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Summer Distance Racing Rewind

As we reflect on summer and all of the awesome regattas we were able to participate in, it’s hard not to see a few big lessons learned staring you in the face. Offshore sailing tends to do that; it shows us our strengths and weaknesses in a short period of time. But one thing’s for sure: There’s no better time and place to learn than racing offshore. We asked a few members of the Quantum team for their perspectives on the various races this summer and what they learned.

Chicago-to-Mac Race: Make your moves at night.

A 290nm race up Lake Michigan, the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is one of the most infamous freshwater distance races in the world. Quantum’s Katy Zimmerman shares a tip from her 2021 race with Jim Milliken’s J/109 Driven 2.

This year’s Chicago Mac race was on the light end of the breeze range for the majority of the fleets. Hazy skies from the ash in the atmosphere meant no thermals during the day. So while there was a lot of floating and trying to mode the boat for ultra light sailing during the day, we found ourselves really pushing the boat at night. The breeze built every night and we used that to our advantage. We rotated drivers often. Sometimes when it was hard to see and required extra concentration, we switched out drivers every 30 minutes. We rotated trimmers about as frequently as drivers to ensure we actively trimmed the sails through the whole night. To keep everyone as fresh as possible, team members were encouraged to nap on deck even while on-shift if they weren’t trimming or driving. We did some of our best sailing at night and kept the tempo up. Boats that slack at night often are left behind, and those that push may not see the gains they are making at the time, but when the sun rises, they will have left their competitors in the dust. So don’t check out at night. It’s important to get rest when you’re off-shift, but when you’re on deck, bring your A-game. If that means you need an extra cup of coffee or to pump up the tunes to fight the urge to sleep, make it happen, and keep sailing fast.

Port Huron-to-Mac Race: The small things add up.

Although the Port Huron is a slightly shorter race than the Chicago Mac, it can be equally gnarly. Quantum’s Wally Cross recounts some of the things that helped guide him and his team on the TP52 Heartbreaker to an overall win in the 2021 edition of this epic race.

Success in sailing offshore is not the result of one big move, but many good small moves. The best result will come from making sure you’ve considered as much as you can beforehand and making the most of what comes your way during the race. My secret is a detailed checklist that is broken down into four categories: a few months out, a few weeks out, race day, and during the race.

A few months out, make sure your boat is well prepared to win. Take care of any equipment needs such as instruments, sails, safety gear, touching up the bottom, keel, and rudder. One week prior to the race is like an actual race for me. For the Port Huron race this year, I looked up weather patterns, considered sail inventory, worked out provisions to keep the team performing, and built a system for crew shifts to ensure fast sailing and ample rest.

On race day, our weather research provided clues of an aggressive wind shift from south to west some distance up the lake. Based on the forecast, we were able to choose more close-hauled sails and knew we would be storing them for a long port tack up Lake Huron. We were well prepared for the challenges on the course: sail changes in big weather systems, staying hydrated and fueled, staying warm and as dry as possible, shifting all positions each hour to stay fresh, checking in on the position of our competitors regularly, and making constant trim and steering adjustments based on polars and target speeds and angles.

Trans Superior: Always pack an extra warm layer.

The longer, colder sibling to the Chicago and Port Huron Mac races, the Trans Superior can be a challenging race. The colder water temperatures of Lake Superior dramatically impact weather and waves and breed unpredictable conditions. Quantum’s Kai Dolan embarked on the 2021 Trans Superior as her first-ever offshore race and learned a few things on her trip.

The first mistake you can make before the race even starts is to forgo one or two warm layers. For this year’s Trans Superior, sailing at night was miserable. As soon as the sun went down, the water was covered with a blanket of thick, cold, wet fog. It was so thick it looked like we were sailing straight at a wall all night, every night. Everything and everyone on deck was dripping from the moisture in the air. While your foul weather gear will cut the wind and the water, it’s what you’re wearing underneath that will really keep you warm. Bring one or two thick, warm layers such as a wool sweater or a thin puffy jacket. You might bring them and never touch them during the race, and that’s fine, but you never know how being tired will make the cold and wet worse or how the conditions and temperatures will truly be until you are on the water. For a race like this one, playing it safe is your best bet. It’s much better to be able to throw on the extra sweatshirt or fleece you didn’t think you’d need rather than wish you hadn’t left it at home. Staying warm keeps you going when the race gets tough.

