It’s common knowledge that when it comes to sailing, you must expect the unexpected. The ability to quickly adapt to a new situation is incredibly valuable when there are just minutes or even seconds to spare. One bizarre turn of events that every crew should be ready for is being thrown in the boat with someone new--either a teammate who you’ve never sailed with, or even someone from an opposing team. Especially if you’re used to sailing with the same person, this transition can be difficult, but there are a few techniques to make it as smooth as possible.
Injuries and illnesses during competition can take a skipper or another crew down at any moment, and if you’re on the sidelines prepared to go in, then you can capitalize on a unique learning experience. Sailing with a new person is highly beneficial for multiple reasons: Each skipper has invaluable tricks and tips that you can add to your repertoire, and their preferences will force you to try different techniques. It’s nearly impossible to walk away at the end of the day without gleaning some tidbit that will stick with you forever. It’s up to you to make sure that the two of you work as well together as possible, given the unconventional circumstances.
Even if you don’t expect to sail--say you’re helping to run race committee for the weekend or are brought as an extra body to an event--make sure that you’re ready to hop in the boat, no matter how slim your chances of racing are. If it’s a truly long shot, you don’t have to have your drysuit or spray pants on, but at least have them and proper base layers with you, as well as the rest of your essential gear. If you’re ready to sail, then your odds of going in have just skyrocketed, and your coach will be more likely give you a shot.
Once you’ve been thrown in the boat with a relative stranger, you need to put your own anxieties aside and focus on their state of mind. Your new skipper may be rattled; perhaps they’re a heavy crew who didn’t even expect to sail, or they’re only used to sailing with one crew, or--at worst--they might even blame themselves for an injury that just occurred. In a sport with so many variables, you’re one more unknown to them, and you need to reassure them that you two will be able to make it around the course just fine. Unfortunately, chances are that time will be tight, so you’ll have to work quickly.
First of all, tell your new skipper that you’re here to help them, and that you’ll do things the way they like. There won’t be time to hone your collaboration to perfection, so instead find out their preferences and tailor your style to them. Some important topics to cover include dialogue, basic boathandling, and jib trim (especially in a 420). Waste no time in covering all of these bases, and maintain an upbeat, receptive attitude while also keeping an eye on the race committee.
In terms of dialogue, it’s better to err on the side of talking too much with a stranger. Feed them as much information as possible, but also let them know that if they want a quieter boat, that’s fine with you. If they do say that they prefer a quiet boat, then you need to respect that and channel your energy into your movements and ask them for feedback after the race. There’s no time to build deep trust, so when you are talking, you have to come across as highly competent and reliable with your information--don’t say anything that you don’t know to be correct, although feel free to act as a Question Master and ask guiding questions. In fact, if they don’t mind, ask even more questions than usual, especially about things inside the boat, like your body movements and tuning. A stranger might feel shy about correcting you, so you need to seek out constructive criticism that will help your racing run more smoothly.
As you run through basic boathandling, ask questions such as: “How did that tack feel? Do you want me to change anything?” or, “Was that the amount of flatten from me good out of the jibe?” Pointed questions from you will make them feel more comfortable about addressing specific things that clash with their personal preferences. Hit all the basics that you need to get around the course: tacks, jibes, bearing off, rounding a mark and heading upwind, and an acceleration or two, and check in with them after each maneuver.
If you have time to do speed testing upwind, talk about jib trim with your new skipper. Especially if it’s light air in a 420, discuss windward sheeting and be willing to change your own preferences to theirs. The same goes for vang, cunningham, and outhaul. As the day goes on and you build more trust, then you can work on finding a middle ground between your two styles, but initially it needs to be all about what they like.
The best part of sailing with someone new, and by necessity doing things their way, is that you might just find that you like it--or at least some small part of it--better than what you did before. If you step into the boat with an open mind and a clean slate, then you can walk away with fresh knowledge more valuable than solid gold. Add it all to your repertoire and before too long, skippers will be begging you to jump into their boats.
Amelia Quinn is a senior at Tufts University, studying a little bit of Arts and Sciences and a lot of sailing. Find more of her blogs here, and pick up our March 2013 issue for our annual Guide to College Sailing.