The Draw of Distance Racing

Published on September 1st, 2022

From bay to lake to ocean, there’s something both different and special about distance racing. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but don’t knock it ‘til you try it. Quantum Sails’ Katy Zimmerman gets to the roots of why distance racing has such allure and lays out the reasons why a distance race should be next on your list of adventures.


Every time I begin a distance or offshore race, I am reinvigorated with a sense of appreciation and passion for this sport. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy famously said, “There’s no place like home,” but I’d argue Dorothy had never done a distance race before. Because truly, there’s no place like offshore, and for good reason.

From being immersed in the elements, to the character- and skill-building situations you find yourself in, and to lifelong memories made, distance racing can’t be beat. For those who might be skeptical, let me tell you why we love it.

New Opportunities
When distance racing, different factors come into play that are not even considerations on a weeknight buoy course. One of my favorites is navigation. Attempting to hit the next layline from hundreds of miles away and creating many plans for how to sail the next leg, only to ultimately execute a single plan, is really challenging. But it opens a new space to learn, experiment, and play.

Which side of the weather system do we want to be on? Should we hug the shoreline at night or stay in the middle of the lake? Will setting the code zero help or hurt our angle to the next waypoint?

In most distance races, there’s also many chances to experiment with different sails and setups. Maybe you’ve never flown a staysail before, or a storm trysail in big breeze. If you’re switching between headsails, code zeros, and spinnakers, you’ll adjust the sheeting angles, likely using outboard leads, tweakers, and twings. Sailing a distance or offshore race is one giant opportunity to expose yourself to new skills and experiences.

Preparing For the Unknown
When you’re sailing offshore, a lot can go right and a lot can go wrong; this is why safety is top priority. It’s not always easy to predict what will happen next, which is why being as prepared as you can for the unknown is imperative so when a dicey situation begins to develop, you can react quickly and correctly to mitigate it.

Weather is a major contributor here. You may know storms are on the radar and you can prepare for them, but you don’t always know exactly what is coming in the storm until it’s nearly on top of you. On Lake Michigan, storms can build or breakup as they leave Wisconsin and move east over the water.

You can even see preparation for the unknowns in an offshore packing list: tank top AND full foulies, sunbuff AND fleece neck gaiter. The unknown can also be a situation you find yourself in with other boats.

In the 2022 Newport to Bermuda, we were approaching the finish line late at night, jibing in close quarters with several other boats. After 635 miles, we all funneled into the finish area at the same time, and we had to be prepared to maneuver quickly and precisely through the traffic.

Offshore sailing is never ever the same. Even if you’re doing the same race on the same boat with the same crew, your experience will be different. The unknowns keep you on your toes, add to the mystery, and keep you coming back for more.

Details Make the Difference
Over a long distance, every maneuver, sail change, routing choice, and trim adjustment you make just to go one knot faster really does add up. The teams that give every detail great attention are rewarded for their ability to continuously adjust to conditions and push the boat. It’s satisfying to look back on a multi-day race and know that you gave it your all whenever you were on watch – and that your teammates gave it their all, too.

One year on the Chicago-to-Mackinac Race, the fog was thick at night, but the breeze finally filled in after most of a day spent floating. On the graveyard shift, we switched drivers every 30 minutes because it took so much concentration to stare at the compass and ignore the eerie vertigo the fog caused. Our focused and fast driving at night shaved some major time off our finish and kept us in the hunt with our competitors.

On the 2022 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, we were flying downwind surfing waves in the Gulf Stream on a Farr 40. Our trim team worked hard all day to stay on each wave as long as possible because each provided an opportunity to gain speed and hopefully sail faster than our opponents. When you consider how many waves we surfed that day, maintaining the attitude that every wave counts had an impact on our overall finish.

At the same time, when all the small things add up over the course of a distance race, you have opportunities to remedy mistakes made along the way. The race is never over until you – and all your competitors – have crossed the finish line.

Teamwork
Teamwork is paramount to getting the boat quickly and safely to the finish line. Most offshore crews are composed of sailors with diverse sailing backgrounds, meaning everyone brings a unique skillset they can share with others on the boat. This collaboration amplifies and augments each individual’s strengths and simultaneously helps them improve their weaknesses. And if you have a breakdown in the middle of the bay or the ocean, nothing brings a team together like creative problem-solving!

The bond between people that distance race together is far greater than many round-the-buoys teams. On a distance race, the boat becomes your home for the night, a few days, or a few weeks. The crew becomes your family.

You’ll share childhood stories to pass the time while on the rail. You’ll share embarrassing moments and jokes to keep you awake at night. And let’s face it, misery loves company. There are many moments on distance races where you’re soaking wet, exhausted, and sore. You can take comfort in the fact that everyone else is probably feeling that way, too, and that you’ll get through it together.

Offshore Memories
There are some cool things that happen in the middle of a body of water that are hard to experience anywhere else. Imagine stepping on deck for the night shift: above you, a blanket of stars pop out against a jet-black sky. Below you, mirrored black-blue water churns up with waves. Over the rail, blue sparkles of bioluminescence float past in the wake.

Every sunset and sunrise is more spectacular from the water, unbound by land on the horizon. Rather than watching from the shoreline, here you are drenched in the golden-hour rays, swallowed by the sun as it hits the horizon, and immersed in the afterglow.

Dolphin sightings, taped spinnakers, fixed breakdowns, massive squalls, the rainbows that follow, close crosses with competitors, freeze dried pasta primavera on the rail, getting to wear your headlamp 24/7, and finally breaking out the chocolate covered coffee beans only to spill them all over the galley – you will build a memorable collection of offshore stories.

These stories become precious currency traded among fellow sailors for generations to come. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something new surprises you offshore.

Discover Your Inner Offshore
If you go offshore, you’re likely to discover the most authentic version of yourself. Minimal sleep and intense sailing seem to disarm any facade one might be able to maintain on land. When you’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean, exposed to the elements, there’s no one else you can be but yourself.

You’re a team player, good communicator, and problem solver. You’re stronger both mentally and physically than you thought. You’ll find your limits, push past them, and grow as a person and a sailor. You’ll develop new skills and learn lessons you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life.

You’ll finish the race with a sense of pride and accomplishment after conquering whatever challenges you and your team faced on the water. And then you’ll check your calendar and look for the next race you can get in on.

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