crew was whether the breed of sailor who’d stay out all night in the cold, hanging on in a race for up to 30 hours, was dying.

Onboard was Pacific Northwest scribe Kurt Hoehne who ponders their particular persistence.


We were first to finish, and third overall on corrected time. While it would have been great to win on corrected time, the competition wasn’t at issue.

It’s something other than competition that kept us going and made us happy looking back. Sure, it’s the camaraderie, the use and honing of skills, the being out there in nature. Yada yada. But for me there’s something more to it than that, and it came clear to me because it’s been a while since I’ve raced overnight.

For me it was the chance to do a mini restart. Life ashore is full of routines, challenges and expectations. Life at sea, especially with relative strangers, is full of changing and challenging conditions (without anybody but Neptune to blame), new conversations, physicality – even if it is an oppressive cold like that night.

You come out of it reset. Tired, cold, sore, probably behind on the to-do list, but reset to face life ashore with a new set of eyes. Chances are there are some new jokes rolling around your head, even if you can’t tell some of them ashore.

This region used to be a mecca of overnight racing. It was at a time when the navigation, boatspeed, and even attire weren’t nearly as good as they are today. There were hundreds of boats out there, even in humble little 25-footers that were of dubious construction with crews with minimal experience. Have we changed that much?

I submit we have not. I think sailors have just forgotten about the joys and challenges of overnight racing. I believe they’ve been told too often about the discomforts and not enough about the camaraderie. I believe the racing culture has taken a temporary course toward competition and comfort rather than adventure and camaraderie.

There are plenty of long distance races that are not only thriving, but are bursting at the seams. The Mackinac races in the Midwest, ARC on the Atlantic, Fastnet, Sydney Hobart, and many others are hitting the limits. In Europe there’s an abundance of overnight racing.

In our area, Swiftsure has been losing ground but it’s still strong, and it could flare up at any time to the fleet sizes of the 1980s. Then there’s the R2AK, set to start in about a month. Now in its fourth year, it’s come to full maturity with no signs of slowing down.

So, if you shake your head at those of us who stumble in, cold and really really hungry some morning, think again. The best part of racing might not be the competition, or getting home to a warm bed. The best part might be eating lasagna on deck in a drizzle while listening to that joke that would never be told on shore. You return to the dock as a person reset – which is just as important now as it ever was.

No, we’re not a dying breed. I’m pretty sure we’re just in hibernation.

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