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Crew Training Article - For Skippers and Crew
Ta-Keel-A
There may be some helpful insight in here to help skippers and crew understand the need for commitment and communications.  My opinion is that even if you are not going out to have fun and enjoy your time on the race course this information can make that more enjoyable for you and your crew.
 
 

Crew Training

Presented at Berkeley Yacht Club Race Clinic, Sept. 1994

Getting and keeping crew is a major part of racing. It may seem like one of the easiest parts at the beginning, but ultimately it becomes one of the most difficult -- and definitely one of the most important. Sailboat racing is like a lot of other team sports. You have a team of people working towards a common goal -- winning. Everyone has to function as a unit and they have to make great plays. The only difference is that the coach is inside a cramped cockpit with you instead of on the sidelines. Your crew becomes your team with you as the coach, cheerleader, owner and manager. It means that sometimes you will be "giving" suggestions, "motivating" your crew and sometimes you'll be the towel boy, but ultimately, your crew looks to you, the skipper, for guidance in every area of the race.

Before you start training your crew, you need to make a few decisions. You also need to set some goals. As the skipper, you are the project manager. It is up to you to analyze where you are with your program and determine where you want to be -- personally and within the rest of the fleet. Then you must examine the steps involved in getting there including how much time and money you are willing to invest. Also get some outside input. Your goal, especially your first season, may not necessarily be winning races. It may be to improve your fleet standings or to just not be last every Friday night. In order to meet this goal, you must determine what you need to do to get there and what you want to do and what you realistically *can* do. These factors will help you deterimine the "who" and "how many" of your crew.

Winning is a combination of four things: Time on the water (practice); Knowledge of sailing and of *your* boat (assessing your own skills); money (how much you are willing to spend relative to the other three factors); and crew. These factors are the key to your entire program and will help you define the limits of the size and qualtiy of crew you will need, whether it be 3 or 12, experts or beginners.

Crew = four factors: coordination, communication, committment, ability.

 

Coordination

I have a staff of four people and I spend a lot of time getting them to do things the way I want them done. That means I set the standards, do a lot of organizing, and training and sometimes hiring and firing, but in the end, I get a product that is what I want. As a skipper, you must see yourself as a project manager. It's up to you to recruit, hire, train and utilize your crew to win races. Here a few things that might prove helpful to you when coordinating your crew.

1. If you have crew that are new to sailing or just new to your boat, you may have to put a time investment into their training, and it will pay off. If they are beginners, sometimes its easier. Just like in a job, it takes longer to train them, but you get to train them the way you want. Beginners as crew can be a tremendous asset to your program if they have the right attitude, the motivation to learn and are willing to commit. With experienced crew, you must not be afraid to tell them how you want things done -- for your boat and your situation. Experienced crew often have a lot of input, which makes them an asset to your program also. But you ultimately have the decision on what changes are made. If your crew members are really good, really worth keeping, the new ones will appreciate the training and input and the experienced ones will appreciate knowing what they are and are not responsible for. For example some skippers pick different crews for buoy racing and ocean racing. They may have different requirements and need to recognize that not all crew are good at all kinds of racing. Look at the crew you have and match them to their positions using your knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses.

2. You must pick your team for every race to be the most productive, efficient and most importantly the one that works together best. Good communication and team building skills are a major factor for skippers and boats that win. Crew and skippers have a symbiotic relationship. If you have a serious program, the good ones want to stay on your boat and much as you want them to stay, but you need to communicate, train and nip frustration in the bud. Rotating regulars among crew positions is a good technique if they are familiar with the boat. While not very common, at least one boat I race on does this on a fairly regular basis and it is a good opportunity for learning and troubleshooting.

3. Finding crew is something to think about when working on your crew program. There are always lots of local racers who are usually available for pick up crew here at the Berkeley Friday night races and local sailing organizations such as Cal Sailing Club are also good places to recruit. Latitude 38 also publishes a crew list every spring and contrary to popular belief, I know many good skippers who have found crew through Latitude. Word of mouth and references from other crew are sometimes good and co-workers and family are always an option, but remember, there is a trade-off between skill and convenience; knowledge and effort.

 

Communication:

4. You as the skipper must work to define limits. Let each crew member know exactly what they are responsible for, what each position consists of and how much control they have to make decisions on their own whether it be trimming or mast Crew plans, which we will cover in a few minutes go a long way into establishing this kind of team work.

