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Team-Building Basics

This article was previously published on SailNet in July of 2000. 

One of the top crews of all time in the sport, Team New Zealand from the 2000 America's Cup, took the art and science of team-building to a new level.
Most performance-oriented sailors either have a boat and need a team, or have a team and need to fine-tune it. And then there are those who just want to be part of a team, but don’t know what qualifications they need. Here are some ideas on what it takes to put together a cohesive group of sailors that can get the job done around the racecourse—I call it the who, what, why, when, and where of team-building.

Who    When you want to put together a good crew, who you gonna call? For most of us, it won’t be Ghostbusters, though there’s a chance that every racer has a few skeletons lurking in his or her closet. To know whom to contact, you first need to evaluate the positions on the boat. Unless you’re talking about a single-handed boat, there will be a few standard positions to fill: helmsman, mainsail trimmer, headsail trimmer(s), bow person, mast person, pit person, tactician, navigator, grinders, etc. If it’s a smaller boat, the "who" filling each job might have to take on several of these tasks. On a larger boat, the roles become more narrowly defined and specialized. Look at your boat and decide—based on the size of the boat and crew (as well as any weight limitations)—what a realistic number of crew might be. Then, start thinking about who already is part of your core team, and which other compatible sailors you might get to fill out the crew.

Once you have determined the number of crew on board, it is time to decide what roles need to be filled. On a small, four-person boat, you may have the helmsman, tactician, jib trimmer, and bow person. On a J/24, you’ll want to add a twing/mast person. On a 35-footer, the team might be composed of a driver, mainsail trimmer, headsail and spinnaker trimmer, tactician/navigator, pit, mast, bow, and a floater. Take each role and break it down into tasks, both upwind and down. Do particular jobs require physical strength, or size/height characteristics, like mast person? Does a job require intense concentration skills, or quick decision-making, like tactician? Or does it require speed, balance, and agility? The ability to climb? Organizational skills? Once you know the roles and the required elements, it's time to think about linking the "who" with the "what" and introducing the "why."

Heavy air conditions are often the best measure of a crew's progress in becoming a team.

Why    You’ve got to figure out why a person is suited for a particular role. Many times, it is the experience they have had in a particular position that makes them suitable. Obviously someone who has spent time trimming headsails on a boat would be more suitable as a trimmer than someone who hasn’t. Look at people from other programs that may be looking for a change and could bring experience from that program with them. Someone who has done bow on a big boat might easily transition into a bow role on a smaller boat or vice versa. Sometimes, enthusiasm and willingness to learn a new job is what suits someone for a particular role on a new team. Being open-minded to coaching for a new role and taking on new challenges can be a rewarding way to become an indispensable part of the team. Sometimes it’s physical characteristics that will help place someone into a role: tall people are generally more efficient at the mast for hoists and dealing with the inboard end of the spinnaker pole. Small people tend to be suitable for the task of doing the bow on small boats. Strong individuals are suited for heavy trimming and grinding positions. Analytical and number-oriented people usually make good navigators and tacticians.

Sometimes you have to look beyond experience and physical attributes and recognize natural aptitude as the best criteria for selecting a teammate for a particular position. For instance, a good eye for sail trim, good agility and balance for the bow, quick and decisive decision making capabilities, being able to "paint the picture" on the racecourse, having a good feel for tuning and speed. Some people are natural, seat-of-the-pants drivers who have a feel for the helm, and some people have a natural instinct for anticipating what’s next without being told—the latter can make good bow crew.

The bow and mast person flake the headsail while the rest of the crew keeps the boat moving—that's teamwork.

Look at your potential crew list, then at the available positions and see whose talents fit best in particular roles. You may find that switching folks around might give you a more balanced, efficient team in the process, and give crew members a chance to experience a new aspect of sailing the boat. Of course, having several people who know how to do each task on board can also come in very handy since they can provide a backup in an emergency as well as built-in support network for the entire crew.

Personally, the main attributes I look for in teammates are: dedication, commitment, loyalty, boat-handling skills, and a positive attitude—in that order. Skills can be taught and learned, but great attitudes, compatibility, and good chemistry are essential to making a team work smoothly. If someone does not gel within the team, it may be time to reevaluate their participation in your program.

The afterguard must also work as a unit within the team, sharing information and making decisions.

