The Dynamic Dialogue
The Dynamic Dialogue
When the tactician is not in an ideal position to continuously monitor tactical situations, the helmsman and his mainsail trimmer must take on a more active role. "Technique" from our April 2011 issue.
On top boats, the dialogue while racing will typically involve four key people: the tactician, helmsman, mainsail trimmer, and jib trimmer. Granted, not everyone has the luxury of sailing with a great helmsman, trimmer, and tactician, and on a lot of boats, crewmembers have multiple roles. The helmsman, for instance, might also trim the main, or the jib trimmer might call tactics. But for our purposes, we’ll split up the roles, with each person focusing on a single aspect of getting the boat around the course as quickly as possible. Now, let’s go through a maneuver. Imagine yourself on an upwind leg, on port tack, encountering a starboard tacker. Here’s what you might hear as the boat prepares for and then dips the starboard-tack boat.
Mainsheet trimmer: Boat 17 is coming in on starboard tack, and we’re not crossing.
Tactician: Got it. I see him. We want to continue on port tack; we’re going to dip ‘em.
Mainsheet trimmer: Copy.
Mainsheet trimmer [to helmsman]: See boat 17? We’re going to dip him in three boatlengths. It’s a medium-sized dip.
Helmsman: Got it.
Mainsheet trimmer [to jib trimmer]: Medium dip, no ease on jib.
Jib trimmer: Got it.
Mainsheet trimmer [to helmsman]: Keep going . . . Keep going . . . Bow down, now . . . A little deeper than that . . . OK, start coming up.
Helmsman: We’re over target speed but not on our angle. I need more helm.
Mainsheet trimmer: I’ll sheet in a little to bleed off some speed.
Helmsman: OK, we’re now at target speed. The helm feels good.
Tactician: That was one of the best dips we’ve done. Try a little more mainsheet eased going into the dip next time. It felt like we came close to stalling.
This scenario illustrates a number of key ingredients. Let’s break down what happened.
The conversation operates in two “loops.” The first is the tactical loop. A starboard-tack boat is approaching, and the tactician makes the call to dip because the big-picture tactics demand that they continue on port tack. Once that tactical call has been made, the tactician turns it over to the speed loop. That includes the mainsheet trimmer, the helmsman, and, at times, the jib trimmer. They will guide the boat as quickly as possible through the maneuver and back on course. Once the maneuver is complete, the tactician briefly jumps in to provide feedback. From there, the boat will be in the speed loop mode until another tactical situation arises.
The above situation is a pretty standard maneuver—one that has been well practiced. All the tactician has to do is make the call—“We’re going to dip ‘em”—and the responsibility is then handed over to the speed loop. As a tactician, I will occasionally chime in to the speed loop, but I don’t want to be relied on for that. Ideally, I try to focus 95 percent of my time just on boat placement.
When does the tactician get involved in the speed loop?
Imagine you’re on the starting line, you’re to leeward of another boat, and you’re bow back, meaning you’re on the edge of getting rolled. The boat to windward is reaching off slightly. There’s a lot of room to leeward of you, and your success at that one moment is really the race—you have to maintain position. Now, everyone has to concentrate on boatspeed. In this situation I’ll help out by managing our position by saying something like, “We’ve got to go faster, bow down!” If it’s going to take a while to work out from under the other boat, I might say, “The race is to windward—plenty of room to leeward. This is your target for the next three minutes.” And once our speed is up, I’ll confirm, “That’s good—holding speed now.”
Another time I’ll jump into the speed loop is when we’re sailing downwind, and a competitor jibes on our air. To stay in clean air, we may need to sail off from the best VMG angle. This will result in having more or less pressure on the trimmer’s sheet than they normally sail with downwind. Consequently, they can’t rely on sheet pressure to guide the helmsman in finding the correct downwind angle. The correct angle can only be found by looking at the other boat, which is not ideal for a helmsman or trimmer. The tactician is the only one free to judge their speed, position, and tactical situation.
When one of these situations ends, when the windward boat tacks away, for example, I’ll say to the main trimmer, “You’ve got it.” In other words, I’m checking out of the speed loop, it’s back to you guys. This way, we all focus all of our energy on speed when the entire race depends on it, and when it doesn’t, we can seamlessly move back into the tactic and speed loops seamlessly.
In our earlier conversation, the main trimmer is driving the speed loop conversation, calling the degree of dip to which the helmsman will steer, making sure the jib trimmer is onboard with what’s happening, and responding to the call for more helm. This takes the weight off the skipper—lets him concentrate on driving. Typically, the helmsman and mainsheet trimmer are sitting next to each other, so communication between the two is quite easy. And typically, the mainsheet trimmer says what he’s trying, and the helmsman gives him feedback on that. I think of it like sitting through an eye exam. The optometrist keeps putting different lenses in front of you, asking, “Which is better—this one or that one?” It’s the same type of conversation between the main trimmer and the helmsman. And, like at an eye exam, one person has to drive that conversation. The helmsman, jib trimmer, or tactician should help and make suggestions, but the decision is up to the mainsheet trimmer. It’s OK if the helmsman wants to drive the speed loop, but this means he or she will not be focusing on driving. The thing about the mainsheet trimmer is that he’s looking at the main the whole time, which is not easy for the helmsman to do. The trimmer is only missing one piece of feedback—the feel of the helm.
The other part of the speed loop involves the main and jib trimmer. In the above situation, the main trimmer is driving the conversation. What’s a typical conversation between the mainsheet trimmer and the jib sheet trimmer sound like? Since the main trimmer can’t really see much of the jib, he will often look at it in terms of its affect on the mainsail. If the jib isn’t trimmed hard enough, the main trimmer might say, “I can’t see you in my sail,” meaning there’s no backwind in the mainsail. If it’s a puffy day, and the main trimmer needs to open the slot for a big puff, that’s the main trimmer’s call. Someone will be calling pressure, saying “It’s only here for 15 seconds,” and the mainsheet trimmer might respond with, “I’m going to luff for 10 of it, but then we’ll be fine.” That tells the jib trimmer the jib does not need to be eased. There are many times when the jib trimmer may want to change the lead position, sheet tension or something else. He usually goes ahead and does that, then asks the main trimmer for feedback. That last part—feedback—is critical in keeping the boat fast.