By Andrew Kerr
Picture yourself on port tack, going fast – with a wall of starboard tackers coming at you that you can barely see but you know their bows are charging at you!
Your team communicates well and is all on the same page, you cross the first 3 starboard tackers and then do a smooth duck on the last one before tacking on to the lay line for the weather mark. The whole situation seems almost routine – why? One strong element is that the team was communicating well as each team member was apprised of the situation and their subsequent role in it.
In particular – new teams, boats with new crew and teams that haven’t sailed together for a while would be well served to sit down together and talk about the communication / terminology that all on the team can quickly understand in the heat of competition and implement and execute with.
I typically sail with a wide variety of teams in a fairly wide variety of classes and have found it helpful to ask the team I am sailing with what type of and how much communication they like.
It is particularly important to get on the same page terminology wise – for instance needing to communicate that we need to go faster might be termed “ bow Down fast forward” by one person, “bear off” by another, “ foot mode” by another and so on!!
There essentially is no point communicating things the skipper doesn’t understand! Have you ever noticed sometimes that a team goes silent after a bad start and is fighting it out in the back of the fleet on the first beat? If you recognize this trait in your team, then now is the time to try and change it – be the one to start prompting the team to communicate – whether it be puffs, angles, waves or looking for lanes and opportunities, it gets the team back in the game and before you know it you will be passing boats and getting back in the race.
The trick is to all agree on the terminology so there is no misunderstanding. One of the
Challenges of good communication is formulating way’s to get across your observation / idea to the rest of your team in the most efficient and understandable way. Let’s look at a suggested communication model for a five person J24 that also can be applied to other boats as well.
Imagine you’re self on the rail as tactician trying to describe to the skipper how your team is doing against 20 or so boats that are to windward and on the same tack.
Here is a suggestion – divide the fleet into thirds – the initial (closer) third, the middle third and the top (most windward) third. The communication would go like this: “Initial group is bow down, middle group is bow even and the top group is bow up” That may be followed up by an overall performance analysis of – “it’s net gain/net even/ net loss to us”. Now like all the management courses tell you – if it is a net loss then we need to bring a solution to the table rather than simply present a problem! No need to kill the messenger here!
That reason may be that they have more breeze, a favorable wind shift or could simply be going faster. If the latter – why? Look at their set up – pay particular attention to the other boats forestay tension & Genoa halyard tension and how much backstay they have on and compare it to your setting also note what mode of sailing are they in – “ a fast forward bow down mode or a bow up height mode.
Let’s break the race down in to segments and look at the basic communication roles that each team member has. We will assume that the tactician/ strategist in this example are the middle person.
Before the start/ practice & preparation time:
This a perfect time to get the communication flowing – hoist the Genoa, go upwind and get settled in and then start the communication flowing both upwind and downwind , once the dialogue is established then we have a model & understanding for which we can build on . If you are sailing with a new team this is a perfect time to talk out what is understandable to everyone on board and what your communication role is going to be.
On the final approach to the start:
Bow: Communicates distance to the line in boat lengths using hand signals – communicates where other boats are and looks through the Genoa vision window to warn of encroaching boats. An example of this is – “Do you see bow 32 and 71 “?
Note: Try to do this off the bow as much as you can on smaller keel boats by crouching at the shrouds with an occasional run up to the bow for a confirmation – this keeps the weight off the bow and also increases skipper vision.
Mast: Communicates time clearly – a good technique is to make eye contact with the skipper when calling the time so they are under no uncertain terms of the time.
Middle: Warns the skipper of boats to windward and behind who may try to reach down and overlap to leeward late in the starting sequence an example might be – ‘ watch # 65 he might try to hook us “ .
Verbalizes the big picture to the team from a strategy standpoint – “there is more breeze left and the line is square – let’s start to the left of midline”.
Communicates clearly the broadcast on the VHF Radio and also communicates any flags that may have been hoisted from the RC – also backs up on time calling if necc.
Cockpit: Warns the skipper of boats approaching from clear astern and boats to leeward – particularly port tack approaches – an example of this – “ do you see # 22 “ and points at that boat as well as making eye contact with that skipper
I have seen the top cockpit crews do this – it firstly alerts the skipper to the port tacker and also communicates to that port tacker that they have been seen and defensive action ( Usually bow down and aiming at them to make them tack early or duck you) is about to happen.
The cockpit also communicates how much space to leeward there is and when the leeward boats are accelerating – “#27 is trimming on and is getting bow forward on us , we have a good gap to work “.
Skipper: Communicates whether we want to go fast or slow/ hold position. This can be done easily by the words “speed” or luff”.
