New sailing course: How to Race Offshore

September 29, 2012 § 3 Comments

New sailing course: How to Race Offshore

I’ve proposed and am working on a new course for the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center (MCSC). It will be one of the winter classes in 2012/13, debuting in early March (approximately). Check back here for schedule information, and if you have ideas, things you’d like to hear, or want the presentation file (when it is available), email me at

Here is the abstract:

How to Race Offshore
Entering and competing in a serious offshore race like the Queen’s Cup, Hook or Mac Race, is not for the faint of heart. It’s a serious commitment of time and money, demanding thoughtful planning, rigorous attention to detail and safety, and a multifaceted strategy that considers weather, competitors and the strengths and weaknesses of the boat and its team.
This new course is designed to help you decide if you want to pursue offshore racing, what to expect if you do, how to set realistic goals, and how to give you and your team the best chance of doing well while having fun and staying safe.
We will touch on many of the key offshore subjects: team selection, boat preparations, provisioning, navigation, watches, roles and responsibilities, nutrition and hydration, safety racing strategies and tactics, weather routing, and preparing for and handling emergencies.

Presentation files from other courses that I teach as an MCSC volunteer are linked below. Feel free to download, use and share them as you see fit. And if you have edits or corrections, please let me know.

Sailing with other people’s kids

September 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

First published in the September 2012 issue of Spinsheet Magazine

Spinsheet - Dan Phelps, family sailing, kids and sailing, saving sailing

Image courtesy: Spinsheet, credit Dan Phelps.

It was two in the morning, blowing at least twenty-five knots, when a huge breaking wave hit us on our starboard stern and threw the boat sideways. The boom buried and we were knocked flat in a full broach. Tim was seated aft on the port side and slid underneath the lifelines feet first. He was shoulder deep in the water hanging on to a winch with one arm. Someone blew the guy and the kite ran free. As it collapsed, the boat recovered and in a flash, Tim used the upward momentum to one-arm his way back on deck. A few minutes later we had the kite wrestled aboard, and we went with a smaller headsail.

An ashen-faced Tim, a kid that we’d picked up earlier in the season from the club junior program, leaned over and pleaded, “Don’t tell my mom.”

Earlier that day, a modest broad reach had gradually built to a playful 10-knot surf, and then, at about midnight, a full blown, nuking, bare-knuckle run made more tempestuous by an 9-foot following sea. Syrena’s bow would nudge down and briefly hesitate as her stern lifted on the leading edge of a breaker, and she’d launch and careen down the face of the wave sending spray to the height of the first spreaders on both sides, sometimes for many minutes. Each surf broke another speed record. We consistently saw mid-teens, and we peaked near 20-knots on one wet slalom. This was what our B-32, a little ULDB (Ultra Light Displacement Boat), was designed to do.

We were racing hard, but we had both eyes on safety. As the wind piped up, we made certain that every person was wearing full weather gear, a PFD, a light and whistle, a harness, and we were all tethered to jack-lines. We were de-powered, running with our chicken-chute strapped down, and the boat loved it, like an unleashed puppy, until the roque wave took us down.

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Hooked for life

July 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

Originally published on, July 2012


There will be a thousand sailing stories told about this year’s Mac and Hook races. Undoubtedly, most will be about the pain and suffering of sitting and spinning in the large windless holes that spotted the lake on day two. And someone will probably declare that lives were saved by ruling out J-30s (among a few other seaworthy keelboats) from one of the races. The other race, I’m sure, is pleased to have them.

But the biggest story, in my view, mustn’t go unnoticed, and it is that the overall winners of the 2012 Hook Race were a father and son team double-handing their mid-70s era Peterson 34 to the best corrected time in any division. Stu and Sam Keys, of Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin, are the supreme, albeit unexpected, champs. The ultimate Hookers. No matter that this year’s fleet was the most competitive in years, featuring Art Mitchel’s Golden Goose (Farr 36 OD) with a 6 second/mile scratch boat handicap, no less than four overall winners in the fleet, and at least two 2-time overall winners in division one, Rick Trisco’s Tango in Blue and my own Syrena.

It would be easy to assume that conditions might have favored the Keys’ boat Thunder, but that would be a large mistake. « Read the rest of this entry »

This Sailing Vacation, We Spent Nothing (Except Time Together)

October 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

First published in SpinSheet Magazine – October 2010

The aft births are dark, damp, deep caves inducing claustrophobia in most adults and where the smell of musty closed-cell foam and unwashed feet lingers, and wetbags double as pillows. But the kids like them. Kate climbed out of her’s, wiped the leftovers of vivid dreams from her squinting eyes, smiled lazily into the morning sun and wondered aloud what the day would bring.

