Sailboat Racing. (14 Answers To Your Questions)

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When you go to the bay or look out over the lake sometimes you might find a lot of sailboats chasing each other across the water. Sailboat racing is a popular sport for many of us who love being out on the water. I’ve written this to answer some of the most common questions you might have about sailboat racing if you find it fascinating and your thinking of giving it a try.

I’ve been involved now since middle school and done a variety of racing from local small boat racing to college to distance racing on big boats. There is a lot to love about it from the adventure of being out on the water to the social nature and the teamwork involved.

Let’s get started by answering your questions regarding sailboat racing.

What is sailboat racing?

The first sailboats were thought to be made by the Egyptians around 3500 BC to speed up travel on the Nile River. It took until the 17th century for the first organized race to occur in the Netherlands.

Sailboat racing is as it sounds. Racing of 2 or more sailboats. As most people who sail know. A race occurs almost anytime you come across another boat out on the lake, bay or ocean and you inevitably want to see if you can go faster then that guy.

What is Yacht Racing?

Yacht racing is a fancy way of saying sailboat racing. It’s considered a yacht race whether it’s an 8 foot children’s boat or a 100 foot maxi yacht.

spinnaker start railing race

Is sailboat racing a sport?

Although sailing can have a reputation as being a stuffy old guy activity. Nothing could really be further from the truth. Racing sailboats can require a crew to be quite physically active to operate. On most boats, the sails are entirely controlled by hand.

There are currently 8 sailing events in the summer Olympic games. There are both men, women and coed events. To learn more click here.

F18 Catamarans racing downwind

Is sailboat racing dangerous?

Is sailboat racing dangerous? For the most part no. Like other sports and activities. You must take the proper precautions and use proper care.

Injuries have occurred on boats during races. People have fallen off boats and not been found in time or hit by rigging when something breaks. Injuries and deaths have occurred during most other sports also. You could get hit by lightning playing golf or have a heart attack walking to your next shot. No one thinks of golf as dangerous.

Sailboat racing is very safe is you keep the boat in good working order. You use safety equipment such as life jackets and harnesses if the weather is windy or your in a storm. If it’s windy always pay attention to the boat and what is going on.

Spinnaker trimming going downwind

How does sailboat racing work?

Typically a racecourse is setup using bouys as marks to turn around. A start line is established between a bouy and a boat referred to as the committee boat.

The race typically goes upwind to a bouy, then back downwind to the finish. Sometimes you do more than 1 lap.

The finish line is typically the committee boat and a bouy. Go back to where you started. That’s simple right?

There can be variations on the course such as reaching legs which makes the course a triangle. Sometimes one lap upwind and downwind followed by an upwind and reaching triangle. That is referred to as an Olympic course.

On the other end of the spectrum is distance racing or point to point racing. This is where you start and race across the lake or from one city to another. You can read my experience about the Race to Mackinac Island here.

For every sailboat race, there is typically a set of instructions published that tell you what the course will be and what the starting sequence will be. Always read the instructions.

Crescent sailboats sailing towards the finish

What are the sailboat racing rules?

The racing rules of sailing are published by World Sailing, one of the governing and organizing bodies of sailing. You can view them here. A really good rule resource is the website Racing Rules of Sailing that gives a bit more graphical explanation.

There are 3 basic rules.

  • Port Starboard
  • Windward Leeward
  • Room at the mark

Port Starboard: If 2 boats approaching on opposite tacks. The tack is which side of the boat the wind is blowing on. If the wind is blowing from the across the boat from the left side to right side the boat is on Starboard tack. If the wind is blowing from the right side across to the left side the boat is on Port Tack. A boat on Starboard Tack must keep clear of a boat on Port Tack.

Windward Leeward: If 2 boats are on the same tack and overlapped. The boat to leeward has right of way. The leeward boat is the downwind boat.

Room at the Mark: When 2 or more boats are approaching a mark, the boat closest to the mark is entitled to enough room to go around the mark.

The rules get much more detailed than this with a lot of caveats and exceptions. Knowing the above will get you around the racecourse.

The number one rule to follow regardless of the other rules is don’t run into anyone. Sailboats are expensive and getting them fixed after a collision can be really expensive too.

What are the start line rules?

The start line of a sailboat race almost always consists of a boat which is called the “Committee Boat” and a bouy. The start line is some feature on the committee boat, usually a flag and the bouy. There are exceptions such as sometimes using a feature on land to replace either the committee boat or the bouy.

A race starts with a countdown timer sequence. Some horns are blown to signal the start of the countdown. Once this starts the boats in the race sail around until the countdown ends. When the countdown reaches zero you are allowed to cross the start line and start the race.

If you cross the start line early you must go back across the start line and restart the race while everyone else who didn’t start early is sailing away.

Thistle sailboats starting a race

How to get into sailboat racing?

The easiest and best way to learn about sailboat racing and to experience it is to go find someone who races their boat and be a crew member for them. This is actually very easy.

