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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Racing Articles
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Old 12-23-2001
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Betsy Alison is on a distinguished road
Communicating on Board


Clear, concise communication is an important component of successful racing, particularly in close quarters.
Do you ever wonder what is being said on the top boats in any racing fleet? Do you wonder if they shout in the heat of battle, if chaos reigns (like on many boats) during those tight mark roundings? Wouldn't you like to be a fly in the companionway of the class leader, just once, to watch and listen?

Communication on board any top-notch racing program is a big part of that team's success. These sailors understand that the objective is always to minimize excess noise, maximize quality information, and help develop a calm sense of well-being among the team. So how is this accomplished? Let's take a closer look.

Most racing sailors have been instructed on what to do, but rarely on what to say. Knowing who says what to whom and when is essential. So let's start at the beginning. Idle chatter actually does have a place in every program—heading out to the racecourse or on the way in can be the perfect time to tell war stories, talk trash, and gossip. But at some point, the team has to go into race mode. On our boat, this happens at least 30 minutes or an hour before race time—that's when all the talk starts to focus on race-related information. Observations on wind patterns, current, speed, boat and sail trim, and opponents are all noted. And everyone on board is encouraged to voice his or her opinion and make suggestions. In this pre-start session, we are trying to formulate our game plan, and it is critical that everyone on the team be on the same page. There should be no doubt about what the basic strategy will be for the race.

After the warning signal (the five-minute gun or horn), minimal talking is best, since the chaos and noise on the starting line can be deafening as well as distracting. It's essential that the bow person and tactician feed information to the driver in a concise fashion. The bow person usually does this by way of pre-arranged hand signals. The trimmers don't really need to communicate at this stage except to acknowledge any information they receive, and we always assign one person to call the time. The rest of the crew can talk to the tactician, and that person can relay information to the driver, but only the tactician or the driver should talk to the other boats.


No matter the size of the boat you're racing, getting the information to the right people in the right way is one of the cornerstones of good crew work.
After the start, communication slips into a pattern of observations. On boats with more than two crew, the tactician relays information to the driver and the trimmers about the speed and height of the boat relative to the competition. Statements like "We're higher and faster," or "We're equal in height and speed," or "We are faster, but lower," help keep everyone informed and making the right adjustments. The tactician is responsible for relating an overview of what is happening on the racecourse: where the upcoming lanes are, what the potential threats might be, how long until a tack, and where the marks and laylines are. And this person should endeavor to ensure that all the principal players hear what he's relating. A different person, someone who sits forward on the rail, should be calling out the puffs and counting them down, as well as providing information on any irregular wave patterns. For instance, "Big puff in 10…5, 4, 3, 2, 1, puff on!" or "Bad set of waves, left to right in 3,2,1, now," are common examples of this kind of information.

All this while, constant communication should be taking place between the driver and the trimmers in the back of the boat. They should talk about where the sheets are relative to maximum trim. Common statements from the headsail trimmer would include such succinct sentences as "We're three inches eased," or "I need you to press on the jib," or "We're max in now." As the driver hears these comments, he or she should be relating how the boat feels with information like: "I've got too much weather helm; ease the main a bit," or "I need a little trim on; I'm going to sqeeze it up in this flat spot," or "Let's power up for this lull."


Upwind, communication between the driver and the trimmers is the key to keeping the boat moving through various changes in the wind and sea state.
So what should everyone else be doing? If the wind is up and the crew is on the rail hiking, they should be making their own observations, and relating to the tactician pertinent information about new breeze, the mark location, or what other boats are doing. If it's light and they're crouched to leeward, their input is still valuable. Of course all this communication needs to be clear and concise, without everyone speaking at the same time. The tactician will then evaluate the information, and pass it along at the appropriate time. Essentially, the tactician is the onboard clearinghouse for information.

Information regarding upcoming maneuvers, like what kind of spinnaker set will take place, should come from the tactician, and the crew boss (if there is one) should then make sure that the boat is set up properly for that maneuver and the team is ready for action. When it comes to setting the spinnaker, as the driver, I always call the hoist because being in the back of the boat gives me the best vantage point for seeing just when the kite should go up.


Downwind, constant communication between the driver and the spinnaker trimmer is essential for keeping the boat at optimum speed.
On the downwind legs, communication between the spinnaker trimmer and helm is key for achieving and maintaining maximum speed. Too many boats overlook this important fundamental aspect while sailing downwind. The trimmer should communicate constantly about the pressure on the spinnaker sheet, as well as the headers and lifts that he or she is sensing. The tactician should keep everyone plugged in by talking about the overall downwind picture, but this person's primary responsibility is to keep the boat in clear air relative to the surrounding boats by communicating with the driver. He or she is also responsible for communicating what the crew should do on the approach to the leeward mark and what kind of takedown they'll execute. Again, the driver has the best vantage point for calling the douse, while the tactician should call time/boatlengths remaining to the mark, informing the crew of the immediacy of the maneuver.

At the completion of the race, before the boat reaches the harbor, I always make it a practice to hold a short team meeting to discuss how things went, sort of a debriefing. Again, everyone should be encouraged to speak up, make notes on what went well, and what needs to be fixed before the next outing. It is important to remember that regardless of the outcome of the race, there are always good things that happened—this way you can end your debriefing on a positive note. Being positive and upbeat is essential to a cohesive team, and positive reinforcement is important, especially when you are behind. And the way in which you express yourself can convey this. Remember, it is not always what you say, but how you say it, so don't forget these few pointers for productive communication on board:

 Face the person you are talking to; it's often hard to hear on the water.
 Never raise your voice louder than you need to; excessive shouting can be a huge negative.
 Don't be condescending or quick to assess blame. Instead, offer positive suggestions on how to improve the situation or the boat's placement in the race.
 

Offer encouragement to newer crew members, and coach them along.

Good, productive communication almost always leads to better performance on the racecourse. If you have a system in place where the team is encouraged to contribute to the effort, and people know what to say, and how and when to say it, a happier, more successful season is just around the corner.

Say What?

Make your communication count. Like Mama always said, "If you have nothing useful to say, then say nothing."

Communication that Helps

 "Puff in 15 seconds—looks like a lift."
 "Starboard tacker in 10 boatlengths—the guy with the blue hull."
 "Windward mark is at 2:00 o'clock."
 "We're higher and slower—we might want to foot off."
 "I've got great pressure on the spinnaker sheet, you can press low a few degrees."

Communication that Hurts

 "Ugh! We're getting rolled again."
 "How come we didn't tack back there?"




Suggested Reading:

The Crew Member's Manifesto by Dan Dickison

Team-Building Basics by Betsy Alison

Achieving Good Teamwork Downwind by Dean Brenner

Buying Guide: Boom Vangs

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