By Airwaves writer Joe Cooper
Check out Part I
During my two America’s Cup campaigns we would generally try and pull the boats out of the water every day (Oh yes, things are much different today). With the boats on the hard or hanging in the travel lift straps the team members, those not working on other tasks, would default to wet sanding the bottom. Occasionally some innocent bystander would wander into the yard and say something like “getting ready for the big race, eh?” We would nod and exchange pleasantries for a minute and if they stayed too long, we would offer them some sandpaper and they would scurry away.
When the America’s Cup World Series was in Newport a few years ago, I was walking the grounds at Ft. Adams one afternoon just before the racing started and came across two guys wet sanding the bottom of one of the cats. Not wishing to interrupt or be invited to help I watched for a minute, musing on the idea of how some things never change. As I watched I was reminded yet again of the idea that rather than getting ready for “the big one” these guys were actually at the end of the ‘to do’ list for the regatta. If you have not planned, prepared, trained, tested: repeat, for as long as you can, then no amount of wet sanding will help. Consider all the organization, planning, practicing, designing, rebuilding, testing over several years in advance of the last America’s Cup in San Francisco for what amounted to just a few hours of actual racing. The wet sanding (on the day the boat goes out to actually race) is really out there on the margin of actions that produce winning results. I am NOT saying it is not important but once the boat has been sanded to the 1200 grit stage: consider wet sanding’s relative impact on the actual performance of the boat.
In the first essay of this series I posed the idea that successful sailboat racing is a management exercise. The first job for you as the owner is to articulate your goals to yourself AND write them down. The next thing you need to do is build a team from individuals that have the same goals. I say team because I submit that a TEAM is a different way of looking at the collection of individuals that make it up, than a CREW. I think that a team is a collection of individuals who make a concerted effort to become better than the individuals of each member while working together for a common goal. A crew is a collection of people who sail together on weekends.
Really good managers spend a lot of time understanding what makes their team members tick. We all are unique individuals and have different needs, wants, things that jazz us and things that annoy us, our own ways of responding to different situations, our own verbal shorthand, body language and so on. For a good leader to build a great team, he or she must understand these aspects of the humans on the team. The first key element after identifying a collection of likely souls is the “buy in.”
In other words, establish that the prospective team members are excited and willing and will create the synergy that achieves your (written down…) goals. The spectrum of where such people might come from is wide: existing or former crew, family & friends, mates from the yacht or golf club, from work, from other local yacht clubs, junior sailing programs locally, high school and college sailors, even the ones who are not rock stars, and so on.
So by definition you will have a collection of individuals with various backgrounds, sailing and or technical skills and histories. And it should be noted that the bigger the boat and the more aggressive the sailing program, the bigger the ratio of the number of people on the roster to the actual number of crew required to race the boat must be. Therefore even a modest boat, a J-109 for instance needing 7 or so sailors to work the boat might easily have 15 people on the roster. Once you have established the roster of individuals the next thing is to learn about them and to understand them. In order to do this you need to spend time with them, and I don’t mean just walking down the dock with them on race day or having a beer after the race. It so happens that the opportunities to learn about your team can be piggy backed onto a variety of activities both social and boat work related.
Some of the activities that offer opportunities to build a team include:
workdays on the boat (yup, including wet sanding and the earlier in the season the better); and scheduled sailing practice with a purpose (starts, mark roundings, reefing, tacking gybing etc., BEFORE you show up to the race). Other ideas are: practice drills with no speaking allowed; purposely creating situations where the crew is caught flat footed and the maneuver gets screwed up; letting the crew rotate in practice and in races where appropriate; letting the crew use the boat when you are not there or sending it out without you; having them move the boat from A-B.
Team building does not have to be all work and no play. Implement fun things like the best ‘on time” (to the boat) record for instance. Introduce a MVP award voted on by the crew.
You can set up a physical exercise award. Specify a particular series of exercises that can be done against each other or the clock.
This chart is what was called the Super Seven exercise regimen for Australia, 12KA5 in 1980. It was the compulsory standard exercise drill we all did before anything else in the morning. A full set is this list repeated 3 times.
Recognition and appreciation are two simple actions the leaders can take that have a disproportionately large impact on the recipient compared to the energy spent by the leader. A fun and simple approach that has been adopted by the Prout Sailors I coach is to distribute awards centered on the personality of the recipient. One year they presented awards using a paper plate with a graphic done by a couple of the more artistic sailors painted on it. These awards were for things like: most color coordinated, loudest laugh, most likely to barge at the start and so on. They were presented at an end of season party at one of the team member’s houses (parents invited too) and it was a hoot.