We’d sailed and settled into Nicolet Bay the day before, our first stop on the way home from the 2010 Hook Race, a 200 mile offshore sailing race that starts in Racine Wisconsin, and ends on the western shore of Green Bay at the intersection of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the twin small towns of Menominee-Marinette. Fifteen miles across Green Bay, tiny Nicolet Bay is a natural harbor on the east shore, on the coast of Door County in Wisconsin, offering a sheltered anchorage when the wind is from about West to Northeast. If you’re lucky, as we were that day and night, to find a holding anchor, swinging room and a favorable forecast, the summer breeze delivers larger gifts: the smell of campfires and conifers and the sounds of singing and playing in the forested state park that surrounds the bay.

I had Kate’s answer, hooting, then diving from the cabin top into cool, clean, clear, fresh Lake Michigan water and coming to the surface with a refreshed and happy groan. She and her sister Elizabeth, just out of her own dark bunk, scrambled into suits and jumped in the lake too, and the day began with another gift from Nicolet Bay: an hour-long pre-breakfast family swim, leaving our limbs limber, our hair soft and clean, our lungs, hearts and minds awake, and the sense that all the world was smiling on us.

A night at anchor in Nicolet Bay is a rare treat, like flat clean lake ice for ice-boating in a Wisconsin winter, requiring confluence. Some years, indeed often many years in a row, it just doesn’t work out. My wife and I must work hard enough in our jobs to be able to take the time off to race. The family must select sailing over other more pressing or fun things that it might do in the summer. The race must finish at the right time. We must take a couple of extra days off of work to make a lazier return trip, and we must luck into a day, like this one was, where nature cooperates.

This is one of the central lessons of sailing and one of its prime attractions: you just don’t know what you’re going to get. You might not get what you hoped for, for long periods of time. You might have to wait. You might have to adjust your expectations. You might have to try again. Most of the essential variables are out of your control. But when it comes together, it can be stunning in its beauty and power: graceful, organic, complete and, dare I say, spiritual.

On one hand, it’s the ideological antonym of the phrase “instant gratification”. These rare memorable moments can’t happen without patience, confidence, trust, hard work and the cooperation of many. They directly oppose the X-Box, cable news, and the all-inclusive theme-park. On the other hand, we can also find an ideological link to the time-honored practice of “living in the moment” and rewards not unlike those that might come from centering through prayer or meditation. You find yourself free of distraction and complication and in balance with the world. It’s like you’ve discovered something brand new.

But there is another notable and very important benefit: you are there with people you love, and they feel the same way.

In our minds, these moments of common joy and circumstance overwrite the trivial, and stand out as the most important in life. These are the formative events.

When you hear people sharing these stories, it is clear that they’re talking of the best times, and the best people they’ve known.

And note something else: they’re not talking about something they purchased with cash or credit. Indeed, they’re telling you about something that they made… that they created… that they waited for, and then seized upon by their own volition… by investing time and trying again and again as a team and by trusting.

That’s why I believe we should Save Sailing. There are few such ideal formats for making meaningful memories and in doing so, feeding our souls and strengthening our families and our collective spirit.

I must report that when I talk about these things and hear a knee-jerk response to my book, I’m often told that I’m suggesting a cultural change: something too big and too hard for families to do on their own. Something that takes too long. I’m told we have to transform sailing into something we consume in small easy bites since nobody is willing to wait anymore. After all, we’re all American Consumers, right? That’s all we know how to do.

After a cup of hot cocoa, an apple and some home-made coffee cake, the girls leapt back into the water. We had borrowed and were towing an inflatable dinghy, and they turned it upside down, transforming it into a diving platform. They shrieked and splashed and paused to float and chat in between cannon-balls.

My wife touched my shoulder and said, “This feels a lot like last time. Last time was seven years ago. We shouldn’t let so much time pass in between visits.”

I’m not proposing a cultural change. I’m proposing that our individual choices — the ways we elect to spend our time on earth — are what determine our culture. Culture doesn’t change from the top down, it is created from the bottom up, when people make choices like spending time together on sailboats, and with enough commitment and frequency to luck into magical places and times like Nicolet Bay in the morning.

Choose sailing.

If you or your club are interested in sharing ideas, feel free to email me at

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