Race route as seen in Visual Passage Planner 2

Race route as seen in Visual Passage Planner 2

Warm up to online racing

Whet your nav skills without getting wet

Longing for boating season to begin? You might consider online racing at Virtual Loup-De-Mer.

This free, real-time sailboat-routing simulation uses genuine weather data. Wind strength and direction are interpolated and updated every 3 hours, and boat speed and direction are updated every 5 minutes.

All racers use the same boat-sail configuration, and the polar charts are similar to those of real boats. You choose how to apply this information to your boat and waypoints.

I recently participated in the Le Vent des Globes round-the-world sailboat race. After 70 days, 22 hours and 15 minutes, I crossed the finish line off the coast of Les Sables d’Olonne, France, coming in 141st out of 1,109 boats. After 26,832 miles, I was only 4 days, 11 hours and 54 minutes behind the winner and averaged 15.76 knots SMG (speed made good).

Although the site is in French, most of the administrators speak English and are happy to answer your questions. The forum has some English-only threads, and important instructions are also offered in English.

The virtual race is set up like an actual race. You start at the same time as the “real” boats, and you can “see” the real boats on the charts as you are racing.

Despite being in a chair behind a computer, you learn a lot about geography and how the world “looks” from a sailboat in the middle of the ocean.

Many shorter races are available; you don’t have to commit to a circumnavigation. I prefer them because I can’t be on the computer as much as it would take to do a shorter race.

In a pinch, I can operate the game from my phone or PDA. Despite the small screen, I can see enough to make a decision or change my route.

My next race, from Porto Santo in the Madeiras to Le Marin, Martinique, was a much shorter 2,671-nautical-mile race with a northeasterly wind expected most of the way.

Using techniques I learned in the Navigation course, I created an initial route in Visual Passage Planner 2, a pilot chart program, and let the program optimize the route for wind and sea conditions.

I ran the race using the optimized route’s waypoints and the best velocity made good for apparent winds between waypoints. I tweaked the waypoint locations to optimize the VMG for the actual winds.

My friend Art Mollica, a Navigation instructor, also participated, creating his own route and using his optimized waypoints. He ran the race using autopilot—the lazy skipper’s way.

The race began at 1400 GMT on 24 Jan., with F4 winds (as luck would have it) from the west. Sixteen days later, on 9 Feb., Art arrived in Le Marin to find me on the dock, drink in hand, waiting for him. I had finished in 50th place, 1 day and 7 hours earlier.

But beware. It’s addicting. Every time I run one of these races, I say I’m not going to do another—but then I find myself jumping into the next one.