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post #1 of Old 05-13-2002 Thread Starter
Carol Cronin
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Talking the Talk

Regardless of the wind and wave conditions, clear communication between the driver and the headsail trimmer is one of the important keys to performance.
This year the conditions at the Annapolis NOOD Regatta covered both extremes in wind strength. Friday it blew the clams out of the mud, Saturday we didnít race because there was no wind, and Sunday we barely crept around the racecourse in zero to three knots. Fridayís big breeze was obviously more exciting for anyone watching. To those folks, the two days we actually did race probably looked completely different, but heavy-air and light-air conditions have one thing in common: both require constant communication between the helmsman and the trimmers.

As a boat driver, I find that coordinating with a headsail trimmer is one of the biggest keys to boat speed when sailing in a broad range of conditions. In moderate air and flat water the trimmer can pretty much just trim in the headsail until it looks right and cleat it off. But in big puffs and big waves, or with no wind building to a tiny puff, the angles of the wind are changing too fast for the person on the helm to respond properly. Throw in a few powerboat wakes, and the picture changes even faster. So enter the attentive trimmer, a too-often neglected member of the team who has the power to truly make or break a race.

Top-notch trimmers spend most of their time on the beat looking up at the headsail, and often they miss most of the race thatís going on around them. The goal for them is to keep the boat moving as fast as possible for the conditions, and only by paying constant attention to the trim can they adjust to any shift, lull, puff, or helmsman "issue." All this dedication on their part is great, but it will only translate into boat speed if the helm and trimmer coordinate their efforts through effective communication.

In light air, it's detrimental to the boat's speed for the helmsman to alter course in response to fluctuations in wind direction. That task can be more efficiently handled by the trimmers.
Letís look at light-air situations first. Unfortunately, all too frequently sailboat races are held in conditions better suited to powerboats. This is something that doesnít go unnoticed by the powerboat crowd. When youíre out racingósailing upwindóand you see a set of waves approaching, you can minimize the damage by reaching off to build speed before they hit. Just a little communication on the part of the person drivingó"Iím bearing off a bit for these waves"ówill tell the trimmer to ease the sheet to this new, temporary course (and may prevent a comment about the driverís poor steering). Once the boat is through the waves, itís important that the driver indicate his or her return to a normal upwind course. Just a brief "Iím heading back up now" will be enough to ensure that the headsail will be trimmed back in accordingly. The trimmer can also help find the best upwind angle by announcing "Iím at full trim" when the jib has reached its tightest position for the conditions.

Even in flat water, light air puffs often fill in from a different angle and the boat cannot be turned quickly enough to respond. Instead, the sails should be adjusted accordingly. Again, coordination between the person on the helm and the trimmer will keep the boat moving at its optimum speed.

As with any other aspect of communication, the most effective approach is two way; the person on the helm needs to tell the trimmer about course changes for waves, obstacles, etc., and the trimmer needs to talk about puffs, lulls, headers and lifts. Often, these changes are seen in the headsail before the helmsperson becomes aware of them (especially if the mainsheet is in someone elseís hands). I find it works best if each person involved talks about what they are doing in response to a change in conditions. Rather than telling the driver how he or she should respond, an experienced trimmer will say something like "Iím easing to you." This helps keep the communication positive since saying something like "Steer up to my trim," runs the risk of coming across in a negative manner. Itís best to emphasize the positive, Iíve found, since most sailors eventually tune out negative feedback, however well deserved.

"Sailors lucky enough to sail with the same crew on a consistent basis can develop a set of terms for each adjustment, sort of a verbal shorthand."

If you are lucky enough to sail with the same crew on a consistent basis, you can develop a set of terms for each adjustment, a sort of verbal shorthand. Consistent wording will help the listener know what is being said even when they donít catch all the details.

This same concept of clear communication can be very effective when the breeze picks up and waves begin to form. Both the helmsperson and the trimmer need to learn which waves will be the worst boat-stoppers and which can be powered through. The person who does the bow can help with this by calling both the big waves and the smooth spots, which will allow the trimmer to click in and the helm to point a bit higher until the next wave arrives.

