By Airwaves high school reporter/writer Abby Tindall
Working together with another person in high-stress situations is not easy, and when it comes to sailing, many skippers take the brunt of the pressure. A good crew can be a great foil, and needs to know how to handle the different reactions and attitudes their skippers display. There’s often the silently-brewing skipper, the temperamental skipper, the whiny skipper, etc. As a crew, dealing with your own stress AND the skipper’s stress (which is often taken out on the crews) is vital to success of both partners and the boat as a whole.
I’ve been sailing in 420’s for 5 years now working together with many different skippers. I’ve sailed on the National Club 420 Racing Circuit for two years and 4 years on a top Varsity High School sailing team. After some time of awkwardly adjusting to different people and situations, I came up with a consistent strategy that has proved successful in my experiences.
Here’s what I do. When I get into a boat with a new skipper I try to get to know them as a person. Knowing who they are hints at what they care about, but also builds a foundation for your relationship. It is important to understand your teammate and especially when you get into tricky interactions, reminding yourself that they are human just like you helps. Talking amongst each other and explicating your role in the team is also a good start. Even if its a skipper you have sailed with before, make sure you clarify the jobs: who will call tactics, pressure, boats, etc. (hint- its probably a combination of both of you).
While formalities are nice, the real connection between you and a skipper comes on the water in close situations. It is then that the ideal of a dream skipper often comes crashing down.
It is not uncommon for human beings to blame others when the chips are down. In my experience, many skippers become micro-managers when they feel pressure because they want everything to be perfect when in a tacking-duel or trying to make a mark. Instead of focusing on the task, they habitually focus on the crew. Some skippers will unintentionally boss you around: “up on the rail… jib in more…windward sheet… leeward more… windward!” When in this situation, depending on the severity, it is best to simply wait till the end of the race. If you don’t mind this tendency, you may let it go. For me, it would get to a point where I couldn’t do my own job because I was so intent on doing everything my skipper asked- which wasn’t always the correct command. In this scenario, after the race I would say “I think in the future, when we get to the stressful point, I can help you more if I focus on my own task- which would be easier if you do the same. I’ve noticed that when you get pressured sometimes you tend to pay a lot more attention to me and my job, but that stresses me out. If there’s something you want me to focus on specifically in the race its better to let me know now instead of later.” Approaching a problem in a calm manner using “I” and telling them how you feel increases their openness to what you are saying. In reality, that discussion is very hard to phrase, and is even more uncomfortable to initiate. But when something isn’t working, the crew needs to speak up. Starting that conversation about how to improve communication and relations is a giant step to success.
Micro-managing skippers can be bad…. but maybe not the worst type. Temperamental and angry skippers can be overwhelming and detrimental to overall performance. For teammates that get angry easily, never use the phrasing “calm down.” Its very tempting to quickly state, but too often it has the opposite effect of the intention. Your teammate often simply gets angrier, because (to them) it comes across as though you are blaming them. A better way: instead, its just as easy to say “its okay, lets just focus on _______.” Obviously, this wont solve the problem within the race, but it can allow them to step out of the angry mindset and instead center their energy on an obtainable task such as going fast or thinking ahead.
Another kind of skipper that can be difficult to sail with is the one that constantly whines and complains. They vent their frustrations through you by saying “aww……. why did we tack there” or “how did we get so far back” or “we’re not even going fast.” This defeatist, negative language can affect your own attitude as well and influences your drive to continue. Instead of giving up, its better to reassure your skipper: they need to know that there’s still a way to come back. You can respond to a whiny skipper by saying: “HEY, we can come back from this. There’s pressure coming down on the left. Let’s get to that and then lead across.” This pulls their attention away from their demoralizing attitude to focus on the task at hand. The initial “HEY” asserts your authority in the situation, proving that you are the headstrong one that the moment. Then, add a bit of reassurance and give them hope to continue. Finally, even if its the worst idea you’ve ever come up with, give them a brief plan for HOW to fix the problem. You may be wrong, but it lets them look ahead on what they need to do.
All this being said, these solutions don’t work at all times. This is the way I approach various situations and the ways in which I have become adaptable to changing helmsman. I certainly think they can help you immensely especially if you are relatively new to the sport or simply a quiet crew. There are times when I have met a lot of opposition even with this technique. For instance, I mentioned to a skipper that we should focus on going fast instead of our poor placement in the race, and they responded with anger saying “Well I can’t focus on going fast when we’re literally in dead last!” That was a kind of response that I was unequipped to handle in the race. I chose to not respond to that comment because at the time I figured I would only trigger his/her frustration more. Another option if you’re the type that likes to speak up is to say “I understand we’re not doing well but I think there are ways to catch up and we can pursue those options.” I applaud you if you can manage to get that out in a race because while that phrasing is respectful, if your skippers hears a scent of your own anger and frustration, they will assume you’re mad at them and react poorly. Remember, as a crew YOU are the therapist. You have to respond calm, cool, and collected to avoid worsening the skipper’s stress.
Now, here’s a note to skippers. I understand the amount of pressure that is placed on you. I, as a crew, was asked to substitute skipper because we had a shortage at practice. The amount of stress I took on from that basic switching of roles within the boat was immense. After every race I had to shrug my shoulders to relive the built-up pressure. While, this may have been because I was not used to skippering, I believe it was because of the position. As the helmsman, YOU make the decisions. The crew helps as much as they can feeding information, rolling perfectly, keeping the boat flat and fast, maintaining flow, etc. but ultimately cannot steer. They don’t have to take all the blame if you run into another boat. While the fault may have been theirs for not luffing the jib fast enough, YOU as the skipper has to take the responsibility. That being said, the anxiety that coincides with skippering does not give you a free ticket to be a terrible person. Your crew wants to do well just as much as you and is on your team so treat them with respect. Don’t yell at them when they make a mistake, or blame them when you do. Use them as a resource, work together with them, so that you both can learn and improve to make the best team you can be.
It is vital for crews and skippers to work together harmoniously in order to produce the best outcomes. This is best realized in a relationship that fosters growth and communication. A skipper needs to be wary of their actions, especially towards their partner, and a crew needs to be able to respond well and aid the skipper in any way. A dynamic of trust, gratitude, and compatibility, coupled with a shared desire of success makes for the best teams.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Tindall, Airwaves Intern Writer
Abby’s passion for sailing was fostered during her summers at Edgartown Yacht Club on Martha’s Vineyard. Inspiring her to become more involved in the sport, Abby now participates in the C420 youth sailing circuit and crews for her high school Severn School, in the Annapolis area. Abby is a rising senior and looking forward to sailing in college. You can reach Abby at firstname.lastname@example.org