Veteran racer, sailor and Susan Hood participant Graham Hicks provides advice on preparing for the Susan Hood Race.

Ah the Susan Hood Race, a staple in the sailing community that really gets the ball rolling for regatta season. Every year we have so many people come in who ask us about the race, what it's like, what they'll need, what to expect, etc... 

So with this in mind, I thought it might be a good idea to write a blog post covering some of these questions and what it's like from the perspective of someone who's actually completed the race (let's be honest, my non-sailing opinion/advice only goes so far).

Enter Graham Hicks (see picture right, red shirt & blue jacket). A sailor all his life with years of experience. A business professional by day but sailor at heart, he has logged many hours out on the water, both in salt and fresh water, and has many regatta's under his belt (BVI race week and Key West to name a few). Although born in Canada, he grew up on the water in Florida meant he cruised with the family on an Alberg 30 and Gulfstar 41 (in the Bahamas too!) while completing CYA learn to sail courses and racing Lasers on a regular basis. I guess that's what happens when you grow up with sailboats, 2 of them being Lasers, and living on the water!

He gained his racing experience by crewing on keelboats like Morgan 34 and Ericsson 39 and participating in multiple overnight races - such as Fort Meyers to Everglades City. By the time he reached the end of high school, sailing was in his blood and there to stay. Not to mention experience to last him a lifetime. 

He returned to Canada for grade 12 and quickly became engrossed with the racing scene in Toronto. Like many sailors, he got involved in the sail making world and worked 4 summers at Hood Sailmakers while primarily racing C&C 34s, which included two Queen's Cup victories. Not too shabby. As if that wasn't enough, in the late 1980's, he went on to crew on One Ton and Steadfast II, which also included a Canada's Cup campaign in 1988 on a Farr 39. 

Graham (first on the right) and crew of Steadfast II.

Then a 10 year hiatus happened thanks to the arrival of two sons Adam & Jonathan, (kids, right?). But he eventually jumped back into racing and found his spot in the J105 class, crewing on various J105s, like Planet B. This class seems to have been a good fit as he's logged 2 North American Championships, 2 overall fleet wins, and 2 Canadian Championships in the class. Currently he's still sailing out of RCYC with Terry McLaughlin on his J105 Mandate

Accomplishments aside, he is one of thee most humble people I have ever met who genuinely enjoys being out on the water and the sport of sailing itself; which is evident whenever he is chatting about sailing. I mean come on, no one should look that happy, and comfortable, that high up on a mast.

Oh yeah...and he's sailed the Susan Hood over 5 times since his early 20's, with his first go round on a C&C 34.

Safe to say, his experience and advice is nothing to sneeze at. 

While interviewing Graham about the Susan Hood I realized a couple of things: it's one of those "grumble and go" races that everyone does but doesn't necessarily look forward to doing. With that said and the conditions being what they usually are (a.k.a cold, wet, damp and rainy), I have a whole lot of respect for those who complete it. 

Being prepared, both sailor and boat, is half the battle, it seems, for the Susan Hood. Graham says mental preparation is half the battle when preparing for the race, advising "go in well rested, know you'll get very little rest." Well then, glad I'm not racing...I get cranky without sleep. 

The other half of the prep goes into the boat itself, which needs quite a bit of time. Most boats require a lot of extra gear, especially safety gear. This aspect Graham says can take longer than you think so go through requirements and regulations well before the race - not the day before. In addition to the 18 page event documentation, every boat needs to be  Man Overboard Certified. Graham explains it's not just knowing how to do the procedure "but have the certificate filled out with everyone's signature's" so should you get spot checked, you'll have it ready to show. 

What makes the Susan Hood different, and a bit more stressful (let's be honest), is the amount of new gear that is required, per the  regulations, for the race. Graham explains "many boats will require a significant addition of new equipment." On board Mandate, any new gear acquired for the race gets written down and a list is made; specific crew members are responsible for certain pieces. The list is placed down below in a spot where everyone can see it. (See, lists are your friends, people!). This way if crew have questions or want to know where something is, they just ask whoever was is in charge of said piece of equipment. 

Essentially, a "divide and conquer style" which helped greatly with organization and being prepared. I have to admit, I was impressed listening to him describe how the Mandate crew got organized and prepared for the race; which he largely credit's to the crew's skipper Terry and his leadership style. 

