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I Thought I Would Enjoy This More

A first-time big boat tactician discovers that it's not nearly as easy or as much fun when everyone else is expecting you to make the right calls.

June 12, 2012
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A few years ago, a veteran America’s Cup headsail trimmer told me that he’d never really aspired to move any further back in the boat. He liked, he said, being in the engine room. It was a great quote and part of me understood exactly what he was saying.

But there was another part of me that didn’t completely buy it, and wondered if that was simply his rationalization for the fact that he’d found a niche where he could make a good living and that the risk/reward ratio in an attempt to move into the afterguard simply wasn’t promising.

Humans, after all, are programmed to evolve, to grow, to move up the food chain. In the world of big boat sailing, that’s a progression that eventually takes you out of the engine room and onto the bridge.

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This past weekend marked my debut as a tactician. Sort of. Technically, I call tactics every time I go Laser sailing in Newport’s frostbite fleet. Someone’s got to decide where to sail, and I’m the only one on the boat. And I’m nominally the tactician on the J/24 on which I sail on Thursday nights, though I think that’s primarily because I’m the only one on the boat without another primary responsibility.

But those aren’t quite the same as calling the shots during a big boat regatta like the 158th New York YC Annual Regatta, as I did last weekend for Ganson Evans Farr 395 Old School. Now that I’m speaking from experience, I can tell you being a big boat tactician is both harder than it looks, and a lot less fun.

My performance was, not surprisingly, a mixed bag. I made some good calls, and some calls that I wish I could have back. We finished third in the 12-boat IRC 6 division for Saturday and Sunday’s buoy racing, which was a result to be proud of. We were very close to the bottom of the fleet in Friday’s around the island race, which was a disappointment, especially since we did so well on the first two legs before giving it all up courtesy of a needlessly risky tactical call on the final beat up the East Passage of Narragansett Bay.

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During my weekend, I learned some new lessons, and reinforced a lot of old ones. Maybe some of what I learned will help you when you get summoned aft to call the shots for a race or two.

1. You can’t do enough research: I knew this going in, spend an hour every morning getting ready, and still I didn’t necessarily feel completely prepared. Before the regatta, go through the sailing instructions with a highlighter. What’s the starting sequence, what channel is the race committee on, what color marks will be used, what about the change marks, is it one turn or two for a penalty, etc. There are a number of key details there that you may need to recall at a moments notice and leafing through the printed copy of the SI’s that you keep in your pocket isn’t likely to be an option. Then there’s the tide, the wind forecast (get as many as you can), whatever local knowledge you can glean. A lot of this stuff is easy to take for granted when your job is trimming the jib or doing the mast. When you’re the tactician, however, it’s your job to know it all.

2. Do a pre-brief before racing: On the motor out to the course on Saturday, I quickly went through with the crew a lot of the things on my list above. It was a good way to focus everyone on the task at hand, plus it served to embed all these little details into my memory banks. I’ve heard that the best way to remember something is to try to teach it to someone else. When the race committee changed the course during Sunday’s race, I knew we were looking for a yellow mark.

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3. Do whatever you can to remove yourself from the boathandling equation: The toughest part of transitioning from a grunt to a tactician is dealing with the lopsided mental to physical work ratio. I enjoy breaking a sweat when sailing. But the only reason I broke a sweat last weekend was because I was overdressed—I needed more pockets. It is very tempting, and at times comforting, to get back into the mechanics of getting a sailboat around the course. Resist the urge. The primary reasons for this are that involving yourself in the crewwork takes your focus away from your main job, and it doesn’t take much more than a momentary lapse of focus to miss a big opportunity. Additionally, micromanaging every maneuver or gear change is only likely to stir up some animosity from the rest of the crew. If you want the crew to respect your abilities, you must respect their abilities. On some boats there’s no choice but to get involved. If that’s the case pick the easiest responsibilities and leave the heavy lifting to the rest of the crew. I’ve sailed with plenty of experienced tacticians who are skilled enough to call the shots, help with the boat handling, and critique the sail trim. And do it all well. But for the rest of us, it’s important to put as much energy as possible into the tactical part of the equation.

4. Start every leg with a plan: This is definitely in the “harder than it looks” category. Before you turn any mark, you must have a plan is for the next leg. I found this to be the most difficult at the leeward mark. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the complex tactician equation than results when a number of boats converge on a gate. The next thing you know, you’re around the mark, and not sure which way you want to go. And once you’re around the mark, it’s surprising how quickly you may need to make a decision about which side you want to play. If the boat in front of you decides to tack, you may have just a few seconds to decide whether you want to tack under them or continue past. And that one decision could well shape your tactics for the whole leg.

5. Own every call: Whether you make a decision because it’s truly what you want to do, or because you have 10 other people telling you it’s the right thing to do, the call will come from your mouth, and you will get blamed if it’s wrong. So you might as well own every decision. Advice is often good. There were more than a few times last weekend when some input from the crew helped me make the right call. But there were also times when I was sure, for example, we needed to sail another 30 seconds to be on the layline, but turned the boat early due to the influence of other people only to discover that we were, in fact, short of the layline. If you’re torn on a decision, input from the crew can be helpful. If you know what you want to do, however, stick to your guns.

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6. Don’t get complacent: Being a tactician is mentally draining, and there are plenty of opportunities to get lulled into a false sense of security. Sailing upwind, in phase, and waiting for the wind to head, can seem like an opportunity to relax. But even the most reliable oscillating breeze can toss a curveball every now and then. You must constantly reevaluate your strategy.

7. Don’t get fixated: It’s equally as tempting to focus all of your attention on one specific decision. A downwind layline call was one that got me. I spent the better part of two minutes staring through the prism of the hand-bearing compass; all the while ignoring the rapidly changing conditions around me. Whether it’s another boat, a strategic or tactical decision, or some internal speed issue, you can’t allow yourself to get so focused on that one thing that you lose sight of the bigger picture.

8. Be positive, look forward: This has been a weak point of mine whether on the Laser, J/24, or as a crew on a bigger boat. I’ve worked to correct it, but I’ve got lots of room for improvement. Fortunately, our two races on Saturday and Sunday were mostly in less than 10 knots. Our maneuvers were clean and aside from a few close encounters with other boats, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to go ballistic. But calling tactics is a stressful job, and it’s very easy to get too wound up and starting yelling when a more subtle delivery is much more effective. Always try to focus on the positive. Congratulate the crew after a good maneuver, encourage people to look forward after a mistake. When you make a bad tactical call, don’t lash out by noting that had it not been for the botched takedown 5 minutes earlier you would’ve been in a much stronger position to begin with.

9. Be firm: Sometimes, however, you have to deliver some bad news. Boatspeed, or the lack thereof, is a popular topic in this department. It could also be a windshift or puff that you missed. Don’t shy away from it. But also don’t make it personal. Do it in an even tone. Don’t dwell on it. Report it, then go back to looking for a way to tactically improve your situation.

10. Have fun: Or at least try to. Do what you can to keep the boat light. For a tactician, stress is a way of life. But the rest of the crew performs best when they’re loose. Don’t let your angst infect the rest of the team.

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