Another solid way to develop team ‘buy-in’ is allocating or asking different members to take on “departments” within the boat. Remember in the first essay I identified the five departments common to all boats regardless of their size. This is a great way to give the team a vested interest in the goals of the program because a part of the boat is “theirs” rather than just showing up on the weekend to sail on Fred’s boat.
“Owning” a part of the program invites their contribution to the program’s success. This is a greater contribution than merely showing up on Saturday morning. Again with the Prout sailors I get them to take on different responsibilities within the team. Getting the sails out, leading the newer kids in rigging, getting the marks ready and so on. For yachts, the list of areas within each department that need to be looked after is long. There is the engine and its related systems, safety equipment, navigational and electronics gear, sails, spars, rigging, logistics, food and water, race administration (for the paperwork-heavy Newport to Bermuda race, for example), rules, tactics and strategies for the various styles of racing you plan on, and so on. You can make your own list. Remember that the owner/skipper ought to be managing all of this and in any event cannot (successfully) and in fact, should NOT, do it all.
Who does what? On most boats, the bow, sewer/mast man and pit members generally will manage the sails, rig setup and tune, running rigging, winches, hydraulics, and anything related to the sails and the equipment used in setting them. This is largely because these departments actually use this equipment so it is in their best interest to make sure it is in good order.
The care and feeding of the engine is another important area that needs to be covered. Having a team member(s) take on the maintenance of the engine, battery, and related charging system, especially for boats sailing in distance races, prop thru hull and shaft alignment, the prop itself and its folding mechanism, fuel consumption, engine maintenance, and spares Belts and the water pump impeller are two good pieces of equipment to know how replace in short order. These are all good areas to have a dedicated team leader responsible for. In this department the more experienced can have an apprentice or two, again often a younger sailor, skilled in dinghies and day sailing keel boats, but unfamiliar with diesel engines. This apprenticeship not only provides a backup for the department head but also introduces the younger sailor to another element of what makes boats work—and so increases his or her value for their next boat. It will also develop a bond between the two or even three people in that sub team.
Performance meters and data recording feed critical information to the race management team in the afterguard. This ‘electronics’ department is another critical area that can have a direct impact on the performance of the boat. Electrons and salt water and air are very strange bedfellows and so a constant watch on all this gear is close to essential. This is of course a perfect match for the resident computer head(s).
Another important department (which one is not?) is basic ship husbandry, that is, looking after the boat. Ever been on a boat where once it hits the dock, everyone leaves? A really good buy-in to the boat is tidying up, writing up the work list, (although this is better done on the way in, after racing), and cleaning the boat. The cleaning task can be done by some number of the crew on a rotational basis you can figure out. This does a couple of things. It engenders a sense of pride in the boat, making her look sharp all the time AND it is a good way to find little things that need attention. Examples include: little stuff like a busted strand of wire on the life lines, or chafe if the life lines are textile; a cotter pin sticking out ready to gaff some innocent’s boot, skin or sail; an area of chafe on a halyard or other line and so on. It is important that the crew understands that no one leaves until the boat is clean and tidy. (Ok I get it will not be 100% all the time but we are talking goals here.) To do otherwise sets up an “us-and-them” meme which is the opposite of what you want: a cohesive team supporting each other.
Buy-in need not be the exclusive realm of the sailing team members either. Sailing takes up an inordinate amount of time and energy. Sailors need to have their sailing interests and sailing time in harmony with their private lives and significant others—if they are to sail with a consistency that works towards the attainment of the boat’s goals. Don’t be afraid to issue invitations for “John Q. Crew and Significant Other” to team events.
You may well observe that the foregoing is the exception rather than the rule with respect to most Corinthian programs. The overall idea I am articulating is to have not only the management of the program understand the individual members but to have also each member be part of building a cohesive team where each crew-member understands to as great depth as possible his or her team mates. The goal is to have the teamwork be as smooth, quiet and efficient as possible regardless of the circumstances on the racecourse the boat is on. Regardless of who is steering and calling tactics, having the crew yelling instructions to each other is distracting. There is a reason “teams” practice and spend time together over and above improving the actual technical skills of their activity.
My template for this kind of thinking is professional sports teams and elite military teams. Ok, ok, I get that you are not going to go out and win a Super Bowl or save the world, but in the area of increased performance in sailing, professionalism is a mind-set rather than an income stream. Carbon sails, super-duper thin, strong string, and instruments worth the GDP of a small country can only get you so far.
Sailing skills and seamanship can be taught, but cohesion, understanding, trust, confidence, and a shared sense of purpose in desired goals need to be built. These are the hallmarks of well managed teams. Anything less is merely a crew, and really, any old crew can wet sand a boat.
By Airwaves writer Joe Cooper