by John de Frayssinet
Perhaps one day you will buy
a boat of your own — but until then - you can learn and enjoy the sport in
another person's craft, says John de Frayssinet, (editor of Yachting Life), who looks into the
excitement and fun of yacht racing
You don't have to
be rich to go yacht racing. And it is not always necessary to have
years of experience. Offer yourself as crew, and provided you show
yourself sufficiently keen, even the more experienced yachtsmen will take the time and trouble to
show you the ropes. Perhaps one day you will buy a boat of your own,
but don’t think that this is essential to really enjoy the sport.
Remember, as crew, you don’t have to buy the boat and worry about
its upkeep and mooring fees.
Before you rush off
to the nearest club and offer your services, you would do well to
realize that racing a yacht will take a good deal of your spare
time. Most racing takes place at the weekends, but you must expect
to reserve at least one week of your holiday to sail in one of the
regattas held around the country.
There are more
skippers of racing yachts than good crew. Some will be only too
pleased to teach you how to sail, provided you are prepared to
justify their investment in time by crewing for them on a regular
basis for at least one season.
Do not expect to
crew for the rich and famous, at least for the time being. Good crew
join winning yachts, leaving the less successful boats shorthanded.
It will be on these that you may have an opportunity to learn.
It is not difficult
to contact owners of these yachts. If you live near a yachting
centre, approach the secretaries of the local clubs. They will be
pleased to pass your name and contact details to racing skippers
known to be short handed. You can find the contacts for clubs using
It is very
important to understand some of the basic techniques used in sailing
before heading for the water. Many good books have been
written, covering the subject from first principles and of course
the internet has rich pickings.
At first sight
nautical language seems designed to confuse the beginner.
Barber haulers, guys, runners, clews and leach lines, are words
continually used by the experienced. During your first sail, you
will be bombarded with seemingly meaningless orders such as, ‘Harden
up the Cunningham, ease off the Genny and get that - - - - tweaker
Do not be
discouraged by the language of your skipper. It is quite inevitable
that he will shout at you, and it is important that you don’t shout
back. By the time you are back on dry land on your second pint, all
will be forgiven and forgotten.
Depending upon your
interests and the time you have available you may decide to race in
the larger offshore yachts, or in smaller keelboats and dinghies
The term 'ocean
racing' may be slightly misleading, as for much of the time you will
be in sight of land, but you must expect to continue even in extreme
conditions. These yachts are often the most sophisticated and
expensive sailing craft of their size. Some require up to a dozen
crewmen, but on average carry about four or five, depending on their
size. Adequate accommodation is provided, and in the larger yachts
this can be quite palatial. Even though the yacht may appear roomy
when on its moorings, it will rapidly appear to diminish in size
once under way and is filled with supplies and the crews' kit.
Offshore racing can appear very attractive, and
in fact is for many the ultimate form of sailing. You will have an
opportunity to sail abroad and if you grow to love the sea, sailing
in a finely tuned ocean greyhound can be one of the most satisfying
However, ocean racing is by far the most
demanding in time and effort. Races very often take all week
starting well before the dawn chorus and finishing at
unearthly hours of the night. Often the races finish at a
different location to the start point and you will have to find your
way back to your car parked many many miles away. Sometimes the
skipper may allow the crew four hours
sleep, and then insist that the yacht be sailed back to its home
port, to catch the morning tide.
your car can be parked many miles away
You can expect long
periods of inactivity while the yacht sails on one leg of the
race. At night it can be very cold even in mid-summer,
and probably you will be soaked through. On these
occasions that one must possess a cast iron constitution and
plenty of good clothing. During rough weather seasickness may take
its toll. Few people are completely unaffected by this dreadful
affliction. Pills or patches can help although some tend to make one
Most offshore yacht
racing is based on an international handicap system. Yachts of
different designs and sizes will race against each other. Each
one is carefully measured for hull shape and size, and sail area.
From this information the handicap is calculated. In theory this
system will give every yacht a fair chance to win, regardless of
its size. The finishing times of all yachts have to be
recorded and their final positions calculated before the result of
the race is known. It can be very frustrating for both skipper and
crew to discover a yacht that finished well behind has, in fact,
The gear on
offshore yachts can be very heavy. Sails have to be set and
tensioned by means of winches and considerable strength and stamina
is often required. Relatively few women take an active part in this
sport although there are some female super-stars.
continue to crew on offshore yachts you will have an opportunity to
specialize in your duties on board. It is essential that you are
able to work in any position, but expertise in a particular field
will ensure a continued place on board.
