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.
It’s important to know who is responsible as you move from the tactical loop to the speed loop and back again. You can’t have a bunch of leaders in every situation. And you need to be able to hand that responsibility off in different situations. I think of this as similar to passing a ball back and forth in basketball. The guy with the ball has the responsibility; he can determine how long to hang on to the ball and whether or not to take a shot or pass it to another player. In the same way, in the opening conversation, the tactician has the “ball” and calls the shot—ducking the starboard tacker and continuing on port tack. He then passes the ball off to the mainsheet trimmer, who is in charge of the speed loop. The trimmer calls the mechanics of the maneuver, in this case, a “medium dip,” guides the boat through the maneuver and back onto course. Once on course, the speed loop is full on, with the helmsman and mainsail trimmer communicating about speed and pointing.
A good part of this hinges on the talent onboard and using it as best you can. I often sail with Jeff Madrigali, who is the main trimmer and, among other things, really good at looking at waves and picking the best places to tack. If we need to tack, I’ll make that tactical call by saying, “Stand by.” That passes the ball to Madro. The jib trimmer then shifts off the rail, and gets ready to tack. Madro now has about 10 seconds to find the best place to tack the boat. Similarly, if we’re coming up to a boat we need to leebow, I’ll simply say, “Leebow boat X.” That hands the ball to the speed loop. Madro will then respond with “Got it” and take us through that maneuver.
The handing off of responsibilities is planned out before we even leave the dock. It has to do with his strength in handling those situations and also keeping me out of it. I always tell teams that the more they can deal with boat handling, the boat-on-boat situations, calling the spinnaker sets and takedowns, etc., the better I can deal with managing the fleet and watching the wind.
Make it straight talk
Robert Hopkins, our coach on Luna Rosa, introduced me to the importance of word choices used onboard. We had a lot of different nationalities, personalities, and so on. If someone said something to you, you had to acknowledge with “copy,” like the military does. For me, even if everyone’s speaking the same language, it’s really important to hear an acknowledgement, to make sure they heard and understood.
People always have a specific response, whether it’s “Got it!” “Copy,” or something else. Then, there’s no question about whether or not a message got through. It doesn’t make much difference what you say, as long as it’s concise and loud enough. Without the verbal acknowledgement, then, as tactician, I end up asking, “Did you hear?” and eventually verbally driving the boat through the maneuver. When this happens, the whole team ends up sailing with our heads in the boat, doing something that should be rather straightforward, such as a dip, and not paying attention to the big picture.
I usually don’t present alternatives, such as, “If he tacks on us, we’re going to tack.” That gets too complicated. I try to state the goal, so we’re all working toward it, and as the situation changes, I make adjustments. In the opening scenario, the tactician clearly states the goal right at the beginning: “We want to continue on port tack.”
I also try not to tell people too much too far ahead of time. If I say, “In five boatlengths a boat is going to cross well ahead” or something like that, team members start moving out of position to look, and before you know it, the boat’s out of balance and going slower.
One of the occasions when I do paint a picture for the crew occurs at the windward mark. Suppose we’re coming into the windward mark on port, we’re the windward boat, and there’s a boat to leeward of us on the same tack. That boat is just far enough away from us that we can’t pin it, or prevent it from tacking until we do. It’s clear that boat will tack on the layline. Then, I might say “There’s a boat ten boatlengths to leeward, and they’re going to tack. When they do, we’ll tack and leebow them.” Now, when the other boat tacks, our helmsman and mainsheet trimmer know the situation ahead of time. We’ve briefly gone into the tactical loop, and then the ball is handed right back to the speed loop, who will guide the boat through the leebow.
I’m also careful to always say the most important thing first. On the Melges 32 I sail on, you might hear me say to our helmsman, “Kip, keep driving fast, I’m going to paint the picture for you,” and explain the situation. Or, “Keep driving; I’m going to yell to another boat.” In each of those examples, the emphasis is on making sure the helmsman continues doing what’s most important—steering the boat. Then, with that as his primary focus, I can describe the next move. The dynamics between the tactical loop and speed loop certainly vary from boat to boat. A lot of that hinges on the capabilities of the individuals involved. But even if you’re not functioning at a world-class level, making sure the roles are clear, the priorities are set, and the means of communication are in place will boost the performance of any team.