Bermuda One-Two: Exercise caution.

In this unique short-handed race, sailors complete two offshore legs. They first embark on a single-handed race from Newport to Bermuda, and after a brief layover, pick up their crew member and race double-handed from Bermuda back to Newport. Race veteran and major advocate of short-handed sailing Quantum’s Joe Cooper recounts a story from this year’s double-handed return leg.

Offshore sailors, particularly solo sailors, rely more heavily on their own skills and abilities more than any single piece of gear or equipment. Being as focused as we are on the boat and systems, one tends to forget just how important the human is in such sailing.

In the return double-handed leg of this year's Bermuda 1-2, a competitor was hit in the eye by a jib sheet. He was otherwise unhurt but his eye was put out of commission and he was in pain. Several calls to his doctor and help from competitors close by−including one who was a physician−determined he should abandon the race and motor straight home. We are used to sails, blocks, winches, engines, and autopilots breaking. All sailing can continue more or less under such failures, and there’s usually a solution. This competitor’s experience brought home the need to be more mindful and careful when sailing alone and to exercise more caution and care than you would when sailing fully crewed. Fortunately, this was the double-handed return leg, so the problem was not as bad as it could have been. 

Fastnet: Be prepared for breakdowns.

The Fastnet is a prestigious offshore race that starts in Cowes, UK, crosses the Celtic Sea, rounds Fastnet Rock, and this year finished in Cherbourg, FR. This race tends to attract some of the best sailors in the world and a host of unique, fast boats. Quantum’s Jelmer Bouw shares a few tips that proved valuable in this year’s Fastnet.

The Fastnet is a tough and long race, so you need to be as prepared as you can be. I recommend breaking down the responsibilities of every crew member’s role. Responsibilities of the navigator, cook, and safety guy are pretty straightforward, but who is going to do a repair in the case of a breakdown? The faster a breakdown is fixed, the faster the boat is back in racing mode. Regular systems checks can help you prevent damage beforehand. A small issue can turn into something big quite quickly when you don’t spot it in time. Make a list of what tools and repair materials are onboard and where they are stored so you can grab them when needed. It won’t save you from trouble, but you will be better prepared when something happens. On the Fastnet this year, a problem with a sliding upper rudder bearing could have ended our race, but we caught it quickly and prevented further damage. We were able to finish the race due to catching the problem early. 

Another pro tip: GloFast draft stripes on all your sails are a great help during the night. Checking sail trim is much easier with this small and simple addition. And bring a lot of sail ties. You never know how and when they will come in handy!

Queen’s Cup: Pace yourself.

One of the shorter offshore races in the Great Lakes and one steeped in a rich history, the Queen’s Cup is raced from Milwaukee, WI, to Muskegon, MI. Although it may feel more like a sprint than a marathon, it’s still an offshore race, and things can get weird. Quantum’s Anson Mulder takes a look back at the tough conditions that impacted his team’s performance.

The Queen’s Cup is generally a quick sprint for a fast boat like a TP52, but this year was a test of endurance due to a four-hour delayed start and a slow 10-hour elapsed time. With Lake Michigan still cold and a light gradient wind, the shear was both dramatic and inconsistent. By 2am to 3am, it was quite difficult for the speed team to find a groove, and watching the instrumentation was like trying to decipher The Matrix without a cheat sheet! We had talented drivers and trimmers, but being on the wrong side of the circadian rhythms and with the tricky conditions, we struggled to perform our best. You often learn the most from times when you did not bring your absolute best, so it’s important to recognize what improvements could be made and move on. Endurance management is a big part of yacht racing whether you are going 80nm across the lake or sailing solo around the world. Don’t forget to pace yourself and do the simple things right to keep you mentally and physically in the game.

Still itching for more offshore sailing content? Don’t worry, so are we! Check out this awesome video series produced by Italia Yachts, David Walters Yachts, and Quantum Sails following competitors on the 2021 Chicago-to-Mac and Annapolis-to-Newport races. 

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