7 Lessons Learned from 63rd Newport to Ensenada Race

There’s nothing like a race to bring together what you do, or do not know about sailing.  And you don’t have to be a hard core racing rock star to really benefit from an occasional race.  My recent measuring stick was the 63rd Annual Newport to Ensenada International Yacht Race, a 125.5 nautical mile course off the coast of California that drew over 200 boats last week.  

For all of us who have cruised for years and have trimmed sails only after adjusting the stereo and putting down the cerveza, it’s good to know that a race or two can dust off old sailing skills and build new ones.  After an elapsed time of 27 hrs and 41 minutes, here’s some lessons learned I take back to my cruising summer.

1) Never expect a downwind race to actually be downwind.  Half of our course (all day Friday) was a close reach.  Whatever you’re ready for, be ready for something else.
2) To the point above – stay flexible on your course.  A course that stretches over 100 miles or more and crosses an international border needs a strategy, but if you try to force a rhumb line, you’ll feel like your pigtails are too tight.
3) Never look back at 3:00am and wonder why there are no lights nor sails behind you.  It might feel like you’re the last boat on earth but believe me, other boats are out there and they’re wondering the same thing. 
4) Have a lot of sails and don’t be afraid to use them.  If I had to name one recurring mistake it was putting up each sail change a little late.  We got quite a bit of benefit from a windseeker, a smallish gennaker designed to seek for wind under 6 knots.  An all-night bob will make you pretty grateful for a windseeker that will keep you moving at 1 knot in the right direction rather than spinning in the eddies. 
5) Never underestimate what you can do with a production boat.  We raced on a standard Catalina 34 rather than some fancy, ultra lightweight sprit boat.  You’d be surprised what you can accomplish, not to mention what you can learn, on a standard boat designed for cruising.  Granted, this boat is newer, well equipped and has a suite of 6 sails (no typo, this Catalina 34 has 6 sails including two headsails, a mainsail, a gennaker, a spinnaker and a windseeker) but it’s still a boat that is well within reach of many who don’t want to make racing their focal point but like an occasional challenge.
6) Never underestimate the power of double-handing.  Most of the boats raced with a crew of 4-7.  We had two.  It was exhausting.  And it was exhilarating.  There’s nothing quite like accomplishing something with a greater challenge than the rest to feel like you really did something well.  You really can fly a spinnaker over a distance of 50+ miles with just two people and if you want to learn, there’s no way you’ll come off a double-handed boat feeling like you went along for the ride and didn’t anything. 
7) Finally, evaluate your performance and rejoice in your mistakes.  We didn’t win, but we didn’t care.  We landed in the middle of the pack and were happy because we screwed up.  If you can identify things you did wrong, that means there’s room for improvement.  If you feel you raced like the wind, did all you could and still came in last - turn up the stereo, pick up the cerveza and think about a cruising summer.

But even for the race shy, there’s always next time.