12 Tips for Keeping the Peace as a Racing Couple

Racing Couples: 12 Tips for Peaceful Sailboat Racing Together

Back in May, we interviewed four racing couples for SpinSheet Happy Hour on Facebook Live and asked them about the challenges and joys of racing as a couple. Among our guests were Ashley Love and Mike MacNamara, who sail a Tartan 10 in Baltimore and Annapolis, a J/70 around the country, and other small boats; Linsley and Bill Carruth who race J/105 in Annapolis; Joe and Morgan Donahue, who race a J/30 in Annapolis; and Lis Biondi and Neil Ford, who race a Melges 24 out of Hampton, VA.

In a lively and sometimes funny conversation, the couples revealed their onboard strengths and weaknesses and told some salty stories. Two of the couples—Love/MacNamara and Biondi/Ford—shared that they were both fiercely competitive. The Donahues have a disparity of experiences (Morgan says she’s still “green” as a racer), so it requires thoughtfulness to balance competitiveness with skill-building and staying safe. The Carruths shared their top secret for keeping the peace by doing 720s, even on land.

Although it was a casual conversation, there were nuggets of wisdom in there for couples new to racing or perhaps trying to rekindle their racing love. Here are a dozen takeaways:

1. Talk about your expectations beforehand. What do you want to get out of the regatta? You want to win, or do pretty well and have fun? This is especially important if you’re both competitive. Love says, “If one of you is a competitive racer and one’s a cruiser, maybe you don’t race together. If it’s forced, it’s not going to be too much fun.”

2. Set your expectations to meet experience levels. This applies to couples with differing levels of sailing experience, but it also applies to your crew. Joe Donahue says, “When you’re putting someone in an unfamiliar situation and you’re competitive, you’re going to have stress. It’s more interesting when you have new people on the boat, but you have to set expectations that fit experience levels.”

3. Talk about maneuvers before you do them. When it comes to anything from throwing off docklines and getting out of slip to race starts and mark roundings. When the race is over, ask questions after the fact too. For example, “Can you explain to me why you tacked at that moment?”

Neil Ford at the helm of Danger Paws, with Lis Biondi in the blue hat, at the start of the Down the Bay Race sailed from Annapolis to Hampton. Photo by SpinSheet

4. Assign roles in advance of every race until you establish a rhythm. Couples tend to fall into patterns of who does what from race preparation to onboard strategy or who drives or acts as tactician. This can be difficult when you both enjoy driving (such as Love and MacNamara). When you switch positions, you may find that the challenges differ, so each time make it clear what each crew member’s role is.

5. Debrief with your crew and each other. When things go well on the racecourse, talk about what you did right as a team. You need to do so when they go wrong as well. “As a couple,” Love says, “have a debrief with your crew, but then later do your own debrief together.”

6. Don’t yell. You can have disagreements, but don’t yell, even in stressful situations. Things happen—sails rip, sails go up the wrong way or get stuck, the wind wildly shifts, your tactician heads you toward the wrong mark, or as Bill Carruth says, “You will run aground. It’s your fault.” No need to stress out others by yelling.

7. Invite great crew to join you. They may not act as marriage counselors, but they can be allies to your union. Linsley Carruth says that there are four people sailing between her on the bow and Bill at the helm. “They keep us married,” she jokes. When she spouts four-letter words, her crew translates them to her husband: “Linsley says she loves you.”

Keeping your sense of humor is essential to sailboat racing with your partner. Photo by Ted Morgan

8. Appoint someone as weather-watcher. Biondi and Ford said that their most stressful moment on a sailboat involved choosing a bad weather window. Especially on a Melges, when you can’t exactly reef when it blows, it’s important to know what’s coming. Biondi watches the weather carefully and recommends that you appoint someone to do so.

9. Keep your sense of humor. If at the end of the day you’ve stayed safe, even a “disaster” can end up as a funny story. Remember that you’re sailing for the love of it and to spend time with friends and family. It’s okay to be competitive (and more fun when you do well), but don’t forget it is supposed to be fun. On the Donahues’ boat, the motto is “We’re not out here to earn a scholarship.”

10. You have to be ready to forgive right away. Bill Carruth says, “On the boat and on land, we can exonerate ourselves by doing a 720.” He even got out of the car to do it in traffic one time, and his wife still giggles remembering it. 

11. Don’t get hangry. Snack up beforehand. If you ever sail with MacNamara, bring extra snacks or look out.

12. You’re better together. Neil Ford says, “I’m not interested in racing without Lis on the boat.” Lis says, “It’s our thing; it’s something we love to do, and every time we go out there is a great time.”

Find more about sailing couples here.