Five years ago, when it was time to start cruising on Gypsy Wind, our 36’ Nonsuch, I thought I would really miss racing. In fact, the first year I held onto the Wednesday night Thistle racing at Leschi on Lake Washington. Thistles represent one of the most competitive one design racing opportunities in our region, perhaps even nationwide, and I just couldn’t give it up! We would organize our cruising summer schedule to come in for the Wednesday night racing.
But in an unexpected turn, I began to notice I could apply skills and tactics I learned from racing in our new cruising life. This revelation was very satisfying to my inner racer.
I’ve had a life full of racing excitement. I began sailing Dragons with my family at five years old. By age eight, I moved to racing my own boats: Penguins and Sabots. I had a full racing career where I was privileged to race small boats all over the world in international competitions and Olympic campaigns. I even won the Laser National Championship in 1974. Racing small dinghies is a straight-up learning curve, regardless of the level of racing. It’s like learning sailing on steroids.
My wonderful wife and sailing partner, Christina Marie, has also sailed all her life. She had raced locally with her family while growing up in Poulsbo. She now sails strictly for the pleasure of sailing, although she joined my Thistle racing crew and is a great foredeck.
Why do any of us race? I do for the challenge of competition and the wonderful friends who willingly share talents and love talking boats. It’s easy to harvest ideas of proper trim, sail plans, and the skills or tactics to perform better in different current or weather conditions. But, I never realized how much of that knowledge I learned on the race course would apply to cruising until I began cruising myself.
Preparation is necessary to be successful at anything. Planning a sailing season of races is no small feat, with considerations of crew, gear, travel, and all the projects it takes to get a boat ready and safe. Similar diligence is required to plan a trip or vacation, whether it’s a ski trip, mountain climbing, or camping. We can’t enjoy these pleasures without preparation.
Well, it turns out that preparation is every bit as important, if not more so, to the success of a cruising trip, be it for weekend or much longer.
Before a season of cruising, Christina Marie and I sit down at the table with some wonderful cruising books in the same way that gardeners look at the seed catalog. They’re planning out a lush and fruitful springtime garden, we’re looking at planting the ideas for our next season of cruising.
Once this float plan is in place, we refine it down to the day. This way, our racing map is laid out in front of us and we can begin analyzing the timing of tides and currents. I’ve done the same thing before countless races. This way, I know when the start time is! Just like in racing, we leave ourselves “outs” if things don’t seem to be panning out according to the best case scenario. But, I’ve been surprised how accurate we could be.
For us, it’s fun to share the tools, the planning, and the delights of which harbors, bays, or single anchorages that you might stop and enjoy along the way.
Here’s is another racing-oriented perspective: I love to maximize our distance while minimizing our time as cruisers. As an example, we can sail from our home port of Bell Harbor in Elliott Bay to Point No Point using the eddies and current paths, then continue on with a strong ebb current to reach Smith Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca to join the next tide turn to sail up to Roche Harbor with the new flood. This gives can give us over 70 miles traveled in under 12 hours, a savings of at least a few hours over the alternative of bucking the tide. We can arrive at our destination in daylight. Perhaps most importantly, this kind of planning and preparation allows us to sail instead of motor whenever possible.
This summer, we were out for 88 consecutive days. We traveled about 1500 miles. And to the surprise of many local cruisers, we sailed more than 70% of the time. We anchored 44 nights. We cleared some tricky passages, like Gabriola Passage and Dent Rapids, under sail with the help of great float plans and by using our racing skills to take advantage of the winds and currents We sailed as much as we could.
Some cruisers are able to sail more because they wait for the weather window. On the race course, you must sail in very light and very heavy wind, and we are happy doing that on Gypsy Wind. And as racers, we are in tune with the speeds we sail in different conditions and on different points of sail, and we incorporate that to our planning. On Gypsy Wind, we toast to sailing the rhumb line, the shortest and most direct line to the chosen mark.
So, we try to maximize our efficiency, and do our best to stick to the plan. A significant motivator for this is hosting guests. This summer, we hosted 13 guests who traveled in and out by seaplane or ferries to meet up with us.
Those who race are constantly aware of catching the right wind, riding lifts and tacking on headers to sail the shortest distance, or making gains by sailing in more advantageous current than their competitors. This mindset is equally helpful with cruising boats.
Many cruising boat designs can’t sail as fast or point as high into the wind as racing boats, and thus need to capitalize on every decision. Paying attention to your surroundings is a key part of that. Even the best plans and preparation can’t tell you how the wind will shift.
A racing boat is often full of chatter. Racers think out loud and look for consensus among the crew that yes, that’s a tide line ahead, or the pressure will build in the next 30 seconds. Include your cruising crew or partner in the same way! Discuss how the wind will react flowing off the next land mass or point.
Cruising boats today have such wonderful tools in place to give us information in real time. These tools give you the opportunity and the enjoyment of tracking your progress on the actual day of cruising!
Christina Marie and I set way points and use them as milestones to sail by or adjust sailing corrections with to stay on course and try to match the planned timing of the plan. With instrumentation above and below deck there is no reason for your entire crew not to see all that’s going on. And just like on a race boat, it’s often the crew, not the skipper, who notice an important new variable first. We begin to tune our senses to the nature of the wind, just like we do racing.
While there is a lot of carryover from racing to cruising, some of the things that aren’t the same are pretty great too!
For racers accustomed to sitting on the hard weather rail in soggy foul weather gear and heavy boots, it sure is nice to be warm dry and sitting anywhere you please on soft cushions, by the fireplace or out of the wind behind a proper dodger supported by a medley of pillows and warm fleece blankets.
When we race on the same local course, we develop local knowledge of what to expect on a low tide, high tide, or if the wind is from the south, or from the north. It doesn’t always pan out that way, but over time you learn all the tricks of that area.
When you’re cruising new waters, everything is fresh. There are rocks and points you have never sailed around before. It’s like skiing fresh tracks in untouched snow through the trees. You’re really awake, you’re in the moment processing new information about a particular intersection of land, wind, and current.
We are privileged to sail some of the most beautiful waters. In the Salish Sea, we have a natural beauty that matches the greatest natural wonders of the world, right at our fingertips. Cruising, racing, or something in between, it will always be stimulating.
Alex and Christina Marie will be near Seattle for the winter, but still sailing a lot!