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Bella Mente and Nikata fight for the start of the RORC 600. Photo by Tim Wright
Apr 17, 2019

Why An Ocean Race Should Be On Every Sailor’s Bucket List

Unlike tennis, golf or horse racing, ocean racing is the one sport where professionals and amateurs play on the same course. Here are three ways to try it out.

We have been sailing hard for 24 hours, pounding into 6-foot seas. The 15 strangers aboard Challenger, a 60-foot ocean racer, are simultaneously tired and transfixed. Tired, because we have been keeping watches (sleeping and working in alternating three-hour shifts) and because the boat’s relentless crashing and shaking makes keeping one’s balance nearly impossible. Transfixed because, after a full day at sea, pushing to go fast, we have all absorbed our new reality: We are on a very big sea, aboard a small boat. Everything is different. We look at our captain, Chris Stanmore-Major to discern what he is thinking, trying to anticipate his next command.

Antigua is host to one of the great ocean races, the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) Caribbean 600. This was its 11th edition of the around-11-Caribbean islands, 600-mile course. The fastest boats finish in under two days, the slowest in four.

The RORC 600 starts and ends in Antigua, making it unusual as most ocean races, such as the Pineapple Cup, start in one place (Miami) and finish in another (Montego Bay).

Ocean racing, as opposed to racing around a bay, is growing in popularity. There are scores of races to participate in from Australia (Sydney to Hobart) to the Northeast (Marblehead, Mass., to Halifax, Nova Scotia). According to master yacht racer Tony Rey of Cloud 10 Racing, who did the 600 aboard Sorceress,“Sailors want new experiences rather than more material things. They want to challenge their navigational skills and stamina. Ocean racing is a thrill.”  

Most newcomers to ocean racing have been day sailors and coastal cruisers. It is rare, but not unheard of, for someone with no sailing experience to challenge themselves offshore. How to experience the excitement of an ocean race? There are three ways.

RACE YOUR OWN BOAT

This entails a lot of effort and great expense. The largest owner-sailed boats, like the 72-footers Proteus and Sorcha, have 18-plus professional crewmembers who take the boat from race to race. Behind them are logistics and support crews—and large shipping containers. An ocean racing campaign of, say, six events will run about $5 million a year.

CHARTER A BOAT

This is the way yacht clubs and national sailing organizations do it. The RORC 600 had, for example, Sailing Poland. They chartered a Volvo 65. Sometimes one individual will charter the whole boat and invite several friends. Often, they will add paid professionals who know the boat inside and out to the crew. Key jobs, like navigator or bowman, are filled this way. That lessens the stress of getting on a new boat and heading offshore. Costs for this vary with the type of boat and the number of crew. A 40-foot cruiser can be $15,000, and a race boat with some pro crew can be closer to $70,000.

JOIN A TEAM

The Challenger at the RORC 600. Photo by Melodie Schaffer

The last way is referred to as “pay to play.” Several captained boats sell berths. You just walk on and walk off. “There is no financial responsibility for the boat or the crew and everything is taken care of,” says Sytske du Crocq, head of Sail Race Crew. Her company acts as an advisor/broker placing individuals or groups on regatta yachts. Her job is to pair individuals and their skills and needs with the right boat and captain. “My goal is to get the best experience for the sailor by having them and the captain clearly understand their expectations for the race. Every captain and program are different. The best experiences come from knowing beforehand what to expect.” Costs vary but are in the $3,000 to $7,000 per person range.

I used Sail Race Crew for this year’s RORC 600. Du Crocq placed me aboard Challenger, which was designed and built to race around the world with a pro crew of 12. Challenger is now owned by our captain, Chris Stanmore-Major, a sailor who has logged over 300,000 nautical miles and soloed around the world. He formed Spartan Ocean Racing to bring his expertise to those who want to learn how to do it. As he put it, “Crew reaction is how I judge success. They should learn something about offshore work and have the tenacity to stretch their sailing skills.”

Those of us on Challenger did so. In a few days of instruction and training, Stanmore-Major whipped us into a crew that could sail safely and competitively. We worked together to change direction, make sail changes, rehearse lifesaving actions and look out for each other. There were a few family and friend units but several, like me, were strangers to everyone.

It’s useful to have sailing skills. At one point during the race when Stanmore-Major requested “Starboard running backstay on please,” a familiarity with nautical terms helped. That said, “I often take people who have never sailed before,” he says. “I always put safety first so no one is asked to do anything they cannot do properly.” Overall, he has a 45 percent return rate.

The Challenger team. Photo by Melodie Schaffer

Sailing nonstop in the open ocean for three days is an unforgettable experience. Waking up on a speeding boat, as it meets wave after wave, while sailing past a volcanic island, is not your usual day. Talking, eating and dressing in the presence of 15 people, in a boat the size of a very small room is not anyone’s normal. If you’re fussy about using a communal toilet, stay home.

Yet everyone on Challenger had a thrilling experience. We were a diverse group—Germans, Canadians and Americans; men and women aged 18 to 70; doctors, naval architects and sky divers. Our one unifying element? A love of sailing and the desire for a challenge.

Interested in joining a race? Here are five charter companies to consider.

  1. Cloud 10 Racing: This bespoke racing charter operator offers ultra-high end full-boat charters. cloud10racing.com
  2. Sail Race Crew: This company, which I used for the RORC 600, acts like a charter agent. They don’t own the boats, but they match you with the appropriate race boat. sailracecrew.com
  3. LV Yachting: This company, helmed by Lucy Jones, acts as an agent and can set up charters in regattas worldwide. It charters full boats only. lvyachting.com
  4. Performance Yacht Racing: One of the most established charter firms, they have great captains and boats that participate in regattas around the world. PYR offers individual slots and full boats. performanceyachtracing.com
  5. OnDeck Sailing: This company specializes in individual slots for Caribbean regattas. ondecksailing.com

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