Beers and boats

Racers aboard Evil Octopus, a J/24, use tried-and-true methods to prevent spillage while undergoing a maneuver during a beer-can race. Photo by Martha Blanchfield

By Martha Blanchfield
For Points East

Over the years, varieties of alcohol have factored large in the lives of maritime voyagers. In roles of service, it used to be that a sailor’s ration of alcohol equaled one gallon of beer; or it may have been a pint of wine or port. Caribbean crews were often portioned rum. In 1756, in order to prevent scurvy, British Navy regulations required the addition of small quantities of lemon or lime juice to that rum ration. Eventually the rum rations were diluted with water and became what was called “old grog.”

No matter the potion, mariners have long held beer in high esteem, not just as tonic, but also as a source of nutrition and calories. Beer was also often deemed a safer liquid to drink. Whereas water could harbor harmful microorganisms, beer would not. For naval seafarers, particularly those making lengthy ocean crossings, weak beer was a standard provision. In the 1808 “Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea,” “In case it should be found necessary to alter any of the foregoing particulars of provisions, and to issue other species as their substitutes, it is to be observed, that a pint of wine, or half a pint of rum, brandy, or other spirits, holds proportion to a gallon of beer.”

India pale ale: It’s been said that the India pale ale (IPA) is the sailor’s choice for beer. Prior to this brew’s existence, pale ales – such as those brewed by Englishman George Hodgson, of Bow Brewery on the Middlesex-Essex border – predominated the export trade to India. Just how did the IPA become a favorite, starting in the 18th century? Perhaps because IPAs were formulated by the seafarers themselves, who were bent on trying to find ways to increase brew longevity during transport between England and India.

India pale ale was developed in England around 1840 with addition of extra hops to help sustain freshness. IPAs from the Bow Brewery and other makers grew in popularity with East India Company traders. A yarn prevails that early IPAs were stronger than other beers of that era.

While formulated to survive the long voyages at sea, a porter-type beer was also being successfully shipped to both India and California. Porter is a dark beer developed in London using well-hopped base beers created using brown malt. According to Wikipedia, the name “porter” may come from its acclaim among street and river merchants and transporters.

Fast-forward to today, and beer recipes continue to evolve. For regional variety, compare East Coast to West Coast IPAs. East Coast breweries generally use spicier European hops and specialty malts, the Hopscotch Brick Oven & Tap Room blog (, out of Traverse City, Mich., tells us; eastern IPAs also tend to have a stronger malt presence. Hops are more prominent in West Coast brews.

Further breaking down the recipe, early in the new millennium “New England India pale ales” were concocted in Vermont. Marked by juicy, citrus and floral flavors and, at times, a cloudy look, these regionals have a less “piney/hoppy” taste than more typical IPAs.

Best beer for the buoys: No matter the brew, sailors remain devotees, so much so that entire sailboat racing series have been named for this refresher. As I set out to research this article, I learned early on that not every New Englander knew what I meant by “beer-can racing.” For some, a better handle was “buoy racing” or “the Wednesday night races.” This drove me to Wikipedia. For a laugh, here is their three-line definition:

“Beer-can races allow people to experience yacht racing in a more relaxed environment than that of a major offshore race. They typically offer races on short courses. Many restrict the use of spinnakers, trapeze harnesses, and the use of twin headsails.” Included in the Wikipedia entry is reference to a 2008 “Los Angeles Times” article about sailing in a Newport Beach (Southern California) beer-can event. It states that boats were stopped, and citations issued, by the Orange County sheriff to any crew exceeding the five-mph speed limit in the harbor.

Whether coined “weekday racing” or “beer-can racing,” almost every sailor agrees that beer is de-rigeur. Some say its consumption before crossing the finish line is fine. For others, drinking is verboten until safely back at the dock.

Drinking and driving: Robin is a 32-year member of the City Island Yacht Club, in Bronx, N.Y. He has an impressive number of sailing miles, logged both inland and offshore. When sticking close to home, he and peers are often found in western Long Island Sound waters. This 71-year old New Jersey Sicilian has a few stories to tell, and this one is a favorite: “So I buy this J/24 called Power Play, and I enter her in a beer-can PHRF race. I engage a respected local tactician so that, as skipper, I could focus on the helm, watch the shifts and “TackTick.” He says to me, as many tacticians will, ‘I only race for good dack beer.’”

Having not heard the term “dack,” I chalked it up to his New Jersey accent and thought it meant “dark.”

“Nope,” Robin says, “I think it just means high-priced expensive crafted beers.”

Robin, a caring skipper, goes to buy good “dack” beer. Out on the course later that day, he continues: “We are upwind and trying to get around the Big Tom red-lighted buoy. The tactician calls for a tack to port to the mark, and the skipper – that be me – says please remember the heavy max current pushing us left. Tactician hollers like General Patton, ‘I said tack now!’”

The Power Play crew tacks, then continues to sail the short leg. Robin shouts, “We hit the damn mark!”

The tactician says, “Sorry, my bad.” Now Power Play must go back, since they did not, in fact, even make the mark.

Robin continues: “Here we go again, back on course, upwind to the same mark, and the tactician says, ‘Tack right now!’ We tack, and, once more, we plow into the mark – the same mark, a second time on the same leg.”

