Achieving Good Teamwork Downwind - SailNet Community

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Old 02-04-2001
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Dean Brenner is on a distinguished road
Achieving Good Teamwork Downwind


The downwind legs of a racecourse present the best opportunities for a unified team of sailors to make gains.
After the Olympic Soling Trials ended in June of 2000, I spent some time considering what my next professional move would be. During this period, I had the opportunity to do some on-the-water coaching. Coaching in sailing is different from coaching in other sports, because during the racing, coaches cannot have any contact with their team members. Therefore, coaches are free to observe and spend time thinking through some of the characteristics of success on the racecourse. I spent a great deal of time then considering what creates success downwind.

Some of that thought led me to believe that success downwind requires the cooperation and integration of the entire team even on a two-person boat. Upwind, success ultimately relies on a talented helmsman, skilled trimmers, and an alert tactician. But once the boat turns downwind, everyone on board plays important roles.

The most important relationship downwind exists between the spinnaker trimmer and the helmsman because good boat speed is directly related to their communication. When teams are working at peak efficiency, the trimmer is speaking (not continually, but consistently) about pressure on the spinnaker, thereby helping the helmsman steer the proper angle. As the spinnaker trimmer calls out good pressure in the spinnaker, the helmsman is then free to steer a lower angle, thereby increasing VMG toward the mark. As the pressure on the spinnaker lessens, the helmsman should then consider steering a higher angle, keeping the boat up to speed.


On larger boats, more people are involved in the communication off the wind, but you can't let that disturb the focus.

On bigger boats, there are more people involved in this dialogue: the afterguy trimmer and the sheet grinder must be just as focused as the helmsman and the spinnaker trimmer. When I organize a crew on a big boat, I always try to have the afterguy trimmer be a person who is willing and able to focus on the spinnaker trim. It can be quite distracting for the sheet trimmer (and a real negative for boatspeed) if the afterguy trimmer is looking around at everything but the spinnaker. Focus is important here. Furthermore, the sheet grinder is a great role for an enthusiastic, but perhaps inexperienced, person. Ideally the grinder responds to the trimmer's calls, so an inexperienced person can work out great here. Just encourage him or her to focus on the trimmer's voice only. It presents a wonderful opportunity for training a new trimmer. However, it’s important to eventually encourage the grinder to look at the spinnaker with the trimmer. All too often you see a grinder, working away, looking down at the winch rather than at the sail. I always try to encourage people to look at what it is they are doing on the boat, rather than simply having their head down in the boat.

Another important role within the crew is to have someone looking upwind for puffs, light spots, shifts, and dirty air. This can be (and will be on a smaller boat) done by your tactician, but sometimes on a big boat it’s a good idea to have someone doing this full time, feeding the information to the tactician. This person should be standing up on the boat for a better view, but still being careful not to put his or her weight in an inappropriate place. The important information for the tactician and the helmsman is where the puffs are, and to the extent possible what kind of shifts they represent. You can use a variety of indicators to help you decide what the shift will be—other boats, flags on shore, smoke from a smokestack, whatever is available. In addition to the obvious gains to be made from sailing in increased pressure, the trimmer will benefit from having some idea of what breeze is coming, particularly in really strong winds, in order to keep the boat balanced and in control.


Even if you've only got two sailors on board, teamwork is still critical off the wind.

Of course keeping an eye on dirty air is a big part of the game. Often the trimmer can feel when the boat is sailing in bad air, so keeping the trimmer informed of what is going on behind the boat and what, if any, dirty air is coming, will help him or her a great deal. Have the lookout person inform your trimmer of what is coming and identify for the helmsman where is the best path to clean air. That person might say something like this: "Your air is clear now, but there is dirty air just high of us, so we should stay low as much as possible." Or, "We are in bad air here and it is only going to get worse. We should sail about 10 degrees high of this course for a short time to clear our air."

The way I like to explain this role is that there is a picture occurring behind the boat that is in a constant state of change. Unless you have someone constantly updating the helmsman and the trimmer regarding what that picture looks like, they will have to keep turning around themselves to look, and thus they won't be focusing on their jobs.

"The way I like to explain this role is that there is a picure occurring behind the boat and someone has to keep a constant commentary on that picture."
The other important information for the helmsman and trimmer is relative boat speed and angle. Comments like this are very helpful: "In general, we are faster than the boats around us, but we are sailing too high to get our speed. Let's try to burn a bit of speed by going low in the pressure." Or, "We are slow and low right now and we’re starting to get rolled, let's heat it up a bit." It’s natural for these comments to come from the tactician, but they can also come from the person watching for wind. Someone has to be the eyes outside of the boat, monitoring relative boat performance. This is an important job and should be given to someone with some experience and the confidence to think and speak definitively.

Perhaps the best indication of a team working well together downwind is how well they pump and surf to increase boat speed when the conditions permit such action. When it is being done well, significant speed gains are obvious. But when it is done poorly, a lot of energy is expended for little gain. There are many moving parts that have to be coordinated. The helmsman has to choose the correct wave to surf, and position the boat at the right place and the right time. Once the stern has lifted and the boat is turning down the wave, the trimmers (including the spinnaker sheet and guy trimmers, the grinder, and the mainsheet trimmer) have to trim or fan the sails in sync with each other. Unless all of this pumping is happening in a coordinated fashion, you’ll get little benefit from it.

Whether you are on a small boat and pumping the sails yourself, or on a big boat with multiple people involved, the basic concept is the same. Once the sail is trimmed correctly, prior to your pump, I try to think of the clews of the spinnaker as being connected by a steel rod. Then I envision pulling on the rod so that both clews come aft toward the boat together, at the same time and in the same amount. All too often you see people working hard, pumping more on the sheet or more on the guy, rather than together. This tends give some benefit, but it won’t maximize the potential for surfing.


Getting a boat to surf in the proper conditions is a matter of orchestrating the speed and heading of the boat along with the pumping of the sails—in essence, teamwork.
Weight placement downwind is something that everyone should be tuned into on their own, but the bigger the boat, the more differences of opinion you may get on what the boat needs. Therefore, I would normally expect the helmsman to be directing where the weight should go, depending on the feel of the helm. But everyone should be alert enough to feel when the boat is clearly out of balance, and not be afraid to ask the helmsman how the helm feels and if he or she needs some of the crew weight adjusted.

The final, critical piece to the concept of downwind teamwork is a crew boss to direct the boat-handling maneuvers. A classic problem on larger boats is that the front of the boat does not know what the back of the boat wants to accomplish and therefore is often not prepared at key moments. On larger boats, someone should be clearly identified as the liaison between cockpit and the foredeck, and this person needs to be vocal in both directions. If the same person is the crew boss, he or she should push the back of the boat to make decisions as soon as possible so that the crew up front will know what is going on and what they should be doing. The bigger the boat, the more critical this communication.

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll continue saying it, as with everything else in competitive sailing, practice is the key. There are a lot of aspects to sailing downwind, and a lot of people need to be working well together to have it all go smoothly. Keep practicing and you’ll see that holds true. Good luck, and sail fast!

Suggested Reading

Handling Leeward Gates by Brad Read

Team-Building Basics by Betsy Allison

Communicating on Board by Betsy Allison

SailNet Buying Guide

Spinnaker Poles

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