Tides must be calculated at all times, While the
yacht sails against the tide the correct course, if possible, is
close inshore where the effect is least felt. When
the tide runs with the yacht deep water must be found. Here its
strength will be greatest and this will enable the yacht to go
Wind is rarely consistent throughout a race, and
can often disappear altogether. It is quite common to find one yacht
completely becalmed and another, close by, moving well with sails
filled simply due to local weather conditions. Sometimes good
tactics will find the best wind. When becalmed, skippers tend to
become irritable and very unreasonable.
It is the responsibility of the navigator to
ensure that the yacht does not go aground. This happens often. As
the fleet disappears over the horizon, and your crew look forward to
a long wait, stuck on the putty, do not expect to be popular if you
were the navigator!
One of the more exciting, if very wet,
occupations on board is working on the foredeck. Usually less brute
strength is required, but agility and balance are essential. Here
you will be mostly concerned with changing sails at high speed. You
will be in full view of the rest of the crew, and every mistake made
will be greeted by a howl of rage from behind.
'tactics to get in front are very important'
Ocean racing is a very popular sport but while
racing, you will wonder why, but by the next weekend you will again
be as keen as ever.
For those who would rather sail for shorter
lengths of time, racing a small keelboat or dinghy is the answer. As
a general rule, keelboats do not turn over, dinghies do.
Usually sailing is confined to those times when
the bar is closed. You will not have to go on board before a
civilized hour in the morning and you will get home before dark. The
average length of a race is two to four hours. A greater number of
races are held each week and this will give you a wider choice as to
which days you make available for sailing.
You will be sailing in sheltered waters, and
never very far away from help. The design of inshore boats is
therefore more extreme, as they are not intended to
cope with very rough conditions. As races are short, no
accommodation is needed. A bucket is provided for calls of nature in
keelboats, but many dinghy sailors are not so lucky.
Most races are divided into ‘one design' classes.
This means that within each class you will be sailing against boats
exactly the same as your own. Racing can be very exciting, as the
yachts remain much closer together and tactics to get in front are
very important. Handicaps are unnecessary and the first yacht home
is the winner. Many believe that this type of racing shows the
capabilities of helmsman and crew best. If you lose, it is usually
your fault, and not the design of the boat.
As boats become smaller, they generally become
less complicated. There are a few notable exceptions such as
‘Dragons’. However, smaller boats are less stable, and things happen
very quickly. This makes life harder for the novice, as he will not
have much time to think which ‘string’ to pull. Dinghies do not rely
on a heavy keel to keep upright. Instead, this is done by placing
the crew, often at very awkward angles, in seemingly impossible
positions to counterbalance the boat. This method does not always
work, and at first you will never be at the right place at the right
time. The penalty for a mistake usually involves a capsize and a
'diminish in size'
Smaller boats require few hands. Keelboats race
with one or two crew, and dinghies with two, or in some classes,
only the helmsman. This means that as a novice you will probably
have to accept more responsibility from the start.
Inshore racing is fast, highly competitive and
very exciting. Everything always happens at once, and for your short
time on the water you will be fully employed.
Racing is an extremely safe sport, provided those
participating in it are sensible. Offshore racing boats have very
strict minimum safety standards enforced. Before each race some
yachts may be chosen at random by the racing committee and
inspected. The yacht will not be allowed to race if the standard has
not been reached. Requirements include an inflatable life-raft to
carry the entire crew, buoyancy aids and safety lines for each crew
member, at least two life belts, a spare anchor and cable, spare
compass, and a complete first aid kit.
GOOD CREW P0INTERS
DO wear buoyancy aids and
life-lines, at night and in rough weather when sailing offshore.
DO offer to bring food for the
ships stores when sailing in longer races. Bring sandwiches for day
DO what the skipper tells you at
all times. He or she should know better than you.
DO concentrate at all times when
given a job to do.
DO make sure you do not fall in. It
is better to be a bit slower on the job than waste time fishing for
DO arrive well in time for the
beginning of the race and make sure you know where to meet the
DO phone the skipper in good time
should you be unable to get to a race. He will have to find another
DO keep a watch at all times for
other yachts or boats nearby. Often the helmsman’s vision is
obscured by sails
DO make sure you bring adequate
clothing for the race.
DO help to tidy up the yacht after
DON'T argue with the skipper, even
if you know he is wrong. Most decisions skippers make are wrong, but
usually they own the boat.
DON'T remind the skipper of errors
he has made that lost the race. He will be well aware of them
DON'T go on board a yacht wearing
hard soled or dirty shoes. Always put deck shoes on first.
DON'T go to sleep on watch, or
gossip when you are tending to a sail.
DON'T be sick unless it is in a
bucket, or preferably over the leeward side.
DON'T block the sea toilet.
DON'T get drunk in the skippers
favourite yacht club.
A good crew wins races.. and skippers usually