It should be noted that a bad start very often includes a lack of team clarity on any one of these aspects – in particular the skipper losing a sense for where the line is at 15 seconds or the time not being communicated clearly. It’s so important that your team is all on the same page here.
The challenge of starting – particularly in a big aggressive fleet is that it is a series of one on one situations that happen in rapid succession – thus the necessity for different teams members to take on concise communication roles .
It is really important for the crew to provide concise information to the skipper but then to let them execute the start. The skipper doing there own start will enable them to continue to develop there own skills ( time & distance, gap and special awareness) and instincts in conjunction with concise verbalized observations that we have noted prior.
Communicates puffs, light spots, flatter water and waves and where the mark is; “Big puff coming in 3, 2, 1 and it sustains, mark is at 11 o’clock”. It is very helpful to know if the puff does sustain (hold) or not so your team knows how much and how long we may have to depower the boat.
Very often calling the lulls and how long they last is neglected and this costs a team many boat lengths. A good example of good communication here would be: “Light spot coming in 3, 2, 1 and it last for about 10 lengths”.
Critical communication for the bow person going upwind is boats converging with your team through the Genoa window – especially in a big fleet!
Poor communication hear can lead to some theatric maneuvers that were not planned on!
An example of excellent communication would be: “ 2 starboard tackers coming about 40 seconds away in the middle of the window – looks like we are bow to bow with them – do you see them? ‘ Important note here is some teams prefer a time estimate and some a boat lengths estimate – find out what the preference is or what is more understandable.
Using the Genoa vision window is a great tool for judging crossings – if the approaching boat is in the forward part of the window they are likely crossing ahead, if they are in the middle of the window they are likely bow to bow with you and if they are in the back part of the window you are likely crossing them.
In Choppy conditions it is very beneficial for the bow to communicate a flat spot for the team to tack in – “good flat spot in 2 boat lengths”. Anyone that has ever tacked into the biggest chop set of the day will appreciate this!
Keep it up – keep calling the puffs, waves & lulls and don’t get down if you feel you are missing some of them or not doing it perfectly.
I remember years ago during a regatta taking a break from it on one portion of a windward leg as I thought I was off beat in my calls – as soon as I stopped calling the wind – Rod Johnstone (who was on the rail next to me) said some encouraging words – –“keep it up, Jeff (Johnstone) is listening and it’s helping us a lot”. Ever since, both in my own sailing and coaching I have encouraged people to keep taking there swings at it as it helps keeps the team alert and in the race.
Mast: Helps relay compass #’s and looks for the mark. “Mark is at 11 o’clock”. A really good one is when the mast person takes over calling puffs/ waves while the bow is putting the guy in the pole – “ Big puff in 2, 1, followed by a chop set “ . This back up communication is excellent and is one of the hallmarks of the good teams.
Communicates speed and height versus the competition and overall positioning (see prior communication suggestion at the beginning of the article).
Asks the skipper how the boat feels and communicates to the skipper what mode of sailing the team should be in – i.e.: fast forward, (bow down, Genoa sheet eased, Mainsheet slightly eased) or in “height mode” (bow up, trim tighter, sailing with a narrow groove) to possibly pinch another team off. “Let’s get in height mode here – there is more wind just to weather of us” or “ lets go fast forward here , there is more breeze straight ahead” would be a good example of the middle s communication. Another one would be – “the fleet is heading to the right, lets pick a spot and go with them”.
Translates what the compass numbers mean is invaluable – particularly off the starting line and also rounding the leeward mark – “we are up 5 degrees “, “we are at the Median heading “, and “we are down 10 degrees on this tack compared to last time”. Being specific here is the key element and keeping the number of words to a bare minimum for simplicity will be the way to go in all instances.
Talks with the skipper about the gap the Genoa trim – “am at max trim “, “am in eased mode”. One of the hardest scenarios is in light air when the wind is shifting faster than the skipper can steer to – if the wind lift and the outside telltale stalls a good communication is : “ I am eased,” or “we are lifted” ( While easing the sail out to reattach the flow to the outside part of the sail).
In light air the trimmer will be sitting to leeward and can verbalise the performance of the boats to leeward and also the separation between the team and the leeward boat. This can be particularly helpful off the starting line – “good gap to leeward you have room to go bow down if you want” – other examples would be – “boats to leeward are in fast forward mode and are gaining”,” good separation on the boat to leeward, net gain us”.
Can verbalize the compass numbers as they are in their range of vision and ask for input once in a while if it is not forthcoming. Talks about how the boat feels and whether there is enough power, also talks about what mode of sailing is required for the given boat to boat and strategic situations.
“We thought you meant go – not no!!”
