Over the last few months managing MySail, I have noticed there are lots of new sailors keen to get on-board and do the ‘big race’ – the iconic 628NM Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race that sets off each year on 26 December.
I am a huge fan of setting big audacious goals to work towards, and setting your sights high is a great way to drive yourself forward. However, trying to start your yachting journey with the biggest event most sailors will ever do, is likely biting off a little more than you can chew.
What’s the rush? Sailing is as much a sport of patience and incremental gains as it is of speed and adrenaline, and in long races the patience part often takes precedence.
So I believe its sage advice to plan your move into sailing accordingly. Keep your sights on the big race, but start with smaller steps to get there. The key is to get enough experience that you will not only be a valuable addition to a yachting team, but also ensure your own enjoyment and safety during the race.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few tips to set you in the right direction.
Head to your local sailing school
Sailing is as much (if not more) a sport of knowledge and experience as it is of physical ability. There are lots of courses available for sailors, from aspiring entry-level crewmembers through highly experience offshore men and woman.
If you are brand new to the sport, the RYA Competent Crew course will give you a good overview of a yacht and some critical safety tips.
The RYA also offers a number of theory and practical courses that cover topics such as navigation, seamanship, maintenance and general boat handling.
A Safety and Sea Survival Course and Senior First Aid certificate are invaluable if you are interested in offshore racing. Not only will they teach important skills on how to manage an injury or incident at sea, they are also required for many crewmembers participating in longer offshore races.
Find a good book or two
There are lots of things you can learn by reading a good sailing book, magazine or website.
If you are completely new, understanding basic sailing terms will help you step on a yacht with more confidence, and the ability to go to the bow or grind on a sheet, without looking like a deer in headlights when someone says ‘bow,’ ‘grind,’ or ‘sheet’!
However, you will not become a great sailor by reading alone. A good approach is to combine your reading with some actual sailing, so you can apply what you learn in real life to see how it works.
Get out on the water
The best way to get started in racing is to head to your local yacht club for a twilight or weekend race. Most clubs are very welcoming to crew who rock up looking for a sail, and often have a whiteboard at the entrance where you can write your name and number on arrival.
You can also use websites such as MySail to secure a position on a racing yacht. Doing this gives you the chance to find out a bit more about the yacht and its owner before you arrive, and ensures you will get out for a sail before putting in the effort of going to the club.
Many yacht owners will be willing to take out new crewmembers and teach them the ropes, especially for crew who are reliable, have a good team attitude and are keen to learn. In return, they will generally expect crew to help out before and after a race and participate as regularly as possible.
Expand your network
The sailing community is an amazing group of passionate people.
Take advantage of that!
When you are out sailing or at the yacht club, take the time to mingle and meet other sailors as much as possible. Experienced sailors are a treasure trove of valuable information and tips, as well as interesting and amazing stories.
A good sailing network will help you find new sailing experiences, and this is where you’re most likely to get your opportunity to participate in the ‘big race’. Having a large group of sailing friends also makes it a lot more fun when you hit the bar at the other end.
Volunteer for yacht deliveries
A great way to gain your first offshore experience is through yacht deliveries. Before large regattas or at the end of a one-way ocean race, the participating yachts have to make their way to, or back to the starting point.
Often times it is not the race crew who deliver the yacht, but a few of the key crewmembers and a few others who join for the delivery leg. This is a great way to further expand your network and gain some valuable offshore miles and experience.
Deliveries are generally planned around more favourable weather windows, as they do not have to kick-off at a pre-set start time. That, and the lack of racing pressures often make them less intense than the race itself.
However, that doesn’t mean deliveries are safer than racing. Often yachts have fewer and less experienced crew and there are fewer people tracking the movement of non-racing yachts. As in any type of sailing, make sure you are comfortable with the yacht, its crew and safety procedures before setting sail.
Start with some shorter ocean races
Starting with a highly challenging and long ocean race may not be the best move.
There are lots of shorter races you can do first, to get a taste of ocean racing and make sure it’s something you’re keen to pursue, before throwing yourself in the deep end… literally.
Participating in short races will also help you work out many details of offshore racing that you may not think about otherwise. What type of gear should you wear? Will you be warm enough? Do you get seasick, and if so, what seasickness medication works for you? How will you manage with limited sleep? Do you have any medical requirements, and how can you manage these?
All of these things are important to understand about yourself, and ideally about your fellow crew-members, before setting off on a long race.
Finally… I cannot overstate the value of experience in sailing.
Experience is not something you will gain overnight, but through time, hard work and the influence of other great sailors. By getting started today with small steps your offshore sailing dreams will soon become a reality.
Want to get involved?
Click here to find a crew spot in the next Sydney Hobart Yacht Race as well as other races are regattas.