Off Watch: A Cruising Sailor Joins the Race

Spending time aboard racing sailboats can make cruising better. Plus, racing is just plain fun.
Sailboat from Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Saint Petersburg, Florida, February 2022.
The Beneteau 40 Liquid Time holds her course in the North Sails Rally Race off St. Petersburg, Florida. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Yes, of course, Cruising World is a magazine dedicated to the glorious pastime of cruising. But, from time to time, it’s worthwhile to examine this basic truism: Racing sailboats will make you a better cruising sailor. Tacking and jibing at full speed, paying extra attention to windshifts and currents, trimming sails to get every last tenth of a knot of performance from them—these are all things you can apply to cruising that will make your life on the water a little more fulfilling. 

And there’s another, perhaps even greater, benefit as well. With the right crew on a sweet boat on a beautiful day, racing is also just a ton of fun.

This, I discovered, yet again, on a lovely Saturday in February when my colleagues at sister magazine Sailing World wrangled me aboard the Beneteau 40 Liquid Time for the North Sails Rally Race during the St. Petersburg, Florida, stop on the nationwide tour of six events that comprise the Helly Hansen Sailing World 2022 Regatta series. The 40-foot racer/cruiser is owned by a trio of pals who sail out of nearby Davis Islands: Pemmy and Ed Roarke, who set and trim the sails, and champion Sunfish sailor Gail Haeusler, whom I’d soon witness was one heck of a helmswoman. 

The name has two origins: Liquid Time is the title of a favorite tune by the progressive rock band Phish, with these appropriate opening lyrics: “The sea is so wide, and the boat is so small.” The name is also a running joke with the tight, nine-person crew, one of whom always pops the same question before a race: “What time is it?” To which the collective answer is, well, always the same: “Liquid Time!” It’s a joke that never gets old. 

My time on Liquid ­unfolded over a 20-mile course in a shifty northerly breeze around government marks on busy Tampa Bay, with plenty of visual treats to spice up the proceedings: the ever-­expanding St. Pete skyline; the weird, lopsided arena known as Tropicana Field, home to baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays; and the distinctive Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which replaced an earlier span that a freighter creamed in a 1980 storm. 

The starting line for our Racer/Cruiser division was a busy place, indeed; we shared it with a fleet of maniacs sailing light, twitchy L30 one-designs. Plus, unusually, it was a downwind start in about 8 knots of fluctuating wind, which meant a spinnaker set right off the bat. The Liquid team flowed through the maneuver like water running downhill (sorry). Haeusler timed it all perfectly. Off we went. 

It was pretty obvious right from the get-go that it was going to come down to a head-to-head match race with a Sarasota-based O’Day 40 called Mother Ocean, a name I assumed was borrowed from the opening line of Jimmy Buffett’s A Pirate Looks at Forty. (Also, what’s up with these Florida folks, their boat handles and their beloved recording artists?) 

In the early going, Mother was definitely a mutha, and we had a wonderful view of her transom as she assumed the lead. But all that changed when the kites were doused about two-thirds of the way through the race; the northerly ratcheted up to 14 knots, kicking up whitecaps as the skies cleared to reveal a spectacular sailing day. We hardened up for the closehauled beat back to the finish. Thanks in large part to Haeusler’s skilled driving, Liquid Time was both higher and faster, and before long, it was Mother Ocean in arrears. Which is how everything concluded, with Liquid Time the overall class winner. 

“We won that race in the second half,” said Ed Roarke, who then invoked another name, that of a recent Tampa Bay arrival—yet another cliched snowbird from New England—whose prowess has won over the local populace. “It was a Tom Brady special.”

The tunes came on, and, in the time-honored tradition of nearly all competitive sailing, the icy-cold beers were cracked and passed around. 

So, hey, what time was it again? 

Herb McCormick is a CW editor-at-large.