How winners win the distance race

Published on May 17th, 2018

The different type of challenge offered by distance races attracts a myriad of different sailors, both racers and cruisers. Quantum’s Dave Flynn details how you can increase your odds of success in this unique type of event.


Distance racing presents more uncontrollable variables than short course racing, making it a lot harder to do well at. It takes a bit of luck. The weather gods are always cruel and unpredictable, and there is a certain randomness just based on boat size. Does it turn out to be a big boat race, or do the small boats come in on a wave of new breeze to win on handicap?

The only way do ultimately win the big one is to race a lot of them. Sail 15 Bermuda races and your number will be more likely to come up. There are, however, a number of common attributes that the successful distance racing teams share. So, in no particular order, I offer these thoughts on distance racing success.

Trimmers and drivers are the key
As you organize your team, remember distance racing is all about consistent boat speed and the ability to push the boat as hard as possible for as long as possible. This means you need folks who can steer and trim.

For around-the-buoys racing, there is room for a couple less skilled players in the middle who are learning the ropes and helping with mechanics. However, setting up a team for distance events means loading up on the skill positions.

I might bring a great bow person and no one else for the middle. Good drivers can usually remember how to stumble through the mechanics of running the pit and will probably want to show off their bow skills (Hey, back in the day I was on the front end!).

Races are won (and lost) at night
Between 10pm and first light is the time that the wheat is separated from the chafe. It’s hard to drive and trim well in the dark, so your watch system needs to be set up with this in mind. Your best drivers need to be ready to work hard after midnight.

During daylight you can give less experienced team members the time on the helm they need to develop. The classic half-the-crew-on and half-the-crew-off with four-hour watches may work well for some, but there are other approaches night racing.

A staggered watch with a new crew or two coming up every two hours helps to maintain continuity and avoids a distributive wholesale change. Sometimes you can break the team down so that the four best helms people are split up and staggered, and a good new driver comes up every two hours.

Consider shortening the watch system at night. For offshore sailors, three hours night watch is plenty. Switch to four-hour watches during the day. There is also a tendency at the start of a distance race for everyone to be fired up. The whole crew stays on deck for the first 10 or 12 hours, and then everybody falls apart.

If the race starts at 1pm, start the watch system at 4pm, and make sure the people who are supposed to be off watch are truly off. The sooner you can get into a rhythm the better. For shorter races, where you may not have a full-scale watch system, use light air to prepare for more breeze.

If you are dribbling downwind in six knots of wind, keep the two or three sailors you need on deck, and send everyone else down below to sleep or rest. Their weight will be better there anyway. When the breeze comes up and you are power reaching or beating, you can ask everyone to get up on the rail and hike.

Crew decorum
One last thought on watch discipline. Never be late on deck to relieve your teammates; be 5 minutes early! It takes more time than you think to get ready, especially if it is windy and you have a lot of gear to put on. When you are coming off watch, make sure your new-on-deck staff is well briefed and aware of how things are set up and being trimmed.

As a courtesy, wake up the oncoming watch 15-20 minutes before they have to be on deck. Take your time to get out of wet gear, and never get into a bunk wet! Make sure you sleep where your weight is appropriate, and be prepared to shift if the boat tacks or jibes.

In addition to lifejacket, harness, and the associated gear, every crew member should have a personal strobe, knife, and headlight. No lights down below! You have to make sure the folks doing the hard work on deck don’t lose their night vision. Oh, and bring all your clothes and eat when you can!

Don’t let preconceived notions rule
Every event has some preconceived notion you need to put aside. Almost every sailor associated with the Newport Bermuda Race has heard that you always go to the west of the rhumb line. It’s not true! You have to be ready to sail the conditions you have. Use all the modern weather and routing options you can find to help you anticipate what you might encounter, and develop a plan. But don’t forget the basics like heading toward the mark and sailing the long tack first.

Win your neighborhood
Unfortunately, there is always some clown who is going to bang the corner and get lucky. In a Bermuda race with 250+ boats, the spread from east to west across the rhumb line could be more than a 100 miles. Taking one of those two extreme approaches might work, but the smart money is on a more conservative strategy.

The best bet is to stay with a group of well-sailed boats of similar speed, and use each other to push the boats at all times. All I can do is win my neighborhood; I can’t control the boat with miles of leverage in a corner.

The rhumb line is irrelevant
The line you draw on the chart from start to finish is meaningless. You should care less if you are one mile or 10 miles off that imaginary line. All you care about is distance-to-the-finish from where you are.

Imagine a series of concentric circles emanating from the finish at 10 miles apart. The game is to get through those circles as fast as possible, regardless of how far left or right from the original rhumb line you are. The weather is going to change.

Here is a simple example: I can fetch sailing hard on wind on port. Cracked off 10 degrees, I cannot sail straight to the mark, but I am two knots faster. Later then wind shifts to the left and I can fetch, and since I have been sailing two knots faster for the last 12 hours, I am more than 20 miles closer to the mark. Voila!

Summary
Distance racing definitely brings out the physical nature of our sport. There will be suffering. You will be cold, wet, miserable, hungry, and tired. But like distance running or biking; it feels great when you stop. For the same reasons, distance racing will provide immense pride just to have made it and a lifetime of memories and bonding experiences. Take these tidbits, go out, and enjoy!

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