With that it made me wonder why the heck do people do this race? What's so likeable, and not so likeable, about it? Especially if you're awake for almost 24 hours straight? Why did people do it again every year? Graham explains the "class rules say it's a qualifier so you have to do it....but there's also bragging rights." Who doesn't love those? (Be honest). Explaining further, Graham noted "it's miserable going through it, but there's satisfaction in finishing it, especially if you do well." I can understand that - the sense of accomplishment and reward...and so can Graham.  Mandate was the overall Susan Hood winner in 2013. His dislike of the race though? The dreaded early hours from 1-4am, which are the coldest, dampest and "when you're getting a little tired, losing concentration but that's when it can really pay off, if you have someone who's awake." If you're that person who's awake, I applaud you. 

Now lets get to my favourite part - the gear. Graham recommends always having foul weather gear on you and that having good gear can make the race more enjoyable since "it can get downright cold." Fogh has expanded their selection of  foul weather gear for both men and women this season to include lots of options from Helly Hansen, Gill and Musto. An outer shell like the OS22 from Gill (available in mens' and womens'), the BR1 Coastal Jacket from Musto paired with the MPX trousers or the Keelboat Racer Trousers or even the OS22 Trousers from Gill, are just a couple of options to keep you dry and warm (hallelujah) this season and during the race. 

Musto BR2 Coastal JacketNow let me just jump in here for a second, as clothing and I just go together like peanut butter and jelly. I won't go through the whole layering system as most of you know it and I think I've hammered that point home in a lot of my other posts. What I will say is that you should go through your gear well in advance of the race so you can see what you have and what you need. Thus allowing for lots of time to come into Fogh and see all your options (without panicking or increased stress!). Also good to have, "multiple fleece layers, long johns, even gloves and a watch cap" says Graham but also adds, and re-enforces, that whatever gear you wear should be wrapped under a good set of foul weather gear. 

Besides foul weather gear, he highly recommends, hands down, that "a good pair of boots is a must" like the  Dubarry Ultima's which he wore last year. My tip? If you're on bow or spend a lot of time crouching around on the boat, the Newport boot from Dubarry might be a better option for you because the toe protector will protect the tip of your boots against the non-skid on the deck as you crawl around. Let me remind you that when you're feet are cold and miserable so are you. Therefore investing in a good pair of boots that will last you for years and years is not a bad idea; especially if you're going to be spending hours on end in the them. Need more convincing? See here.

Navisafe Head Lamp

Another must have item, which I have to admit I'd never thought of, are head lamps/lights. These, Graham says, are helpful for when certain operations require both hands to be free. He does caution to "just be careful where you point it" as no one wants to have bright lights pointed in their eyes in the middle of the night. A wool hat,  neoprene gloves and a multi-tool are also good pieces to have. Every crew member must also have a harness and safety line (tether) plus a lifejacket, as per race regulations. All these items are available at Fogh Marine in a multitude of different styles, models and sizes. 

During the actual race, Graham suggests having a second GPS on board that is also prepared with the various legs; with someone who is trained on its use (if it's not similar to the primary one). Also good to have? Someone who is familiar with the chart and numerous landmarks. Additionally, he recommends flashlights for sail trimming, which should be mounted with easy adjustment for tell tails and the Windex. Why? Because having continuous light on them allows for better steering and trimming. He also says that it's a good idea to "stay up to date with the weather predictions and wind trends." Most of the crew use their smartphones for weather updates and sailing specific apps. With all these power sucking devices on boat, makes sure to have extra batteries (lots of them). 

With all this said, remember to have fun and enjoy yourselves. These are the times that make the stories that you tell your kids, grandkids and friends over and over again for years to come. 

And the best way to recover? Graham says "Sleep....but first the rum."

Graham post-racing at the 2013 J105 Autumn Regatta at RCYC.

For all event documentation for the 2015 Susan Hood race, see  here

Pictures are courtesy of Graham Hicks and from the J105 Lake Ontario Class Association Website.

Tags: Susan Hood, Susan Hood Prep, Overnight racing prep, regatta prep, Leatherman, Foul Weather Gear, Gill, Musto, Dubarry, Dubarry of Ireland, Susan Hood Race, Port Credit Yacht Club, J105 Canada, J105, Mandate, J105 Mandate, RCYC

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