“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tzu

I had been racing my boat in our Club’s fleet racing for part of a summer when I decided to enter my boat into our Class’s Championship Regatta, hosted that year by our Yacht Club. Although I had read quite a lot about sailboat racing, and could talk a relatively good game, I can’t help but cringe when I look back and realize how little I knew back then!  Seventeenth century poet, Alexander Pope, wrote: “A little learning is a dangerous thing” — and certainly nothing could have been a more telling description of the situation as I sailed off to the starting area, happily unaware of how much I didn’t yet understand. Reading about sailboat racing, and experiencing it up close and personal on the water, are vastly different, as I would soon discover.

In addition to being worried about racing with a bigger fleet, I was nervous because I was racing with a friend who didn’t know how to maneuver the spinnaker.  As a result, we had this tricky plan where I would pass off the tiller on the downwind legs and suddenly become the crew. It wasn’t the most optimal of situations, but somehow we made it work.  Let me point out here that the only reason I was even any good with the spinnaker was because my friend, George, had trained me earlier in the summer so that I could crew on his boat. In fact, six long years later, his boat’s spinnaker sheets are still green from the numerous times they fell under the bow and scraped off the anti-fouling paint!  Those copper-greened sheets were well worth the sacrifice, however (at least to me!), because after our training sessions, I felt completely empowered to handle any imaginable spinnaker emergency, having officially made every mistake one could possibly make in hoisting, gybing, and dousing it.  Did I say that George is a very patient man?

All sorts of mysterious things became crystal clear to me during that weekend of racing. For example, I never really understood why people were always so touchy about getting too far below the start line just before the start. Until this regatta, that is. Because, there I was, tooling around and getting farther from the line, when all of a sudden, just as I decided it was high time that I ought to hustle back to where everyone else was gathering, 30 other Herreshoff Twelves appeared above me to windward, a veritable wall of sails, blanketing every speck of available wind within what seemed like miles. We bobbed around, in irons, waiting for some air – any air! –  to give us steerage. Ever the optimist, I consoled myself with the fact that we didn’t finish last in that particular race, which was no small miracle, seeing as how we didn’t even cross the start line until everyone was well into the windward leg. Well. That’s something, isn’t it?

And there were other things, too, like why, on the Committee Boat’s race-course board, was there a compass heading for the course, and mileage to the windward mark?   Why, I didn’t even have a compass on board!  And how should I know if we’ve gone a mile, anyway?  Or these gate mark things?!  Thank goodness I was well situated near the end of the pack.  To bolster my armchair knowledge, I did have several experiential  “Aha!” moments during the racing, such as when, all of a sudden, coming over to the starboard layline, (on port tack, of course) I suddenly understood with full, ringing clarity what both Dave Perry and Gary Jobson had meant when they had written about the perils of trying to find a spot to tack into in the dreaded “starboard tack parade.” Duh. Really.

All in all, I surprised myself with the things that I did well, and I learned from the many mistakes I made that weekend.  But the best thing of all was being able to say that I had done it, and that I had dared to take that first step, even though I was still very much learning how to be a racer.  Improving your racing always involves some measure of moving outside of your comfort zone, and one thing’s for sure: you’ll never be as ready as you think you should be.  If you wait around for that day to come, you’ll just never begin your journey.

This summer, we’ll again be hosting the Class Championship at our Club, and there are several new teams that will be participating. Here’s my list of recommendations I’ll be sharing with them as we prepare:

  • Have a goal – (mine was simply to learn everything I possibly could).
  • Review the racing rules.
  • Practice – there is great power in knowing how to recover from mistakes, should you make them.
  • Be familiar with what the RC will post and what it means.
  • Don’t forget to bring your charts and sailing instructions on board.
  • Don’t get caught too far away from the start (see above).
  • Work with your crew to develop your team responsibilities.
  • Don’t ever give up, even if you screw up!  The race doesn’t stop, just because you do.
  • Most importantly, have fun!

Remember: absolutely everyone, no matter who they are, gets nervous before a race, and, quite frankly, you should be worried if you don’t. The trick is to focus your nervous energy into forward-thinking action, and to find a way for that energy to work for you instead of against you.  As I keep saying, empower yourself with preparation, practice and study, all of which will help you develop a winning mindset.  It works!

So – step out of your comfort zone, and dare to take that first step.  I promise you – you’ll be so glad you did.

Photo by Amy Ballentine Stephens.   Used with permission.

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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