When    Knowing the timing for putting a team together is another critical element for successful team-building. It’s really never too early to start. Well before the new sailing season, even as soon as the end of the current season, you can begin evaluating the program and the team. See what needs to be adjusted for the next season. Start talking about fine-tuning crew assignments, or if you are buying a new boat, start seeking out the perfect complement of crew for the new craft. Before the season begins is a good time to hold team meetings to discuss the goals and the schedule of the upcoming season. It’s also a good time to have boat-work days, where the team helps contribute to the effort. All of this can be combined with some socializing to establish common bonds. It all helps the program, both on and off the water. Then, as the season nears, combine the "when" with the "where."

Where    For your team to completely gel, you need to figure out where all of this will happen. On-the-water practices are key to bonding the team. The entire crew needs to work as a single unit, with all parts knowing what the other is going to do in every given situation. Many programs have crew members, but successful boats have a team that functions as a whole.

"Take each role and break it down into tasks, both upwind and down."

That is one of the biggest differences between success and disappointment on the racecourse. In the successful programs, each team member commits to the schedule agreed upon. It is understandable that everyone might not be able to make every event, but they should make an attempt for the sake of the team. If a team member cannot be at a scheduled event or practice, he/she should take on the responsibility to replace him or herself with a suitable substitute—someone who is as good, if not better, all for the sake of the team. The formula works because, as the adage goes, a team is always stronger than the sum of its components. Everyone knows that there is strength in numbers, and there is nothing better than the fun and satisfaction that comes from developing as a team, getting to know each other better, and doing it all while playing a sport you love!

Take a look at your own racing program and consider how you implement the five Ws. With a little attention to detail, and some off-season planning, a stronger team is just around the corner.

The Five-Person Crew List

Depending upon the particular boat you sail, standard crew positions will vary, but for boats like the J/24, Merit 25, Express 27, S2 6.9, etc., the following list maps out the basic tasks for each member of the crew. Consider adapting this list to your program, or create your own list.

No. 1 – Bow
Pre-start – set up foredeck;make sure the spin is packed/ready; relate traffic and distance to the starting line; weight
Upwind – skirt on tacks; pack spin if needed; observations; weight
Upwind marks – set the pole; jump spin halyard
Downwind – gather; flake and secure headsail; be ready to jibe at all times; and strip the spin bag if necessary; weight
Downwind Marks – prepare headsail; get pole down; douse spinnaker; weight

No. 2 – Mast/Twing/Floater
Pre-start – ensure spin gear is run correctly; call time; weight
Upwind – weight; outhaul, cunningham, vang adjustments; course observations
Upwind marks – weight; assist on spin halyard and pole if needed
Downwind – gather and flake headsail; spin pole and twing controls; weight
Downwind marks – back up on headsail halyard and pole; assist on spin douse

No. 3 – Tactician/Trimmer/Floater
Prestart – get course description, share with crew; get upwind numbers, current and breeze info, map out general strategy; weight
Upwind – call tacks; keep crew informed on strategy; weight; call puffs and waves
Upwind marks – call the hoist; weight
Downwind – call jibes; indicate wind for spin trimmer; trim guy if necessary; vang control; weight
Downwind marks – call maneuver; weight; tail jib sheet if necessary at rounding

No. 4 – Trimmer/Cockpit
Pre-start – choose proper headsail; fine-tune halyard tensions, trim jib; communicate with tactician and helmsman on boat speed; weight
Upwind – trim and tack headsail; adjusting halyards, weight
Upwind Marks – trim jib; weight; pre-feed spin guy; foreguy adjustment
Downwind – trim and jibe spin; call pole controls; weight
Downwind Marks – reset halyards, trim jib;

No. 5 – Helmsman
Pre-start – drive; trim mainsail
Upwind – drive; trim mainsail; work with jib trimmer and tactician on speed and placement on the course
Upwind Marks – drive; trim main; final decision-making within two boatlengths
Downwind – drive; work with spin trimmer for optimum boat speed; trim main
Downwind Marks – drive; trim main; final boat positioning

Suggested Reading:

Communicating on Board by Betsy Alison

The Crew Members' Manifesto  by Dan Dickison

Lessons from the Women's Match Racing Worlds by Betsy Alison


Buying Guide:  Spinnaker Poles

Betsy Alison is offline  
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