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Sailboat Racing

There are several websites dedicated to sailing competition which discuss tactics, boats, regatta results, scoring, etc. Accordingly, this page deals more with the basics; types of racing, crewing, where to race, rules, and maybe a story or two.


When to race in Michigan

Unlike southern states, Michigan has a rather short sailing season. Most competitions occur May-September, with some "frostbite" regattas occurring in October. Although some dinghy competitions (primarily at the collegiate level) can occur in April and November (with some nice wind), dangerous water temperatures generally require the use of protective outerwear. Ice boat racing, however, occurs after ice has been well-established on the lakes which is generally January-March.


One-design dinghy racing

One-design dinghy racing may be the most accessible type of racing to the new sailor and be the most common. Races/regattas generally fall under two categories: club-sponsored weekly "series" and class-sanctioned regattas. Weekly series are generally held on weekday evenings or on weekends and are often administered by yacht/sail clubs for the sole benefit of their members. Class-sanctioned regattas, while hosted by a particular yacht/sail club, are open to all registered members of sailboat class (type), regardless of affiliation with the hosting club. Both types of events are common on inland lakes and generally involve boats sailing a closed course around buoys (marks) representing different points-of-sail. To find class-sanctioned regattas in the state, please view our event calendar.


Handicap racing

Because of the variations in the design of larger classes of boats, a correction factor is needed which "normalizes" the boats and allows skipper/crew skill to be a greater determinant of success. This correction factor takes into consideration boat and sail design, prior boat performance, and even race conditions. Several rating systems can be used for this normalization. The type of system used is determined by race organizers. The more popular rating systems in Michigan are the Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF), PHRF-LE (Lake Erie), and Lake Michigan Performance Racing Fleet (LMPRF). Smaller one-design boats frequently use the Portsmouth Yardstick handicap system.


With the presence of the Great Lakes, Michigan has a unique opportunity to support active "offshore" racing as well as inland dinghy racing. Offshore races are conducted on the Great Lakes via a sponsoring yacht club or sailing organization and involve the use of larger keel boats (generally 26' or greater). Because of the variability in the design and construction of these boats, different boat models receive a handicap score/value which is used to adjust an elapsed race time. Thus, a boat can "win" a race by being first to the destination, but not place "first" based on handicap-adjusted corrected time.



Unless you own and race a Laser, Sunfish, Zuma, or similar boat, most dinghy sailboat classes require crews of 2 or 3 for racing. This creates opportunities for the novice, but headaches for the skippers. Because of the constant need for crew for a weekly race series or a regatta, many skippers will accept outside help from knowledgeable "freelance" crew or hard-working novices. To facilitate useful pairings of skippers and crew, SailMichigan will be creating a statewide database which allows both novices and experienced sailors to offer to crew. In the meantime, those yacht / sail clubs which provide an online crew database are indicated on the adjacent crewing page. Through such interfaces, individuals can register their crewing interest directly with the yacht club. Other yacht clubs may accept offers to crew either by phone or through email. Note that you generally do not need to be a member of the club to crew (but it certainly doesn't hurt if you are a member).


The Rules

Sailboat races are usually conducted under the "Racing Rules of Sailing" which are revised every 4 years by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF). The current set of rules are valid through 2012. Although there are various guides and distillations of the rules available, the US Sailing publication The Racing Rules of Sailing for 2013-2016 is a standard which can be purchased by clicking on the link. It is not a bad idea to have the complete rules as a reference and also a handy pocket guide for use on the water.  The Racing Rules Companion 2013 - 2016 is helpful in this regard. The rules may seem a bit daunting, but most racing, especially dinghy racing, requires only knowing a handful of the rules.


The Basics

To understand the scope, participant qualifications and structure of an upcoming regatta or race, be sure to read the official Notice of Race (NOR) produced by the hosting club or organization. It will tell you which boats by class, size, or other restrictions are eligible for the event, the rules and handicap system the event is using, information on registration, and a preliminary schedule of events. Events posted here on SailMichigan generally link to the official regatta website or to the NOR directly. Some events will also issue "Sailing Instructions" to further clarify course, rules, and logistics information.


Most regattas and inshore races will involve a course using a series of buoys (marks) arranged in a variety of formats among which windward-leeward, triangular, and Olympic are the most frequent. Rounding of the marks may be to Port or Starboard, depending on the course, and contact with the marks is prohibited. In most cases, races will begin at the leeward end of the course with the first leg to windward.


A series of flags and horn blasts used by the race committee conveys the start sequence and race operations on the water. The start sequence generally begins with a warning signal 5 minutes before start (the raising of the class flag and a horn blast). This is followed by a preparatory signal at 4 minutes before start (the raising of the "P" flag" and a horn blast), and then a 1 minute warning signal (the lowering of the "P" flag and a horn blast). The start  is signaled with a lowering of the warning or class flag and a final horn blast. Note that this sequence can be modified by the host racing committee and may involve other flags denoting different starting criteria.








Concluding comments

Getting involved in sailboat racing can be an exciting, rewarding and highly educational experience. If you are new to racing, begin by becoming involved in your boat's class association. Class associations are terrific resources for determining where events are taking place as well as tips for optimizing and racing your boat. These associations are welcoming to newcomers and are generally forgiving of novice mistakes. Links to many class associations are on our "Michigan One-Design" page. In addition, offer to crew anywhere you can. You do not have to crew only with those who are sailing your type of boat. Crewing in general will give you a feel for racing, and allow you to learn the rules typical for all races. And finally, if your boat class permits and generally uses spinnakers, consider equipping your boat with one. Although some sailboat classes run spinnaker and nonspinnaker fleets, spinnaker handling and use is a common skill needed for most racing.


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