It is not uncommon to see communication lapses between a starboard tacker who does not want a port tacker to cross and a port tacker who thinks the starboard tacker is waving them to cross. !
If your team wants a port tacker to cross (rather than get lee bowed) then the best thing to say is “Cross”, cross!” If a team say’s “no “it could be interpreted as “go” and vice versa.
Important note here – and especially in a big fleet is that it is very often far better to tell a port tacker to cross – as you may be lifted, going fast and in a great lane and the last thing you want is to be lee bowed and slowed down or impeded in any way.
Especially with a bigger fleet – maintaining a lane of clear air and positioning for the next puff become paramount. As well as inside position at the respective gate mark (if there are two leeward marks.
The team has to maintain the same intensity that they had at the start and the first leg and this can be achieved through concise and consistent communication to help the team go fast in the given conditions and circumstances.
Very often teams fall silent going downwind if they are behind ( just like after a bad start) this is where you have to pick it up , look harder , be more observant and get every scrap of info that you can to gain places. Keep the dialogue going and intensity level as if you were in the lead, it will pay dividends.
Helping look for wind and scanning and verbalizing where the marks (s) are a big here. “Mark is at eleven O ‘clock, big puff forming up to beam in 3, 2, and 1 – now “would be an example of good communication and heads up sailing.
Mast: Some good communication here is relaying the compass #’s to the middle and also asking the trimmer & skipper how the pole height is and vang tension looks. “How’s pole height? I think the vang is too tight – how does it look? “
Middle: The middle crew is communicating lanes of wind and verbalizing jibing opportunities and fleet performance analysis as well as keeping track of Compass $’s to make sure the team is on the correct jibe.
They are talking about the net gains or losses versus boats that are on the other jibe and the angles that the boat s behind are sailing.
A good example would be “boat behind sails 5 degrees higher than us, now he is same angle, our air is clear; its net gain versus the boats on the other jibe”. More info would be: “I like where we are, we have been headed on the compass and are on the closest jibe to the mark, the starboard gate is favored in this shift”.
Any concise communication that you can come up with that eloquently and to the point states your observation is going to help the team understand what is required and the tactical scenario.
A really good spinnaker trimmer focuses on the sail all the time and doesn’t get distracted. The communication from the middle and the dialogue they have with the skipper paints the picture for them of where the team is on the racecourse.
The trimmer’s communication would typically be – “pressures starting to develop (on the spin sheet), hold that angle, now pressures good – come down 5 degree, ok no lower”. The communication can be even more specific “down two degrees, hold, no lower, up 3 degrees, great, tight there, no higher”. This communication is so valuable on those puff / lull days that present the team with good opportunities to gain.
One of the goals of this ongoing and specific communication from the spinnaker trimmer is to ensure that the team does not sail too low in the lulls and too high in the puffs.
As a trimmer one’s ongoing goal is to provide consistent and specific communication on the trim to help the boat go fast and at the right angle as much as possible in the range of conditions.
The real focus here from a communication standpoint is listening to the crew communication, double checking where the mark is and noting compass heading changes for shifts. If the communication is not forthcoming then some verbalized prompters such as “where is the best breeze?” “Is our air clear? How are we doing versus the boats that jibed? ‘And so on may be necessary.
At the leeward mark – Negotiate early!
In observing big fleets round the leeward mark one of the hallmarks of a disciplined fleet are very few protests and the fleet rounding in single file (bow to stern) and not blocks of boats rounding on the outside.
This year I watched some of the races at the UK J24 Nationals and observed some excellent mark roundings with very few protests, the hallmark of a good caliber fleet.
To me this indicates teams who have negotiated their overlaps or lack of overlaps early and then have focused on the best rounding possible.
Important note here is that most of the time it is better to round behind someone with clearer air and the option to tack rather than outside them, in bad air and with little or no option to tack.
Good communication approaching the leeward mark would be for the skipper (or your designated communicator) to start the dialogue early with the skippers of the other boats – “# 52 we are overlapped, #77 no overlap “etc.
Now obviously this can change later on but what you have done is opened up the dialogue to reduce the potential for late mis understandings.
Keep the process going:
The bulk of this article is suggestions on your team’s communication – the composition and style of each team is different so the communication channels & content may be different.
I have found that you just cannot get too good at this, there are always’s better, more concise way’s of expressing observations in a concise and understandable way, I try to come up with new ways as much as I can both in my role as a coach and in my own sailing.
The important thing though is that those channels are open and that the team has established a foundation so that everyone is on the same page with the type and amount of communication that is required for each scenario that you meet on the race course. Very best of luck at your next regatta.
By Andrew Kerr