To hear some of us racing sailors, you might think that anytime we aren’t sailing our boats in 80-degree sunshine and trade-wind breezes with our dearest pals, it’s hardly worth it. You’d think that we all sail in huge, perfectly-matched fleets with no handicap rating contention; and we all win every single weekend. And you might think that any start line that isn’t square or race course that doesn’t send us where we think the breeze will be best is a noteworthy, anomalous, and malicious attempt at spoiling an otherwise perfect day on the water. 

Hate to break it to ya, but it ain’t so. At least around the Salish Sea. That’s not to say we can’t have those things, or that there aren’t some transcendent racing experiences available without them. 

These attitudes are akin to a “powder day” mindset for skiers — when it’s good, it is so damn good, a different sport, an exotic species of fun. On the snow or the water, those incredible days loom large in our memories, and turn us all into “Remember that one day…” storytellers. 

There’s a funny relationship there, though: part of the magic is in the scarcity of those all-time days, but the perception of scarcity is tied to participation. If the average person sails (or skis) a dozen times per season, that person might spend many years waiting for a day when everything lines up perfectly. For a ski bum (or a “sail bum” as an early mentor described me in a most humbling compliment) who is out 75-plus days per year, those brilliantly good days are available multiple, even many, times in a single season. 

Of course, as boat racers, conditions are only one variable. Unlike a skier, who is having a mostly independent experience navigating the (hopefully plentiful) snow on her way down a mountain side, a sailboat racer is dependent on a fleet to race with, an entity to plan a race, and a committee to facilitate it. I admit, my favorite way to remember a race committee is with gratitude, but as an afterthought. Best case scenario is to check-in, get a course, sail past their boat at the start, and then wave and say “thanks” as a horn sounds when we cross the finish line. Any time we racers are paying a great deal more attention to the committee than that, it usually isn’t in a spirit of positivity and gratitude. 

But there’s a false pretense in “pow day” expectations of races and committees — that race courses are usually perfect, or moreover that they should be. The realities of racing and humans and wind prevents perfection, and it’s all part of what makes this such a rich sport. Everyone can agree that getting as close as possible is ideal; and I generally think our event authorities and committees around the region do a great job, and are under-appreciated.

Once the race has started, fickle shifts or condition changes are part of the immeasurably fun, rewarding, and unpredictable game of sailboat racing. It’s as easy to embrace that variability as part of the puzzle underway, as it is to criticize a committee for not seeing or reacting to variables during their brief window of influence. And even when things go wonky, doesn’t it seem that the most practiced, skilled sailors tend to navigate those murky transitions more elegantly most of the time? It all leads me to think that an imperfect race is worth running and sailing, and is full of benefits and rewards for those out enjoying it. 

That’s why I bring up the participation element of “powder day” scarcity. My observation is that the more frequently folks race, the less bothered they seem by these kinds of inconsistencies or perceived missed opportunities. Perhaps it’s that they’ve already had some all-time great days of sailing this season. Or maybe they have more data points reminding them that the dice roll of condition changes can happen just before, during, or anytime after a start. Either way, I aspire to the attitudes of the sail bums. 

I’ll see you on the water,
– Joe

Title background photo by Jan Anderson.