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Why Offshore Sailing Regattas May Be Your Perfect Adventure

Imagine being woken up by your alarm at 4am, crawling out of your sleeping bag, putting on layers of warm clothes, waterproof pants and jacket, a life jacket, and a head lamp, then climbing up onto deck and steering a fifty foot sailing yacht through the waves in absolute darkness, dozens or hundreds of miles away from land. Your only clues as to where you are, are your navigation instruments in front of you, and, if you’ve learned how to interpret them, the stars above you. Your job, as you’re on night watch for the next two hours with a buddy while everyone else is asleep, is to keep the yacht going in the right direction, watching out for obstacles (yes, in the pitch black), and listen to the radio traffic. At sunrise, your job will be done, and you’ll get to wake up the next watch, free to crawl back into your sleeping bag, or enjoy sunrise with a cup of coffee, leaving the responsibility of watch duty to the next watch.

Sounds like fun? Then offshore sailing, and maybe even offshore yacht racing, may be your perfect kind of adventure travel. Read on.

Sailing Yacht Navigation Instruments Panel
Navigational instruments at daylight

John F. Kennedy once explained to a group of racing sailors, “all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came.”

I think the quote is very fitting. Sailing is a beautiful sport. You’re on the water, battling with and against the elements. The moment you hoist the sails and the wind fills them, propelling you forward and allowing you to turn off the motor (if you have one!), is always special.

Sailing under Spinnaker at Sunset
That feeling when you’ve successfully hoisted the spinnaker sail and get to enjoy a beautiful sunset!

Offshore Sailing: In for the long haul

Offshore sailing is, as the name says, sailing off the shore, going far away from land. This typically means sailing overnight to go long distances. Here in the Mediterranean, we already consider it offshore sailing when we cross from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic islands, for example. But serious, “hardcore” offshore sailing can mean crossing oceans. Crossing the Atlantic, for example, can take anywhere between 9 and 21 days depending on your boat and where you cross (although the record is under 4 days!).

When you’re that far away from land, isn’t just a sport, but a true adventure. You’re far off the beaten track, and have to deal with whatever mother nature throws at you, with whatever you have on board. Zero wind? Gale force wind and high waves? Things breaking? Whatever challenge comes up, it’s up to the crew to solve them.

Offshore Sailing Adventure Cloudy Calm Sea
Close to zero wind, but a beautiful sunset

I particularly enjoy offshore sailing as in addition to the adventure it brings with it, it is also a complete escape and detox from everyday life. Nothing exists but the boat, the crew, and the sea around you with occasional visitors. This makes it easy to settle into life on board and adapt to a passage schedule, where everyone is assigned watch duty as the boat sails night and day.

My favourite place on a boat is the bow – that’s the front of the boat – where I can spend hours just feeling and watching the waves, feeling their natural rhythm and the way the boat moves along. I’m not the only one who seems to love that. Dolphins often join in, swimming along in front of the boat. It’s a beautiful show of nature that definitely beats any movie. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get to do some whale watching.

Sailing with Dolphins

Regatta sailing: Long distance boat racing

Racing in a sailing regatta just adds a little bit of fun to the mix: A competition element that makes the solitude at sea a bit social and pushes the crew to tweak the sails a million different ways to try to go a tiny bit faster. For me, I find it also helps keep me awake during night watches, as I entertain myself by tracking our competitors on the AIS (an automatic identification system for nearby boats) and figuring out who’s where, and how fast they’re going.

I sailed in the Ruta de la Sal from Barcelona to Ibiza last year, and despite being a beginner sailor, was able to find a team who took me in a showed me the ropes. We met up at the starting port the evening before the race and got to know each other over a glass of cava and dinner. At a skipper’s meeting, the race organisers explained the route (straight to Ibiza!), the rules, and the meteorological forecast (no wind…). Our skipper explained the rules of our boat in a casual team meeting, and after a night on board in port, we were off the next morning!

Sailing Regatta in Spain Ruta de la Sal
At the starting line of the Ruta de la Sal Offshore Sailing Regatta

The Ruta de la Sal is a fairly casual regatta, and while some boats take the racing very serious, most people join in just to have fun and race against friends, so the atmosphere was enjoyable and it seemed to be just as much about the social events as about the racing. In the particular edition I joined, the wind was so low that there were times during the night that our boat speed was virtually zero – we were just sitting in the water, in the middle of the Mediterranean, not moving. Yacht racing, my friends, teaches you patience as well. And when you’re on night watch for the first time, there’s nothing more nerve wracking than realising your boat speed is zero and you have a huge commercial ship coming at you at 18 knots (18 miles per hour, which for boats is reasonably fast), and you’re tiny and can’t move.

