This article first appeared on SailNet in March, 2000.
That little incident occured after four less-than-inspiring races, but we had finally found our stride and a legitimate position in the hunt. On the final downwind leg to the finish, our collective chemistry simply clicked and we started sailing aggressively, heeling the boat to weather in the puffs to get a little more leeward drive and pumping the sails when appropriate. We quickly moved from sixth to fourth and were gradually overtaking the third-place boat in 16 knots of true breeze.
Then, suffering a tactical lapse, we let ourselves get locked out by that boat two thirds of the way down the leg. Our opponent had wisely set up in a controlling position to leeward and slightly overlapped from astern on a starboard jibe and he was sailing both of us dangerously close to the starboard layline. As we edged ahead on a wave, almost enough to clear him on a jibe, we thought we saw him start steering his boat into a jibe, so we turned our boat immediately. But the guy was smart and he had suckered us with a false maneuver so that we were forced to crash-jibe back onto starboard, fouling him in the process.
|"With some ungainly and unorthodox choreography, we eventually managed the 720-degree penalty turn and finished the race."|
It takes a while for bruised egos to make way for productive, post-race analysis, but when the injured crew—we'll call him Glenn— finally said: "What was I doing? I haven't had a line in my hands for 10 years…I'm a helmsman," the proverbial light bulb went on in my head. It turns out that our crew consisted of three sailors who identify themselves as helmsmen, one novice, and myself—I basically do anything on a boat but steer. On balance, we had loaded the boat with specialists, and without knowing it, we lacked the versatility to execute an emergency maneuver that might have saved our position in the race and most assuredly would have saved face and a little skin on Glenn's digits.
Go to any one-design regatta these days and you'll hear people talking about each other in position-specific terms. ‘He does cockpit for so and so,' or ‘she handles the bow on X.' Reading between the lines, it's clear that these people's identities as sailboat racers are essentially tied to their relative positions on the boat. That by itself isn't worrisome, but when doing the bow or the cockpit or the mast, or whatever singular position on a boat is all that a person understands, then you've got problems.
A good example of a boat where specialization evolved to become more the rule than the exception is the J/24. When Ken Read dominated this class in the early '90s, he regularly sailed with the same four crew and it would have been nearly unthinkable for them to rotate positions. One former North American and Midwinter Champion in that class, Geoff Moore, also has specific assignments for the people he sails with, but in recent years he's acknowledged the advantages of having a well-rounded crew: "I have a core group of nine crew that I call on for different regattas," he says. "Whenever we do a practice session, we make everyone rotate positions at least once. I think cross-training provides a value and I think it also tends to lighten the mood and gives the crew a chance to laugh at the skipper when he screws up. It's like the Army sergeant who gets down in the mud with his recruits."
What Moore describes is really a humanizing element, an assumption that people will be more effective if they understand the whole and not just an abstracted portion of that whole. Much of this understanding can be derived through empathy—a walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes notion that says if a driver spends an afternoon on the bow, he or she will understand why they can't carve the boat through a bat turn downwind and expect the jibe to go smoothly up front every time.
When I raced in the J/24 class, I used to get laughed at by our crew for proffering the idea of rotating positions after each mark rounding during our weekly Thursday night races. I even went so far as to suggest that race organizers mandate this practice for at least one race during a given regatta. My thinking was—and still is—that we would all end up as better boathandlers and sailboat racers if we made the effort to broaden our set of crewing skills by spending time in other positions on the boat.
When you consider who the most valuable players are in almost any team sport, it's always those who are the most versatile. In the National Basketball Association, guys like the L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant make the All-Star Team each year because they can hit the outside shot, drive the lane, score from the low post, and defend with equal ability. The same concept applies in sailboat racing, whether you're talking about a two-person crew on a Snipe or a 12-person team on Volvo Ocean Race speedster. This doesn't mean that the mast person on a Farr 40 shouldn't develop specialized skills for that position, but he or she will be a much more valuable and effective crew if they also understand what's happening on the bow, in the pit, and further aft as well.
Once you get into it, cross-training can be a lot of fun. And rotating positions among the crew isn't the only form of cross-training that can benefit racers. You can also add new dimensions to your abilities by spending time aboard different kinds of boats. The sailing characteristics of a moderate-displacement Sabre 362 will teach you things that time spent aboard a more lively Melges 24 won't, but that's fodder for a different article some other time. For now, the next time you're out for a fun race or a practice session, try rotating the crew around. You're guaranteed to have some initial problems as these people familiarize themselves with the duties and timing of new positions on the boat, but that guarantee also extends to having a more capable and knowledgeable crew in short order.
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