Coordination between the helm and the trimmer is crucial in puffy conditions; a good trimmer can win races by keeping the boat balanced and on its feet. When a puff hits that is too big to be handled by the fixed controls (cunningham, outhaul, vang, backstay, etc.), the mainsail will have to be eased to keep the boat from heeling too much. On most kinds of boats, if the jib isnít eased at the same time the boat will quickly develop lee helm, making it impossible to feather up into the puff. Having the crew on the weather rail count down the puffs really helps since the trimmer is (or should be) concentrating on the sail.

It is very hard for a trimmer to feel lee helm since it canít be seen in the telltales, so the helm needs to communicate how much ease is needed. The person on the helm should always try to acknowledge good moves on the part of the trimmer ("That was the perfect amount of ease" or "Good timing on that wave") since it will both improve morale and help the trimmer learn what is needed from the helmsmanís perspective. Good trimmers will develop a feel for how much ease is needed in these circumstances, but perfecting this as a team will take time.

Off the wind, the person trimming the spinnaker needs to communicate directly with the driver to get the most out the boat on a continual basis.
Downwind    Communication between the spinnaker trimmer and the person on the helm when sailing downwind is even more crucial than upwind. It is not always obvious to the trimmer what the optimum course is, since it can change depending on where the mark is, where the next pressure is, what the traffic is like, etc. And it is also much harder to feel what the boat needs downwind through the helm.

As with upwind trim, the helm should let the trimmer know about course alterations for traffic or waves, and the trimmer should let the helm know about puffs and angle changes that are best felt in the spinnaker. The same language can be used downwind, though the course change will be the opposite; "I'm coming up for waves," or "I'm going back down to our normal course." Some skippers like to hear a constant stream of information from the spinnaker trimmer, and a running commentary from a trimmer on such a boat might sound something like this: "Good pressure to take down. OK, no lower. That's a good angle. I've got a bit of a puff you can work down with. No lower than that. OK, come up a bit for this lull."

As a skipper, I prefer that the crew notify me of any changes rather than have constant communication, so the dialogue on our boat sounds more like this: Periodically Iíll ask, "How's the pressure?" My trimmer Liz responds either "Great," which means I can definitely sail deeper "Good," which means I might be able to sail slightly deeper. "OK," which means "I'm working hard to keep you sailing this deep." Or "Lousy," which means I should come up to a hotter angle. I then tell her what my response will be, or why I can't respond: "Coming up five degrees," or "I can't come up right now because there's a boat crossing us," or "The mark is high so I can't sail any lower." She also tells me if the angle or pressure changes, and I try to remember to tell her before I alter course.

On the starting line, the headsail trimmer effectively holds the throttle in his or her hand, and thus needs to be in close communication with the driver.
Another important area on the racecourse where communication with the trimmers becomes crucial is the starting line. I recently overhead an amusing pre-start exchange as a boat was making its final approach to the line: An experienced trimmer inquired of an experienced skipper "fast or slow?" The skipper simply responded "Yes!" since the only word that got through was "slow." Admittedly that kind of miscommunication is probably rare, but the point remains that the person with their hands on the helm really has the best feel for how stalled the boat is, which directly affects how long it will take to get back up to speed. So that person needs to be clear in his or her communication. Again, verbal shorthand can be effective here since it reduces the number of words needed and cuts through the noise of luffing sails and any shouting (on the other boats, of course). When Iím on the helm, in the final seconds before the start of a race, I usually try to stick to one word instructions, like "stop," "go," "luff," or "trim."

Coordination between the helm and the trimmer is the key to speed in a variety of conditions, and improving communication will not only improve your results, it will amp up your fun factor. No one has all the answers, and sometimes the trimmer has a better feel for the conditions than the person on the helm. So keep your eyes and ears open and try to improve together, as a team.

Suggested Reading:

Synchronized Sail Trim by Carol Cronin

Communicating on Board by Betsy Allison

Nuances of Onboard Communication by Dobbs Davis


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