Talk Your Way to the Front
Talk Your Way to the Front
Silence may be golden, but dialogue is fast; Andrew Kerr gets your team talking in this "Technique" piece from our October 2007 issue.
Picture yourself approaching the weather mark, late on port tack and heading toward a wall of starboard-tack boats. Your team communicates well, you've quickly discussed what's going to happen, and everyone is on the same page; you cross the first three starboard tackers, and then do a smooth duck on the last one before tacking on to the layline. The whole situation seems almost routine-but only because you've talked it through.
New teams, and boats with crew that haven't sailed together for a while would be well served to sit down together and talk about the importance of communication. In my role as a coach I typically sail with a wide variety of teams in a fairly wide variety of classes, and I've found it helpful to ask the team I'm sailing with what type of communication they like and how much. I find that it's particularly important to get on the same page-terminology wise. For example, if we need to communicate a need to sail faster, we might hear any of the following: "bow down, fast forward" by one person, "bear off" by another, "foot mode" by another, and so on.
It's not uncommon to see communication lapses between a starboard tacker who wants a port tacker to cross. If the port tacker asks to "cross or tack," make sure everyone knows the response is "cross." If someone says "no" it could be interpreted as "go" and vice versa. The point is to have everyone agree on the terminology so there is no misunderstanding.
The composition and communication style is different for every team, so the communication channels and the content may be different. But I've found that you cannot get too good at this--there are always better, more concise ways of expressing observations. 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 establishes a foundation so that everyone is on the same page and talking their way from start to finish. The challenge of good communication is coming up with ways to get across your observation or idea to the rest of your team in the most efficient and understandable way. Let's look at a communication model for a five-person keelboat, which can certainly be applied to other boats as well. We'll break the race in to segments and look at the basic communication roles that each team member has. We'll assume the tactician in this example is the middle person.
Final approach to the start
The bowman must communicate distance to the line in boatlengths using hand signals and tell the helmsman where other boats are, warning of encroaching boats. An example of this is: "Two boatlengths. Watch bow 32 and 71." Try to do this off the bow as much as you can; on smaller keelboats crouch at the shrouds.The mastman vocalizes the time countdown clearly. A good technique is to make eye contact with the skipper when calling the time so they're clear about the time. The middle crew 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 No. 65, he might try to hook us." The middle crew also relays any VHF broadcasts or flag activity from the race committee.
The cockpit crew, which in this example is also the jib trimmer, warns the skipper of boats approaching from clear astern and boats to leeward, particularly those approaching late on port tack. It's good practice to point at the boat as well as making eye contact with that other skipper. I have seen top cockpit crews do this: it alerts the skipper to the port tacker, but also communicates to the port tacker that they have been spotted, and defensive action (usually bow down and aiming at them to make them tack early or duck) is inevitable. The cockpit also communicates how much space to leeward there is and when the leeward boats are accelerating.The helmsman communicates whether he wants to go fast, slow, or hold his position. This can be done easily by the words "speed" or "luff." It should be noted that a bad start typically includes a collective lack of clarity on any one of these aspects--in particular the skipper losing a sense of where the line is at 15 seconds, or the time not being communicated clearly. 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.