99% of boat owners who like to race are always looking for more crew. Unless you won a gigantic lottery and have a mega-super-yacht and are hiring professional crew, you are always looking for people on your boat.

How do you find a boat owner if you don’t know any? That’s easy. Look online for sailing clubs near you. If you are near any lakes or on the coast somewhere there will be a yacht club or sailing club nearby that has racing. Find out what evening or day they hold races. Go and walk around and ask if anyone needs someone. Chances are in 10-15 minutes you’ll find someone.

Many clubs now have online message boards or Facebook groups where they post looking for crew or you can post looking for a boat. On Lake St Clair we have a decently active Facebook group.

Most regions with more than 1 club have organization pages for the region. These typically have crew finder boards as well. Here in Detroit our organization is the Detroit Regional Yacht Racing Association which has a crew board here.

The cockpit crew during the race

Sailboat racing for beginners?

If your a beginner the best place to get a little experience is by crewing on other people’s boats. Once you’ve been out for a race or 2 you will probably know enough to be ready to take your own boat out if you choose to.

You probably also noticed that some classes that were racing were much more competitive and serious about it than others. A good place to start is one of the not so serious places.

Most clubs run what is called Jib and Main racing. This means no spinnaker. This also means less crew to find and less experience needed on the boat. These are good places to start your sailboat racing life.

Many clubs also run small boat racing. These may be 1 to 3 person boats. These are also a really good place to start because the initial cost is low and you don’t need to find as many crew. You’ll quickly learn the most difficult thing about sailboat racing is always finding enough crew.

Some people really enjoy small boats more. You feel a bit closer to the water and wind. The boats tend to be more responsive.

sailboats jib and main racing

What is virtual Sailboat Racing?

Another good place to start and also to practice if your not a beginner is virtual sailboat racing. A really good web-based racing simulator is Virtual Regatta. It’s free. It even has a little intro to sailing course and intro to racing course. I really enjoy this and highly recommend it. It’s free so why not give it a try.

virtual sailboat racing regatta screenshot

Which racing yacht or sailboat?

You decided you want to start racing sailboats. What boat should you choose? The first thing to do is to find out what other people near you are racing. Racing by yourself is no fun. Racing with lots of other boats is lots of fun.

Go visit the club you want to race at and see what is really going on. People will tell you over the phone and email that this fleet or that fleet is really active where in reality one of their fleets may have 20 boats while one has 5.

This 5 boat fleet may have really fun people compared to the 20 boat fleet. It’s good to get to know what’s going on before whipping out the checkbook.

sailboats racing downwind

What are sailboat racing classes?

Sailboat racing tends to occur either with something known as One Design fleets or mixed fleets.

One design is what it sounds like. Everyone races exactly the same boat so in theory, all the boats go the same speed and it’s the sailors skill that matters.

What is beercan or handicap sailboat racing?

Mixed fleet racing involves racing many different types of boats. Usually, boats are handicapped so that a slower boat can race with a faster boat. There are several handicapping systems out there.

This is sometimes called Beercan racing. It’s frequently done in the evenings or weekends after work and a lot of beer cans are emptied as a result.

The most common one in the US is called Performance Handicap Racing Fleet or PHRF. The ratings are subjectively assigned and can be adjusted. As you can imagine the people taking it really seriously also have a lot of serious arguments about their handicap.

Sailboats handicap racing in the evening

The upside is that you can race any boat so you can use your weekend cruiser or daysailor and go out and have fun. The downside to mixed fleet racing is always the handicap method.

Some boats are known to be better for handicap racing than others. They have a well established handicap that can be easily sailed too. If you don’t own a boat you might talk to people and do some research on whether people think the boat you want has a fair handicap. Racing is fun. Always losing because you can’t beat the handicap is not.

beercan handicap racing at sunset

Where to get a racing sailboat?

After you have decided what kind of boat to get, there are many places to go find them for sale. If you decided on a one design boat, the class association page may be the best bet. Most class associations have a classifieds page where you can find boats.

The Lightning class has one of the best class pages with racing and classifieds on it. You can see it here.

C&C Sailboat under spinnaker racing to Mackinac

If you’re looking for something more like a weekend cruiser that you can race also a boat broker can be a very good option. A majority of boats sold by brokers are listed on the website This is similar to the Real Estate MLS system.

There are a bunch of sailboat classified sites out there. Too many to list here. My favorites are and

There is always the normal classified sites such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

Express 27 sailboats at the start line

Go give it a try

I hope after reading this you’ve found some answers to what you are looking for and you’re ready to head for some exciting adventures out on the water. Leave a comment if you give it a try or have anything else you’d like to know.

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About the author

My name is Ryan C. I am an adventure sports fan and an avid skier, sailor, mountain biker who also enjoys kayaking, and travel. I take any chance I can get to get out in the snow or water.  I decided to start this website as a way to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for adventure sports and travel.

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