On any given day when the sun’s out, you’re guaranteed to see at least a handful of sailboats out on the water. For most of us, the idea of sailing on a boat is about on par with going for a drive in a Ferrari; it sounds like fun and it’s not impossible, but it’s not super likely either. But lucky for you, you live in Tacoma and Jeremy Bush, Rear Commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club, wants to get your ass on a boat.
Every Wednesday evening from early April through the end of August as many as 50 sailboats gather near the Brown’s Point Marina to race around a course set up in Commencement Bay. It’s known as Windseeker Racing and it’s a lot easier to be a part of than you might think.
The first iteration of Windseeker was “informal at best.” A lot of long-time sailors in Tacoma still see Windseeker as a rowdy bunch of amateurs. And that’s kind of what it was like back in the day. It’s been said that racers who couldn’t follow the course would just follow the floating beer cans from the lead boats. Eventually, though, insurance companies got tired of everyone smashing into each other (it’s really difficult to prove who is at fault in a boating collision) and the whole thing got shut down.
The Corinthian Yacht Club of Tacoma (CYCT) took over, got everything organized, obtained the right permits to keep the Coast Guard happy, and got the race going again. The main goal of just having a good time remained, though, and today it’s one of the best ways you can find to experience real sailing.
Pretty much every pop culture reference in the last 100 years has led us to believe that sailing and yacht clubs are reserved for the wealthy upper crust of society. This may be so in other places but not here in Tacoma. Windseeker racers embody the ideals of “built not bought” much more than showing off the flashy new hotness. A few of the boats now racing were barely floating when they were bought super cheap and brought back to life through months and years of hard work. Some CYCT members co-own boats to defer costs.
“This is kind of the entry level to racing. Old boats that have really crappy sails that you gotta put a lot of work into, and they’re a pain in the ass to sail. It’d be great to have more people like us out there.” Jeremy says with a laugh.
For those without boats, getting involved is as easy as showing up. If you like the idea of sailing but you have no idea where to start, go to a skipper’s meeting at the yacht club and they’ll put you on a boat. “The first couple times you go out you’re what’s called rail meat,” Jeremy says.
The job of an unskilled beginner is to sit on whatever edge of the boat is highest to weigh it down and try not to get in anyone’s way. Every few minutes you have to scramble from one side to the other as the boat winds its way across the course, leaning heavily with the wind. If you’re paying attention to what everyone else is doing, you’ll have opportunities to move up from there and work on different parts of the boat.
Over the first year, they got over 100 people out on boats. The two big things Jeremy is looking for now are dedicated crewmembers and more boats to race with. That may seem like an easy task to fulfill in a city with at least half a dozen marinas but there are a surprising number of boats that do little more than take up space on the docks. It’s also hard to get crewmembers to show up more than a couple times.
Proper sailing is a very different experience than being out on a motorboat. First of all, you don’t hear anything but the wind, the water, and the captain shouting orders to the crew. There aren’t any exhaust fumes or loud engines to get in the way and you get to see the city from a whole new perspective.
There are a ton of ropes criss-crossing the deck, going through pulleys and cranks, different sails that need to go up or down at precise times, and everything has different names than you’d instinctively use on land. It can be intimidating at first, especially in a race when everything is happening quickly, but it’s absolutely worth it for how fun the whole thing is.
Here’s the basic rundown of a race:
Boats start to gather around the starting line around 6:30 PM. There are different classes to race in, depending on skill level, and they start at different times, usually at 7:00 and 7:05. The more experienced boats start first and work on a handicap system which rates each boat based on its individual characteristics. This evens things out so it’s really a competition between crews, rather than who happens to have a fancier boat.
The less experienced sailors race in the Windseeker class: no rating, no judgement. As Jeremy puts it, “Show up with what you’ve got, put your sails up, and go around the course.” For beginners, you basically start at the back of the pack and, depending on how you do in the race, they might bump you up to another class. If you’re not sure where you belong, you can always just come and watch or crew on another boat and feel it out.
The start of a race looks a little chaotic as boats sail around and try to cross the starting line as close to the horn as possible. This is somewhat more complex when you’re relying on wind power instead of just hitting the throttle.
What follows is the most exciting jogging-pace race you’ll ever be a part of. Jeremy’s boat, Asylum, maxes out around 7 knots. He once got caught in a gale and it kicked up to 11 knots. This is equivalent to about 8-12 MPH. When you’re on a boat, though, it feels a hell of a lot faster.
Believe it or not, sailing into the wind is actually the fastest part of the race. It’s even more exciting because of the way sailboats accomplish this. If you imagine the wind as a straight line, sailboats would follow a zigzag pattern back and forth across this line. How far each boat zigs before it zags again is up to the captain and how fast the crew can work. With the entire group of boats sailing along the same course, this leads to a lot of close passes with other boats. It also leads to some close calls with cargo ships whose lanes often cross through race courses.
Once the boats round a designated buoy, they throw up the spinnaker, catch the wind like a parachute, and sail straight back to the starting line. Courses are different every time and typically last an hour or two, depending on how much daylight there is.
The main point of all this is really just to have fun. There aren’t any trophies at the end of the race and no one gets butt hurt if a crewmember screws something up. After the race, Jeremy and his crew sail back to the marina in the Foss Waterway and hang out. They have a little grill mounted to the railing for making salmon burgers and there’s always a well stocked cooler of beer.
So if you think you’ve got what it takes, or you’re at least stubborn enough to keep at it until you find what it takes, Jeremy wants to hear from you. All you need to do is sign up, RSVP for a specific race, and a skipper will call you with the details. If you’re really into it and you want to hit the ground running you can take a sailing course with the Mountaineers Club (2019 classes have already passed but it’s not required for racing).
And you’ve got a boat that’s just floating there looking pretty (or ugly), why not have some fun with it? If you need a crew, they can get you a crew. If you’re not comfortable racing it, these are the people who can help you out. One way or another, it would be foolish not to take advantage of this unique opportunity.