In the end, we didn’t make it to the finish line under sail. You see, we had an important calculation we regularly updated: We had a reservation at a beach restaurant for paella at 2pm for lunch on Saturday. At the point we were projected to no longer reach our destination on time under sail, we abandoned the regatta and turned on the motor. Even sailors have priorities. And yes, the paella was worth it.

Sailor food after the Regatta Paella
Seafood Paella! Worth the “shame” of abandoning the regatta and turning on the motors (as a catamaran, we had the luxury of having two). Due to the lack of wind, many boats did the same and ended up having to motor to Ibiza. We can’t control what nature throws at us!

Sailing boat on Sandy Beach in Ibiza
The view we enjoyed during our Paella lunch

Ibiza Town in Spain
Ibiza Town, the capital of this beautiful little island in the Baleares, off the Eastern coast of Spain in the Mediterranean. Absolutely worth a visit if you haven’t been yet! Try to go off season though, August gets a bit crazy. We were there in April and it was perfect.

Finding a sailing regatta & a boat to join

There are offshore sailing regattas all over the world. Perhaps the most famous one is the Volvo Ocean Race, which is currently racing around the globe. That’s reserved to pros and by invite only. But many smaller races have amateur sailors racing, and many even have a training category, where sailing schools and charter companies enter their boats and allow novices to join and give sailing a try.

You can either do a search for sailing schools in your area, and see what trips they offer, or pick a regatta you’re interested in, and take a look at yachts that are signed up & contact them. The Ruta de la Sal, for example, as well as all the ANAM regattas in Catalunya, have a training category, so you can easily see which boats belong to sailing schools and are therefore likely to take on new students for the experience. A quick Google search for the name of the skipper or the yacht will usually lead you to the school and the full details for the experience.

Most of the famous, big races are likely to attract a more competitive crowd, whereas smaller regattas are often more relaxed. There are also “rallies”, which are more about the social element and getting from A to B together and focus less on the racing aspect, or may not have a racing element at all.

Here are some regatta and rallies to look into:

Europe & Mediterranean:

Ruta de la Sal (Barcelona to Ibiza)
Middle Sea Race (From Malta around Sicily and back to Malta)
Fastnet Race (Cowes in Southern England to Fastnet Rock in Ireland, and back to Plymouth in England)


Sydney to Hobart Race

North America:

Newport Bermuda Race
Baja Ha Ha ( San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. Rally, no racing element)

Around the World:
Clipper Round the World (Liverpool to Liverpool, very competitive, boats are provided and spots are sold individually – at a rather high price)

World ARC (Rally, not very competitive. They also organise other rallies, like the very famous transatlantic “Atlantic Rally for Cruisers”, which I’m hoping to join some day soon! Get in touch if you have an open spot on your boat for that…)

Things to keep in mind before you go sailing

Whilst schools will usually tell you that no experience is necessary, I would recommend that you spend at least a few hours on a boat at sea (somewhere with waves!) before you sign up for a multi-day experience. Some people just get incredibly sea sick, and you absolutely don’t want to find out you’re one of those people an hour into a 3 day race. Either way though, do pack some sea sickness meds even if you don’t normally get sea sick near the coast – offshore may be different.

The Ruta de la Sal I joined had very calm conditions, but I’ve also been out at sea with two meter waves and thirty knot winds, and that’s a very different story, so you want to have an idea of what to expect. Also, ask for a tour of the inside of the boat. I often describe it to newbies as being like “camping at sea”. The luxury part is being at sea, which I consider a privilege. The boat, even if it’s a fancy catamaran (my weakness…), isn’t going to be the kind of luxury you’re used to on land, so it’s best to avoid surprises and go into this adventure knowing what to expect!

Do your research before joining a boat, especially if you’re joining a private boat rather than a school. Ideally, ask for recommendations, have a Skype chat with the skipper if possible, and always trust your instincts. You can also find boats via websites looking for crew, like Ocean Crew Link (specialises in offshore passage opportunities) or Find a Crew (for general crew opportunities, seems less regatta focused). If you’re a woman, I also recommend the Women Who Sail Facebook group both as a general resource and to find sailing opportunities.

Prefer to live vicariously through others?

The Volvo Ocean Race Youtube channel and Facebook page are great channels to get a taste of the extreme side of ocean sailing, watching seven teams of pro sailors race around the world on 65 foot yachts. Each team has their own on board reporter, and they do an amazing job at showing what life on board is like.

So, is offshore sailing – or even racing – for you?

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