A little time later, and safely round that mark, Robin said, the tactician looks at the crew somewhat strangely and admits, “Guess I had a few too many good beers. I hope the damage from the impacts will buff out!”

To this, Robin responded, “Oh yeah, ya gotta just love this racing scene.

“I never said another word,” he added, “just smiled at all the crew onboard.”

New Englander feedback: A bit inland and near Bristol, R.I., is racer Annie, a fan of Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, an English pale-ale-style beer brewed by Cisco Brewers on Nantucket. She also favors Harpoon IPA – crafted in either their Boston or Windsor, Vt., locations – and local draft brews. Annie has crewed on a Herreshoff S Class boat for the last two years, where beer is ever-present. In fact, the honor of picking it up rotates amongst the crew. As to imbibing, she reports: “If we are in the lead, we’re generally focused on preserving our distance, so we do not drink. If we’re not doing well, we’ll pop open brews on the downwind leg.”

Has she experienced any great beering and boating moments?

“Well, there was the time we ‘skyed’ the spinnaker halyard early in the race,” she answered. “The shackle popped open because it got caught on the forestay during the hoist. Pretty sure it was the day the spinnaker went all the way under the boat, and we had to pick it up from the back. I was running the foredeck, so it was my first big spinnaker mishap.”

Seems there was no bosun’s chair on the boat that day. So, once safely connected to a mooring ball and two beers into things, someone had the idea to jury-rig a climbing harness. Being the lightest, and a very talented racer, up the mast went our resourceful (and ill-advised) deck ape. All worked out fine, but, in hindsight, she chalked up that questionable decision to a wee-bit-o’beer influence.

Connecticut coastline racer Catherine is a regular crewmember on three different regional boats. She says alcohol consumption depends on the race, the number of people on the boat, and on the skipper. In general, though, the crew has a beer while rigging and prepping, but none while racing. Her Tuesday night competition is enjoyed with an all-female crew. The preference is homemade IPAs, double IPAs and stouts. “Only if it’s a really bad night might we share one beer among all of us while still sailing.”

She once sailed with a crew where the bow person kept a mini-cooler tied to the foredeck of the vessel. Her duty was to hand him a new beer after he finished each one. He brought a six-pack aboard – either Bud or Schaefer. He was a good sailor, which explains, on one level at least, why his at-race drinking was permitted. Years ago, Catherine also sailed with a skipper who kept, on a 27-foot boat, a half keg aboard, installed and plumbed to dispense.

Farther south is Bill, an Annapolis, Md., racer, who reveals, “It’s Heineken, Becks, Sprite, ginger ale, Gatorade. Sometimes we bring Tecate because it doesn’t come in a green-colored can.”

Social drinking: For a broader reach, I also queried members of the Facebook Yacht Club (, with the permission of the social-media group’s administrator. Here are a few more comments from New England-based racers.

Tom, of Georgetown, Mass., offers: “We have the ‘Bud’ rule. We only drink one brand. It saves time selecting what crew want. Not our favorite, but it is like the Wonder Bread of beer. Usually one on the way to the line. One during prep. One every downwind leg. It works. No yelling allowed on the boat, and we win often.”

Jon, from Colchester, Vt., says: “Two shots of Captain Morgan before the start . . . beer is only served after the No. 1 is flaked down, bagged and stowed!”

Patsy, of Marblehead, Mass., chimes in from the clubhouse deck: “Guests relaxing in the rocking chairs on the Corinthian Yacht Club porch have a lovely view of the Wednesday night racers as they head back to the Boston Yacht Club. Spectators drink local: Bent Water Brewing Company [from nearby Lynn, Mass.].”

Hold dear the beer: No question about it, these casual weekday sailing events hold dear the beer. So much is the brew cherished that entire associations are dedicated to its preservation, for example, the Can One Evening Race Association, of New Rochelle, N.Y. Held on Thursdays, Can One events draw 50 to 60 boats from seven regional clubs situated along western Long Island Sound (American Yacht Club, Glen Inland Yacht Club, Huguenot Yacht Club, Larchmont Yacht Club, New York Athletic Club Y.C., Oriental Yacht Club and Horseshoe Harbor Yacht Club).

Participants compete in either the spinnaker or non-spinnaker division. Adam Loory has been one of the association’s organizers for the last 15 years. He says sailors, “divide and conquer the work week with casual competitive sailing fun. Even a 30- to 50-minute race with friends as the sun goes down can recharge emotional batteries.”

We should assert that – no matter the New England location and no matter the presence or absence of beer – safety is a top concern. For some crews, alcohol is not permitted until safely hooked at home base. There are dry boats and there are wet boats, and this determination is often governed by the owner or skipper.

We cannot deem an hour or two of mark roundings as a maritime journey worthy of provisioning, but just try to take the six-pack out of a sailor’s hands as he or she walks down the dock on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening. Beer is signature to beer-can racing.

Martha Blanchfield is a racer/writer/photographer with a keen interest in San Francisco Bay regattas. As editor and founder of the digital magazine, she profiles the international waterside lifestyle and occasionally pokes fun at the loves and lives of sailors. Her photography and copy appear in “Nautique” (Netherlands publication), the “Panerai Classic Yachts Regatta Annual,” “San Francisco Chronicle”, “Latitude 38”, “J/Boat” newsletter, “Points East”, “Classic Yacht”, “Adventure Sports Journal” and “Classic Boat UK”.