Three Steps to Becoming a Great Crew

Want to be the best crew you can be? It’s easy and starts with a positive attitude and a commitment to improving.
Boating crew during the 2022 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series
To be a great crew, show up with a positive attitude and contribute to the program. Know your job and do it well. Stay focused. Paul Todd/Outside Images

As the sailing coach at Point Loma High School, I spend a lot of time talking to the team about crewing. I also crew almost exclusively in my role as a professional sailor, so between those two experiences, plus sharing information about crewing with other pro sailors, I’ve been able to boil down the essence of a great crew into three manageable parts. Keep in mind that these are “big ­picture” characteristics.

Let’s first start with mindset. In the morning, before you even get to the boat, you should be thinking: “I’m going to help out today in any way I can to help the boat and the team be as successful as possible. I’m going to work really hard; I’m going to have a great attitude; I’m going to show up early, stay late, and figure out how I can contribute all day long.” To do so, research what your job is going to be before you go sailing. Find out who’s in charge of the boat. Ask them what you’re going to be doing, when you’re going to be doing it, and the steps it takes, whether it’s trimming the sails, doing the bow, calling the time or whatever. And ask what you can bring—food, water, etc.

Next, show up early to help rig the boat. Showing up early allows you to check out the boat and see how everything works. And when the rest of the team shows up, you will feel more confident and in the know. Then work hard—help rig the sheets (or at the least offer to help), pull out the sails, and do whatever is necessary to help get the boat ready to leave the dock. While rigging, you can earn bonus points by being safety-conscious, looking around to make sure there’s no chafe on lines, missing ring dings, or anything that looks like it may break.

When it’s time to get the sails up, take great care in handling them. Gently flaking them out or unrolling them before attaching them to the boat is key and takes coordinated teamwork by two or more people. Taking great care with the main and jib is not only fast, preventing wrinkles and encouraging longevity, but it also shows the boat owner that you understand sails are expensive, like to win, and are grateful for the ­opportunity to be on the boat.

If you’re not sure what you’re doing while prepping the boat and putting it away at the end of the day, ask someone in charge or watch the veterans on the boat. Learn what they’re doing so you can offer to help them next time. Eager and attentive crewmembers are hard to find and always asked back.

The positive mindset used when preparing the boat for the day is even more important once on the water. I’ll never forget sailing in an alumni regatta with one of the best high school crew I’ve coached. I had noticed that anyone she sailed with did better at practice, and in that event, I found out why. She was always happy and positive, even after a tough race. At that event, we started with two great races, but the third wasn’t so special. But we passed a few boats before the finish. After the ­finish, it would be easy to be a little bummed out, but instead with a smile she said: “Great race, Steve! Way to pass four boats on the final downwind leg! That was awesome.” She kept the vibe in the boat so happy and positive that we went on to have some good races and won the regatta.

Sometimes a good mindset means keeping the mood light. An example of doing that at just the right time was when sailing with my buddy Erik Shampain. After I made a bad tactical call, and then we had a poor leeward mark rounding, the skipper and I digressed into a nonproductive discussion about past events. Although we didn’t notice it, that discussion was distracting us from sailing well. After a couple of minutes of this conversation, Erik, having had enough, interrupted us by saying, “Hey guys, hold on, I have a goldfish.” We both paused and with curiosity asked, “What?” He said, “Oh, I thought we were talking about stuff that doesn’t matter!” We quickly got his point, and we all started laughing.

With the mood lightened and our focus back on racing well in the moment, we went on to pass 20 boats and finished the race on a positive note.

Here’s another way to think of maintaining the mindset of helping out and contributing: The skipper often has the most pressure and typically has invested the most time and money into making everything happen. Their reputation is on the line, and they feel it. So, when I show up as a crew, I think, How can I help the skipper do really well? How can I help ease their stress and help them succeed? That’s my main focus. I use all the skills I have to do that: sailing skills, but also people skills by being positive and a psychologist, saying the right thing at the right time, and keeping the mood light. If you can do the same, you’ll be asked to come back—probably forever.

Now, let’s talk about skills. In small, two-person boats, your job may be pretty straightforward: trimming the jib and using your weight to keep the boat at the proper heel angle. On bigger boats, like Lightnings, J/24s and PHRF boats, you may be trimming, have other jobs, or a combo of both. You may be doing bow or simply calling the time in the pre-start. But regardless of what you’re sailing, knowing what you’re supposed to do and when to do it. By doing those jobs skillfully, you can add value to the team.

One skill that everyone needs to be aware of, and probably one of the most important, is weight placement. Moving your weight around to keep the boat at the proper heel angle is everyone’s job, and it’s critical for boatspeed. If you grew up racing dinghies, you’re probably tuned in to this already, but if not, be sure to ask the skipper or whoever is in charge on the boat where your weight should be at different points of sail.

Terry Hutchinson likes to remind his crew to “mind the boat.” In other words, pay attention to what the boat’s doing—its heel, its speed though the water, and how it feels. Tune in and let the boat tell you what it needs. At the end of the day, as Buddy Melges always says, we are presenting the boat to the wind, from the time the sails go up until they come down. Our job as crew is to affect its heel angle for optimal performance and trim the sails well while the skipper controls the angle the boat is to the wind. These three attributes determine our speed. Therefore, always be thinking about the boat, minding and paying attention to it, and feeling and listening to how it moves through the water. Try to get to the point where no one has to tell you to move.

