This article was originally published on SailNet in December, 2000. Some people call it frontier land. It's the foredeck. This is one one of the most critical areas on a racing sailboat, and the people who work up there can be the most high-profile or the least recognized members of the crew. They are rarely heroes and often scapegoats when it comes to laying blame for a bad finish in a series or an individual race. And the reality is that every bow person knows his or her existence consists of brief flurries of activity separated by long stretches of downtime on the rail while being drenched. There’s also the scrapping from side to side during tacks and even some time spent crouching down below in light air. Often it seems that the rest of the crew thinks the foredeck crew should be punished for those long upwind "breaks." So protracted sail-selection discussions with last-second decisions before starts and mark roundings become the bane of the bow person’s life, along with last-minute changes to the game plan. Why is it that there is always some little piece of information that sparks in a tactician's mind, but takes an eternity to travel forward to those who have to enact it?
Such is the life of a bow person in the racing world. It’s not for everyone, but it can be a truly satisfying position and one of the best ways to get a solid background in racing. In order to handle the tasks of a bow person and be able to "freelance" when necessary, the first step to survival on the bow is preparing your area. On smaller boats, such as a J/24, there really isn't much to work with as far as customizing the zone. Before racing, I always make sure that the spinnaker pole is in perfect condition. The jaws should be easily triggered open and shut, the trip line should be in one solid piece (not frayed), and it should be securely attached. Depending upon your preference and the conditions you expect to sail in, you can apply some sort of grip tape to the pole if you want better traction. Cold, wet aluminum or carbon fiber can be tough to hang on to, and everyone notices if a bow person loses his or her grip on the pole at the wrong moment. Letting go can also cause damage and injuries, so use what works best for you.You might also want to consider lacing your lifelines or having some sort of strap system to hold your headsails on deck and out of the water when they’re not hoisted. This is very important because sails dragging in the water or even appearing to be dragging in the water can be a bigger distraction to some people in the back of the boat than you might think.Footing is also critical on the foredeck. If the boat doesn’t already have them, you should consider installing mini toerails in front of the mast so that you can get a good, firm stance when end-for-end jibing. Or you might get some adhesive non-skid and apply it liberally and neatly. Forward hatches made of Lexan can get really slippery when wet, so that's a place I always look to put non-skid tape.Once you've taken care of those critical areas, check the halyard blocks, ratchets, and cleats, and before you leave the dock or mooring, be sure all the lines are led correctly through the ratchets. And make sure that the leads and purchases are fair and not twisted. You should also check the spinnaker and headsail halyards for signs of wear, particularly the area that is normally left in the cleat or sits on a sheave. Then check the other control lines—the foreguy and the topping lift—for signs of fatigue. Experienced bowmen and women know that there are a few indispensable tools for their job. You should always have that roll of your favorite color rigging tape handy for the pre-race check of all the shackles and clevis and cotter pins in your area. I recommend that you don't tape knots because the tape makes it difficult to see if they are staying tied or working loose. It's also a good idea to throw a wrap or two of that tape on the headsail and spinnaker halyard attachments just to ensure that you avoid any surprises underway. (Both of these are difficult to retrieve if for some reason their shackles should open while they’re in use.)
Of course having a the right safety harness is a plus when you need to go up the rig or out on the spinnaker pole to fix a problem. I recommend the kind of harness used in sport climbing (to be used along with a stout caribiner for hooking in to a halyard or the rig), but whatever is safe, reliable, and comfortable for you is best. Of course you’ll want access to a knife for emergencies, and it’s up to you whether you want to carry one on your person, or simply have one handy nearby, like in a sheath strapped to the vang or the mast.
These are really just the first steps to succeeding in the role of bow person, but having confidence in your equipment will make for fewer distractions when you’re thinking about how to pull off a maneuver during the upcoming mark rounding. In my next article, I’ll discuss some of the basic maneuvers you’ll need to master in order to hold up your end of the bargain and be the best bow person you can.
Suggested Reading List
Handling Leeward Gates by Brad Read
Bear-Away Spinnaker Sets by Dean Brenner
Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison
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