The Crew Members' Manifesto - SailNet Community
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The Crew Members' Manifesto

This article was first published on SailNet in May of 2000.

Where would skippers be without these guys to do the dirty work?
Now hear this! Skippers, unless you spend your every racing moment strap-hiking on the deck of a Laser or keeping a Moth Class midget upright, you probably get around the racecourse with a few good moves of your own, but otherwise rely on the strength, expertise, and good humor of your crew. Even if all the racing you ever do is on a double-handed Fireball, that man or woman in front of you is more vital to the program than you realize.

Most skippers understand that statement intuitively, but it's rare if they take the time to express appreciation for their crew, much less keep them in the loop when it comes to on-the-course strategy and decision-making. Consider this important implication, which comes to light in almost every regatta report published (even some of those on this website):

"The philosophy behind this is simple—the more informed the crew, the harder they'll work toward the collective goal of optimum performance."
When was the last time the author bothered to interview or write about the crew? It's not much of a stretch to say that our sport is set up in a way that glorifies the person whose hands are on the wheel or tiller, but overlooks those who labor in the cockpit, or almost anywhere forward of the helm.

Apart from shortsighted regatta reports, there's additional evidence that supports this observation. Consider where you'd look to find the instrument readouts on almost any conventional sailboat. Most are mounted where the driver can clearly see them, but often so far aft that they're obscured from view for the rest of the crew. It may sound extremist, but if your instrument displays are mounted anywhere aft of the mast, then whoever made that placement decision didn't consider it important for the forward members of the crew to know what's going on. On the best racing sailboats, instrument faces are placed so that they're visible to all the crew, often with repeat displays set in various locations around the boat. The philosophy behind this is simple—the more informed the crew, the harder they'll work toward the collective goal of optimum performance.

More folk hero than superhero, the average crew gets few accolades, but you'd be hard pressed to get around the course without him.
Back when I had the connections to get on board competitive programs, I raced a few regattas with Ken Read, the five-time J/24 World Champion, former Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, and more recently a would-be America's Cup helmsman. In his role as skipper, Ken made it a practice to gather all the crew at the beginning of every race day, sometimes even before the boat left the dock, and orchestrate a brief team meeting. The purpose of this was to ensure that everyone on board understood the collective objective, what would be expected of them, and who would be in charge in a given situation. Using his signature delivery—a stylistic amalgam of serious intent and relaxed tone laced with jocularity—he made a point of including all of us in the meeting. Then he'd offer this cumbersome yet comforting conclusion: "All right. Does anyone have any questions, comments, observations, or objections?" Without saying so, Ken was effectively leveling the afterguard-crew hierarchy and breaking down any latent communication barriers that might later on cause a misunderstanding or crewwork paralysis—he was essentially democratizing the onboard culture.

I don't mean to deify the guy (anyone who knows Ken is aware that he doesn't require ego-padding), but he was definitely onto something because he knew how much better that boat could sail if everyone on board was truly involved. Essentially, getting any boat around the racecourse competitively requires a team effort. And fluid crewwork is more difficult to achieve if you encumber yourself with the attitude that the skipper/driver is somehow more integral to the program than the rest of the crew.

Sure, steering is critical on any leg of the course, and there's no denying the importance of the contributions made by the person who owns the boat. But the thing is, it's in every skipper's best interest to instill confidence in his or her crew. Keeping the crew in the loop when it comes to things like instrument feedback and tactical decision-making can help achieve that. I'm not suggesting that you take a poll on your maxi-boat every time you want to tack, but letting everyone in on the general game plan can only improve performance.

Aboard larger boats particularly, keeping the crew informed regarding maneuvers and strategy can enhance performance and well being for everyone.
A long time ago, I crewed for another sailor who was so much more experienced than the rest of us on board that he started out by talking us through almost every maneuver. We all became accustomed to jibing when he said, "Jibe" and hiking when he said, "Hike." We did pretty well on the racecourse, but it was clear that we were steadily becoming a crew of puppets. At some point, he sat me down and explained that I needed to think for myself and learn to jibe the pole when I knew it needed to happen instead of waiting for a command. Shortly after I fathomed the value of that information, and realized the enabling power that comes from mutual respect between skipper and crew. A lot of other skippers I've encountered would have simply continued to yell "Jibe" when they wanted me to jibe the pole, and I probably would have continued to race that way for a long time without knowing any better. But by giving me the authority to do my job on the boat when I thought it should be done, this skipper had effectively instilled me with confidence.

And it makes sense. If you watch the best trimmers or bow people, they don't wait for a command to make an adjustment or repack a kite, they do it when they think it's appropriate. Of course they don't do these things in a void; they communicate the fact that they're making a change or going below to repack the kite, or whatever it is, and they do it in concert with everything else that's going on at the time. You won't see these guys stop hiking and leave the rail to make an adjustment while there's a puff on or while another crew person is off the rail. And what makes it all work is that the skipper knows this because he or she respects their abilities.

So skippers, the next time you get a chance to address your crew, consider all that they do for you. Sure, you're the person who writes the checks and ultimately runs the risk of having your insurance premiums jacked up, but these other people are putting their hearts into it as well. Ultimately, an inclusive attitude and the respect it implies will add to your enjoyment of the game as well as that of your crew.

Suggested Reading:

The Pre-Race Check List by Dan Dickison

Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison

Whisker Poles

Dan Dickison is offline  
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