Tiger Tale, at Ballentine’s Boat Shop, getting some plastic surgery.

“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”   –   Oscar Wilde

The tricky thing about amateur racing fleets is that they are composed of sailors with differing skill levels and abilities.  And so, unlike at the very top levels of racing, those sailing in amateur fleets can’t assume that every skipper will be well-versed in the Racing Rules, or that they will be equally skillful helms-people.  One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was “know your competitors!”  This rings especially true in a fleet trying to encourage newer sailors to participate.

Obviously, safety on the water should be foremost in everyone’s mind.  But if mistakes arise, every effort should be made to harness the power of the teaching/learning opportunities these mistakes afford. Where possible, a helpful attitude on the part of the more experienced skippers will greatly enhance the fleet’s collective work in ensuring that the newer teams can improve — and as Clubs and Sailing Centers strive to maintain or grow racing fleets and sailing programs, I believe this absolutely must become a part of every fleet’s culture.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that intimidation on the race course is a sure-fire way to ensure that the newer racers won’t come back, and that learning from the mistakes made on the race course is a critical component in being able to move forward and improve one’s sailing skills.  Everyone makes mistakes, and if you don’t, it’s probably a sign that you’re not trying hard enough.

Let’s look at boat handling as an example. If you know that someone is a relative novice on the race course, you don’t want to force them into having to execute emergency maneuvers, because he or she may not yet have the skills to be able to respond quickly enough to avoid a collision. I’ve seen people on the line hold their course and play “chicken” near the start because the other, less experienced guy was barging (he probably didn’t know the Rule), leaving little or no room for error. Remember, if you’re racing against a less experienced sailor, there’s a chance that he or she may have no idea what to do in the event of an emergency situation.  Don’t assume that they will!  Accidents can and will happen. To illustrate, and since I’ve promised to bare all, and share my on-the-water mistakes, here’s an epic one for the record books.  Hopefully you can learn something from it.

Several years ago, while racing in heavy swells, I thought I had room to make a quick port tack across the path of an oncoming boat on starboard tack.  So I went for it, jammed the tiller over hard, and managed to tack myself right into irons.  Bummer. Quite suddenly, I found myself bobbing about with no steerage, frantically trying everything I could think of to try to get moving again, because we really needed to get out of the path of the oncoming boat — and fast!  Seconds seemed like hours as we watched the other boat heading straight for us, close-hauled and trimmed for speed.  When it quickly became clear that a collision was imminent, I and my crew moved to the other side of our boat for safety.  Very shortly thereafter, we found ourselves on the receiving end of a  T-bone collision, directly amidships, with another 1500-pound keelboat.  From the sound of the loud CRACK! I was sure there would be a hole in the topside of my boat, but as I peered over the edge, I was relieved to see that it was miraculously intact.  That was the good news. The bad news?  The entire starboard coaming (teak), which had absorbed the full brunt of the impact, had to be completely rebuilt.  (You can see the boat in the shop, pictured above.)  Plus, since we were hit square on by the other boat’s bow, there was damage to her bronze bow fitting and foredeck.  It was all very expensive.  Ugh.

The fact of the matter was that this incident involved two sailors whose boat handling skills were still developing: I misjudged the effect of wave and rudder action as I tacked, and the other skipper seemed unable to execute any type of evasive maneuver.  It was a recipe for disaster.

I learned several important things from that experience:

  • Racing insurance was well worth the investment, as it covered an extremely expensive 5-figure claim.  Make sure you have it.  Really, I’m not kidding.  Especially if you have a boat that’s expensive to repair, like mine.
  • Always file a protest in the event of a collision (I didn’t!), even if you think you are at fault. In this instance, both boats would have been disqualified. Plus, the protest report, though it can’t be used to determine which boat was at fault, can provide helpful information when you file your claim.
  • The onus is on all sailors, whether or not they have right of way, to make every possible effort to avoid a collision.  Rule 14 was forever etched into my brain after this incident.
  • Although it may be difficult, try to have a good discussion with the other skipper involved – remember, you will still be racing together in the same fleet.
  • To avoid an immediate and sudden obstacle, tack your boat immediately. If you have steerage, your boat can go surprisingly close to something, before tacking, without any contact. But even if you are unable to avoid contact, this maneuver will be far less damaging than a T-bone collision.

Honestly, after the accident, I  never wanted to go out on the course again.  It was a frightening situation, there were uncomfortable feelings between the two skippers involved, and I felt as though I must look like a complete idiot to everyone who had witnessed it. My pocket book and my pride were hurt.  But a friend  made me go out the very next day and practice tacking (a lot), and later showed me (in what I have come to lovingly refer to as the “death tack”) how, when you’re close-hauled, you can tack incredibly close to something without hitting it. And so, in the end, I swallowed my pride and showed up to race the next week, cracked coaming and all.  I’m awfully glad I did.

And what about the Racing Rules?  When you’re new to racing, understanding the rules at the start, and at mark-roundings especially, is tricky.  Newer racers should spend extra time reviewing those particular rules.  In our fleet, some of the newer boats have started off “shadowing” the racing, to get a feel for how things work.  This seems to work well.  Out on the race course, I always find that a little talking can go a long way in a potentially confusing situation, but if it becomes clear that the other boat just doesn’t know the Rules, don’t push yourself into a dangerous situation just to make your point.  Protest clearly, and keep sailing.  You can have the discussion afterward, off the water.  Protesting is much less expensive than a collision.

In our fleet, we try to provide opportunities to talk about things that may have been confusing on the race course so that everyone can learn.  This is sometimes difficult, but I find that most disagreements stem from both parties honestly thinking that they were in the right, only to learn after discussion that one of them didn’t understand the Rules correctly.  Everyone in a racing fleet, regardless of his or her level, is constantly striving to become a better racer.  A good working knowledge of the Racing Rules is a big part of enabling people to reach their individual goals, as are opportunities to practice boat handling skills.  Yes, growing a fleet is hard work, and creating a culture of acceptance and good will is a tricky proposition, especially considering the competitive nature of sailboat racing. But in the end, the pay-off is significant, and you end up with a stronger fleet, and fair racing.  What could be better than that?

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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