By Airwaves writer Lucas Masiello
Team racing adds an incredible amount of complexity to sailing tactics. While everything from fleet racing strategy applies to a team race, the tactics and what is important on the racecourse is very different. Because of this, as sailors, we need to augment our conversations from a fleet race mentality to look for what is crucial to a team race. As a single boathandling mistake can lead to losing the race, the skipper must be entirely focused on making the boat go fast; leading to the crew taking on the job as the primary tactician in the boat. While in a fleet race the crew should always be feeding information to the skipper and asking questions like “There’s more breeze out left, should we tack?” or “The fleet under us is splitting from us, let’s consider going with them to minimalize our loss potential.”, a team racing dialogue sounds a lot more like “Tack.” or “They’re getting out from under us, we need to go with them now”. In a functioning team race boat, the skipper fully trusts the crew’s decisions about the course and is able to keep their head in the boat to make sure that the boat is being sailed at 100% efficiency. This increased responsibility of the crew as the tactician means that as crews, we need to be able to filter through an incredible amount of information, make decisions on that information, and communicate those decisions as accurately and efficiently as possible. This article will give crews a checklist of information to look for when looking up the course at different points of a team race in order to help you make the best decisions as possible and win races.
On the start line, a crew’s job is largely the same as in a fleet race. Look behind you to make sure that there are no boats trying to take your hole, and check the course to determine what side is favored and communicate that with your skipper. After the start, a crew’s job is to paint a picture of the racecourse. Right after the start, the first thing I always communicate is whether or not we have a lane to tack. Regardless of what happens on the racecourse in the next couple of minutes, having the option to tack out (or at least knowing that you don’t) is crucial. After that is determined, the next most important piece of information to look for is what the play is. Firstly, I look at the pairings and see which team has what pair. If your team is winning at least two pairs, your team is currently in a winning position and you should be pushing the race forwards as it is. If not, it is time to start strategizing how to break the other team’s winning combination. Are you closer to one losing pair than the other? Is one losing teammate closer to the windward boat than the other? Can we help any of the pairings without sacrificing our own pair? These are all questions you have to ask yourself when determining which pairing (if any) you plan on breaking up. After all of this is determined, the next important piece of information to communicate is what play you are in. If you know your team’s playbook, you can determine what your next course of action will be no matter where you fall in any play, but it is crucial that not only you but your skipper and entire team knows where you are in the play. Look around. Is it possible to do you job in the play right now, or would it make more sense to wait until a mark rounding to make the play?
As the race progresses and you’ve already laid the framework of painting a picture of the racecourse, you need to continue to update that picture constantly. Every time something changes, your skipper needs to know. If you do your job perfectly, your skipper should be able to tell you where every boat is on the course, what the play is, and what needs to be done without ever looking away from their mainsail and telltales. In addition to this, you still need to be paying attention to what you would be talking about in a fleet race and communicate things such as counting down incoming puffs and lulls, pointing out big shifts coming down the course, and arguably most important of all, pointing out incoming starboard boats when on port. As a crew you have an incredible amount of information to juggle and filter through, but being able to efficiently cypher through everything that is going on across the course is what makes or breaks team races.
Going downwind, you will be able to get more help from your skipper in looking around the course as the boathandling is much easier on the skipper than upwind. That being said, there is twice as much going on and it is crucial that both you and your skipper are looking around the course and doing your part in the play you are in. Your skipper will often be focused on issues concerning overlap with the boats near you, so you should be looking at all the other boats on the course to continue to paint a picture of the racecourse. Important pieces of information to point out would be whenever a boat gybes and doesn’t gybe back within 5 seconds, if anybody on the course fouls, if boats are getting out to your left, and if the play changes at all. Secondarily, you should be looking around to see if boats are covering you, if anybody is sailing in clean air out of the back and passing boats without interference, and the changing wind conditions.
Team racing is incredibly fun for crews because it gives you a lot of responsibility in a boat that is traditionally very skipper-centric. Crews make or break team races, and any good college sailor would tell you that having a crew that is as mentally engaged in the team race is a crucial aspect of a functioning boat. While every crew and every boat operates differently, feel free to use the information presented in this article as a template for what to look for and what is important to communicate and develop a method that works for you off that.