5. Correct problems right away. Mistakes create inefficiency and the only way to correct them is to let each crew member know how to fix an error. Practice goes a long way in making maneuvers smooth, just as in any sport, with careful analysis of problems with real solutions. Explain a maneuver, try it. If it doesn't work, then figure out why, fix it and try it again. It doesn't pay on the race course to make the same mistakes over and over again. Problems like that only make you and your crew frustrated. Good communication in this process is essential --just like in your job, you must be able to explain, train and manage. Correct personality problems or conflict as quickly as possible also. Crew can be thought of like employees, you need to decide whether they are worth training or it they should be replace if their work is not up to standard. And with personality, some great crew members just might not fit into your mix. You must not only be able to see this, but also fix it. Your other crew members will appreciate you for it.

(This example may go away.) For example, if you have a problem with a spinnaker douse, analyze why, explain the solution and try it again. If it is still not working, then analyze the problem again. If a gatherer can't gather fast enough then explain the technique, switch out a crew position or try to release faster, but don't just leave it hoping it will fix itself or the crew will figure it out on their own. And whatever you do -- DON'T GO ON MAKING THE SAME MISTAKE!

6. Know your crew, what they can and can't do. And what they would *like* to do. Explain jobs in crew terms. When telling crew who may or may not know how to sail how to do something, explain it in terms the crew can understand. Don't explain it in skipper terms. In John Bertrand's book "Born to Win" where he describe the Australian campaign for the 1983 America's Cup, he discusses his anlysis of the crew and how each could contribute to the program both on and off the boat. He used sports psychology and had a very good understanding of how each crew would react when the pressure was on.

At this point I'd like to mention crew bosses and how important they can be, especially on bigger boats. With a crew of four or five or fewer and a well managed boat, crew bosses are not necessarily needed, but on larger boats, including those with crews of six or more, appointing someone on the boat to answer questions, troubleshoot and feed information to the skipper or helmsman often means the difference between winning a race and total chaos. A crew boss often deals with minor details that are essential to boat speed, mark roundings and tactics. Sometimes they help with crew calling, lunches and crew selections which makes them all the more knowledgeable about which crew will function the best in which position. A good crew boss can take a lot of pressure of the owner/skipper leaving them more free to focus on the race.

The crew boss should be familiar with your boat -- including all the intricacies of your particular boat not just the class. They should be familiar with the crew and their positions and, most importantly, the crew boss should be someone who communicates with the skipper well. You as skipper need to trust your crew boss to fix problems and give you information so it should be someone you work well with, trust fixing problems and whose input you want. Just a note here though, if you find that you need to have crew who are much better sailors than you are to run your boat, your boat may be a little to much to handle. This is something to keep in mind when developing your crew plan.

For example, during a typical recent race on an Olsen 30 which crews seven, the crew boss helped "remind" the crew to manager weight distribution, asked for information in from crew members on what cleanup needed to happen after a particularly sloppy spinnaker douse. Assessed what went wrong on the douse and worked with the crew members to fix the problem, talked to the helmsman to find out when might be an advantageous time to rerun spinnaker gear and repack the chute, and in general made sure the operation of the boat was smooth and efficient. The result was a helmsman who could concentrate on the course, wind and sails, fewer problems with mark roundings, and the attention of many small details with often separate the winners from the middle of the pack.

 

Commitment

6. I discovered early on that 90 percent of being good racing crew was just showing up. If you become the one crew member who can make every race, every practice and who will if called just show up -- every time, you will quickly become one of the most valued members of the team. This holds true initially, but you as the skipper should feel free to let new crew know you expect improvement in order for them to stay. Assess their progress, be realistic and cull out problems. Everybody wants crew who can committ to a series or a season, but getting crew to committ to your program in exchange for training is the best deal you can get. If they are truly serious, inspire them to really learn how to sail. Now, this is not to say that you don't want good, experienced crew who know how to run your boat and win races. You do, and sometimes with careful scheduling, a few perks and some creative organization, you can get some excellent crew members. But, it's up to you to strike the balance -- between stars and committed home team players.

A note here also about keeping crew committed to your program. Don't be intimidated by skippers who shower their crew with perks like shirts and caps -- and bags -- and other things. Crew goodies are nice, but an organized committed program will go the longest way in keeping good crew on your boat. Sometimes just listening is the easiest way to let your crew know you think they're doing a good job. If you're getting new spinnaker sheets, ask your spinnaker trimmer or foredeck crew what kind they line or shackles they might like. This doesn't obligate you but it lets them give you input. If your crew really want to do a race, let them --but maybe negotiate. Suggest *they* bring the food this time.

