One of the ways I've found to "pay" my way out onto the water to watch and report on some of the exciting sailing events on local waters has been to volunteer for race committee duty.
In the past 18 months or so I've been doing this, I've found some unexpected side benefits, a lot of useful knowledge and a fair amount of fun. In many very real ways, serving on race committees is helping to make me a better, smarter, more competitive sailor when I take part in a race as a competitor.
I've also learned new respect for the people who make it possible for the rest of us to race by volunteering to manage the competition.
It's pretty easy -- and sadly common -- to blame one's own poor performance in a race on the race committee. Although some race committees don't make doing well in competition very easy through their own mistakes of omission or commission, for the most part race management around here is pretty well done.
Considering that the officially recognized sailing season for racing sanctioned toward annual High Point standings by the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association stretches from April into November, the number of people out working on the water on their own time to make sure competitors have good, fair, and interesting races to sail is pretty staggering. They are responsible for dozens of events each month for boats ranging from the smallest dinghies to big offshore racing machines, and many of us aren't nearly appreciative enough of that commitment of time and effort, which lets us chase little pewter cups and titles.
Race management is hard work and involves a lot of different kinds of effort, from simple but strenuous anchor-yanking to the complexities of signaling, starting and scoring that sailors often take for granted as they maneuver at the line or work their way around the course.
The organization of an event before anyone even leaves the dock can be staggering, too, involving countless hours of time and effort, from working with scheduling committees to rounding up personnel and equipment and processing entry forms -- more than 300 of them for an event like the annual Governor's Cup Race, for example.
And then there are the judges and protest committees, whose expertise with the racing rules and appeals must prevail in the case of disputes or accidents.
Most area yacht clubs and sailing associations have standing pools of volunteers drawn from their memberships, including outstanding veteran leaders and capable, willing crews. This system produces a lot of fine race management.
The Severn Sailing Association is one local club that uses a different system to produce its committees. Each and every active member is required by the club's bylaws to put in at least two days of race committee duty each season.
There is a fairly substantial pool of highly qualified and experienced people among the club's members to serve as chairmen and senior race officers and to lead and guide the less-experienced in race management.
That's one important reason why SSA has a strong reputation for running good races and why the SSA pool doesn't seem to dry up or get stale, since new blood is being added all the time as the less-experienced gradually increase their knowledge and ability while working with the pros.
As a racer, I find the work on a race committee -- especially one of as high a caliber as those assembled for the Cadillac Columbus Cup or the recent J/24 East Coast Championships -- to be challenging, exciting and very instructive from many points of view.
Sitting in the weather mark boat with wind experts such as SSA's resident manager Ridge Gardner or Hugh Elliot, for example, is educational.
Watching them watch the wind velocity and direction and make awesomely accurate predictions of its often erratic behavior in order to decide where to set and whether or how far to move a mark has taught me a great deal about the bay's weather systems and patterns. That knowledge translates to more successful choices on the race course, based on my increased understanding of those systems and patterns.
The view from any mark boat especially also has allowed me to pick up tips on boat handling from those in the lead, since it's a lot easier to concentrate on what other sailors are doing and how they do it if you're not trying to keep your own boat fast at the same time.
And although I've been the time-keeper and signal-watcher on my own boat for a few years, having to call time and run the starting shapes for Chairman Steve Podlich in the East Coasts put me into a different kind of adrenalin-tense sweat than I usually get into as part of a racing crew in the starting melee.