Get into Sailboat Racing

Getting started in sailboat racing doesn’t have to be intimidating.

By J A Booker,
Former President, West Florida Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (WFPHRF)

It’s hard to watch or read coverage of the latest around-the-world-challenge or the recent America’s Cup event and not be inspired by the majesty of these racing machines. Fact is, few own this type of yacht, but, most everyone associates them with yacht racing. As a consequence, many sailors have never considered the possibility of racing themselves. Still, there’s always room for one more boat or one more crew so if you are even a little curious to try, here’s how easy it can be.

First, sort yourself into one of two groups: “I have a boat (or access to one) that I want to race,” or “I don’t have a boat.” You Have a Boat You Want to Race.

Let’s start with those who have a boat to race. You might think that twenty-year-old cruiser of yours isn’t suitable for racing, but with a little patience, elbow grease, and some study, you could be on the racecourse in a couple of weeks.

Two sailboats racingStep One. If you have a boat, the first step is to join US Sailing. Go to for more information. This is the governing body for sailboat racing in this country. Your membership gives you access to tons of information, including your own copy of the Racing Rules of Sailing (RRS), which govern all sailboat racing. They’re extensive so don’t expect to memorize them in a couple of sittings, but you can study the Rules in Brief which will give you enough basic knowledge to get started. The first thing you might want to memorize, however, is the starting sequence. It can be the most exciting five minutes of the race, but things happen fast, and it’s a good idea if you’re not familiar with the sequence to understand what’s happening (and why that’s probably the worst time to ask a general question!). It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of the RRS on hand to refer to after certain situations; it’s the best way to really learn them.

Step Two. You’ll need to contact your regional Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF), and get a rating or handicap certificate for your boat. Oh, no, you say, not another regulatory body. Hold on; this isn’t as bad as it sounds. What PHRF does is to make it possible for different types of boats to race against each other. The PHRF rating system, like a golf or bowling handicap, levels the playing field so that very different types of boats can compete fairly. In West Florida, contact West Florida Performance Handicap Racing Fleet online at You can download an application that requires a little time, some basic knowledge of your boat, and a tape measure, to complete.

Step Three. Get a sail number. You’ll also need a way for the race committee to recognize your boat, which means put a number on your mainsail and any overlapping headsail. You can choose your own number, but make it distinct. You can get an official number from US Sailing by going to Click on the heading for “Racing,” scroll down to “Sailing Numbering System,” and follow the instructions. Here, you’ll also find information about size and proper placement of the numbers. Your sailmaker can help with this, too.

Step Four. Find a time and place to race. Every event is required to publish a Notice of Race and Sailing Instructions. You’ll often find these on the yacht club or Sailing association’s Web site or posted on bulletin boards at Sailing organizations. These two documents will tell you who and what types of boat are eligible. If you’re eligible, complete the registration and follow the Sailing Instructions (SIs). Have your boat safely equipped and crewed, show up on the starting line at the right time and you’re off. Remember to thank the race committee when you finish; most of the time they’re volunteers. You Want to Race and Don’t Have a Boat

If you’re in the “without-a-boat” group, it’s even easier to start racing because you will crew for someone else. Depending on your skill level and demeanor, it’s not impossible to show up two hours before looking for a ride and spend the rest of the day racing. If there is a skippers’ meeting the night before, start asking around then. Put up a “looking for a ride” notice with your name and contact information on bulletin boards at yacht clubs and Sailing centers; Some clubs even have crew wanted listings on their Web sites. Someone always needs crew.Two sailboats in light winds racing

Mid-week club races are the easiest place to start, as they typically are short and fairly informal in their structure. Usually there is no skippers’ meeting, so hit the docks early and start asking around. Be honest about your experience and ability. Better to get a “no” answer than find yourself in a position where your role is critical, and you don’t know what to do. Pay attention to how many folks are hanging around the boat. If it looks full, it may be. If it looks empty, they probably need help.

When you get an invite, be willing to jump in where necessary. Help set up the boat before leaving the dock and stay around after the race until everything is cleaned up and put away. Ask questions, but pay attention to the timing. You should have an understanding of your role and what is expected before racing. Asking in the middle of a complicated maneuver may not get you a meaningful answer. It may be that you are offered a role as “righting moment technician” a.k.a. “rail meat.” Don’t fret. This is a great place to observe and learn.

When racing is over, be appreciative. If you’d like to race on that boat again, say so. Have contact information available, and ask the skipper to put you on his crew list. If you’re called to crew again, give a definitive answer and honor your commitment. Knowledgeable crew are good to find, but reliable, helpful and gracious crew are most highly valued.

Take the time to follow these few easy steps, and you’ll be racing in no time. Practice, study and practice some more. Who knows, you may find yourself on a Maxi after all.