Ability

7. Assess crew skills and put people in a job that suits them best. Try to take into account what they *want* to be doing. Judge each crew person's skill and progress from their performance on your boat -- not from their reputation. Don't assume they know how to sail. There is a difference between knowing how to be racing crew and knowing how to sail. Good crew may or may not know the intricacies of sailing. (Better crew will) -- and some good skippers or sailors will make terrible crew. Encourage your beginners to really learn to sail -- it will make them more responsive and give you more flexibility. For example, on another boat I race on, when I'm on point, the skipper not only wants to know where the other boats are in relationship to him but what they're going to do. He wants to know if another boat is going to lee bow him or cover him at the start. In order to understand the details of actually sailing -- your crew will actually need to understand how it works. It provides you with more of a resource because they will not just be doing their jobs but understand what they are doing. When I first started racing, one of my racing skippers *strongly* suggested I join Cal Sailing Club and learn to race Lidos if I was really interested in staying on his boat as racing crew. While I hated it, and still complain about it a lot, it has been and still is the best thing -- for me as crew and for skippers I crew for.

8. If your crew really want to learn more, let them. Don't be afraid to be a teacher. Try to use non-season races for crew training and do a crew practice with drilling every once in a while. Even if you don't have 100 percent roll out, you will have some crew who make advances which will allow you to put them in more useful positions. Encourage your best crew to learn multiple crew positions. This gives you flexibility for rotation. Crew is a great situation -- everyone wins. If you really take good care of your crew, you will always have regulars and pick-ups ready to go.

9. Crew plan Why it is important. How to put it together (draft and then input from crew) Don't be afraid to try something different. Once you have it -- stick to it and use it. Don't confuse the crew by not sticking to the plan. However, the hardest thing about using a crew plan is knowing when to *not* use. (Distribute copies of several crew plans for boats of different sizes -- use Twilight Zone crew plan as discussion example -- since Merit 25 is the "official" race clinic boat.)

Swan 43 -- 10 man, Frers 58 -- 22 man

 

On the water practices

For the on-the-water practice, have an agenda for what you want to practice during the day. Have the crew plan ready. Have each person familiar with their individual job -- and have them be somewhat familiar with what each crew position does on the maneuver. Also let them know if a sailmaker or other special guest will be on board and whatever you do, don't forget the sandwiches.

Once you're on the water and have looked at the crew plan, pick a maneuver like tacking. Do a tack -- from beginning to end -- full hike to full hike. Assess what could be better. Do it again. Don't aim for perfection the first day out but practice all of your manuevers as if you were racing. Get them in the habit of hiking out right away and keeping on the high side. Do the tack three times or five times. After the crew becomes more familiar with the maneuver then rotate the crew positions. Maybe not *all* say ten of them, but all the ones that are, say, in the cockpit. Have the foredeck crew rotate amongst themselves. This may not seem very important but it does two main things. It allows you to know exactly who is best at what and it also gives more than one person familiarity with each crew position, so you always have a backup. As this becomes a more advanced part of your crew training, you will notice your crew being very attentive, not only to what they're doing, but also to what other people are doing in relationship to them. This allows maneuvers to go faster, allows for quicker recovery with problems and helps everyone get past maueuvers and down to making the boat go fast. After tacking, repeat with spinnaker sets and douses, jibes and any other maneuver you want to become proficient at. Also practice pole resets and sail changes so the crew know how they work and you have more flexibility on the race course. Free flying the chute is another good drill for the people in the cockpit that pull the strings. If the air is light, let the halyard down until the spinnaker is over the water and use the guy and sheet to move the chute in a specific direction.

When you really want to get serious, invest in several inflatable ball type fenders with an anchor and anchor rode attached. Find an area where you can move around clearly and set the marks as a windward and leeward racing mark about a quarter of a mile apart. Set a third as a mark of the "starting" line and call it a limit mark -- use it as a reference and consider it the "favored" end of the line. You want to be at this mark on time. Set up a three minute starting sequence and maneuver in the starting area as if it were a race. Actually use this time with the back of the cockpit to formulate a starting strategy, do a timed run, check wind direction, have foredeck get a shore range, etc. While the helmsman tacks and jibes, the crew, especially inexperienced crew, will learn the basics of pre-start tactics including being ready to tack or jibe at a moments notice. At the "gun" you want to be at the line. Crew should be in full racing trim. Head for the windward mark, top the pole and set as you round. Jibe if necessary and douse at the leeward mark. Harden up and head for the finish. This shortened course helps a new crew understand how each move fits together and helps crew who already knows the moves get them down faster and cleaner. Repeat with additional windward leeward legs for more sets, douses and mark roundings. The short distance keeps the crew moving from maneuver to maneuver. Reward with sandwiches afterward.

9. Have fun. Fun is defined differently. It is possible to take it very seriously and still make any racing a boat a fun place to crew. When your crew works together as a total team and totally sails the boat with each maneuver instead of individual jobs, it feels great for everyone!