An easy way to think of weight placement and how much you should be moving is to break it down into two conditions: telltale sailing, which is in light to medium air, and hiking conditions, which is when the boat is overpowered. When telltale sailing, the skipper mainly drives to the telltales, and it’s up to the crew to move around and keep the proper heel angle, hiking in puffs and scooting in during lulls. Once the wind is up, hike hard and let the skipper drive to the heel angle while the trimmers ease and trim sails. Knowing the difference between the two modes makes it easy to define your weight-movement goals. You’re basically asking, “Should I be moving around and paying attention to the wind and heel angle now, or should I just hike really hard?” Knowing the right time to do each is super important.

Another consideration while moving your weight is the view of the skipper. Top skipper Greg Fisher tells his crew: “Don’t sit in front of the TV.” For him, the TV is the telltales, the forestay and the waves. The skipper wants to see what’s coming, and they want to watch the telltales, so as you move in and out, don’t get in their way. When you scoot in, especially on a dinghy, you should slide in with your hips first, keeping your shoulders out and down so you don’t sit right in the skipper’s view. On keelboats, when you scoot in, you might lie backward to keep the skipper’s view open.

When you’re part of a well-oiled machine—maybe you’ve been sailing with the same ­people a while—you can get to the point where weight placement rarely has to be communicated; everyone understands what you’re searching for most of the time. With that said, it’s also something the skipper should talk about based on the feel of the tiller. If the skipper’s not doing it, ask: “Hey, how does the boat feel? Tell me what feels good, and I will try to keep it in the sweet spot for you.” And if you do that, the skipper will love you for it because you’re helping them make the boat feel right—and go fast. On larger boats with more crew, it’s best to have a skilled sailor call weight movements for the group so the whole team can move as one unit.

About that communication: Once you feel your skills are pretty good and you are doing your jobs on the boat well and at the right time, you can start to add more value by communicating. There is a lot you can say and, just as important, should not say at any given time. On ­bigger boats, it should be defined who should be talking and who should not. On smaller boats, the communication may fall on you, so knowing what to say and when is very important. If your job requires communication, follow this basic rule: Communicate what is important based on the current situation, and realize that the situation often changes.

For example, on the way out to the racecourse, the discussion might center on what sails you’re putting up. Then, while warming up on the course, the discussion is on boat setup and racecourse features. In the pre-start, it’s calling time and communicating threats coming during your final approach to the line. Once the race is underway and you’ve had a good start, the focus will likely be on boatspeed; if you’ve had a tough start, it will probably center on escape routes.

Let’s say we just started the race, had a clean start, and we’re going to sail straight for a while. Communication might focus on puffs and lulls, or our speed in relation to others. Then, later, after tacking onto port, the best communication may be ­identifying right-of-way starboard-tack boats. Once there are no more starboard threats and your lane opens up, the attention shifts back to the most important thing, which is simply to go fast for a while. Later in the beat, as you get close to the top mark, you may ask the skipper the downwind-leg plan, then shift into calling traffic to help get around the top mark clean, with no drama or fouls. That’s what I mean by communicating what’s most important at any given moment.

You may have heard that a fast boat is a quiet boat. Jimmy Spithill spoke to our high school sailors recently, and they asked him about communication. He said, “You want to be as concise as possible and convey ideas with as few words as possible at the right time.”

So, your job may be to be quiet in the pre‑start, or it may be to call the time, and you should do that really well. You should focus on being great at it. Ask the skipper or tactician, “How would you like me to call the time?” Is it every 15 seconds down to two minutes, then every 10 seconds down to one minute, and every five seconds down to 30 seconds, and then every second down to zero? Again, you’re communicating what’s important at that one moment in the race and working to be as concise as possible. Not overcommunicating during a race helps the skipper and tactician concentrate on making the boat go fast and making good decisions. And in Jimmy’s world, when you are foiling at 40 knots, things are happening so fast, there’s ­literally no time for long communications.

I heard one of the coolest tips for short and sweet comms while on a US Sailing team call. Tim Wadlow, a two-time 49er Olympian, mentioned his team had a communication for going straight. They just say “happy.” It comes from one of their favorite movies, Happy Gilmore. “If we’re ever in a situation where we’re in a big lane, sailing toward the mark, and we’re not thinking about tacking, our goal is just to go fast for a while. So, basically, we’re in our happy place,” Wadlow said. “So, we say ‘happy,’ which communicates that we’re going to focus on speed and heel angle, and simply go straight for a while.”

Knowing this, the crew can get low on the wire and fully focus on heel angle and sail trim—concise and in the moment. He also gave an example where they’ve just rounded the bottom mark, the lane’s kind of thin, and they’re pinching. “I’m thinking about tacking, but I’m not sure I need to yet, so I just say ‘looking.’ That one word lets the crew know not to get super low on the wire and be ready to tack because I’m looking around and considering bailing out.”

These two words convey a lot of meaning, and they mean something to the people on the boat. Come up with your own words for short and sweet comms, and have some fun with it.

In sum, know each step of your job and have a repeatable process that you follow every single time. If you do your job at the right time in harmony with everyone else, the sails will go up and down well, the heel angle will stay consistent, and the boat will go fast. Olympian Dave Hughes, who is one of the best crew in the world, says: “Be a student of the game. Ask questions, be curious, work hard, and you’ll always be invited back.”