When sailors think about putting together a team that can regularly win in a competitive one-design keelboat class or at top handicap regattas, the process always starts with the finding the best tactician, helmsman, or trimmers. The bow is another point of emphasis since mistakes there can be so costly.
This is sound logic. The right person in one of these positions is more likely to contribute significantly toward a regatta win than say a mastman or a sewerman. However, in the thirst to accumulate as much star power as possible, many growing amateur or pro-am programs overlook an equally critical need. I wish I had a catchy name for this person, but I don’t, so I’ll borrow a term that’s popular for professional team sports like basketball: glue guy.
The glue guy isn’t a fixed position. But he’s never a star. He’s not the guy who gets singled out in the press release for picking the shifts, saving the jibe set, or squeezing out an extra two-tenths of upwind boatspeed. He’s not the guy with the glittering résumé in 10-point type. In the typical big-boat crew configuration he will be the mastman, pit assist, sewerman, grinder, offside trimmer, or floater. These are the “secondary” positions that many teams fill with less experienced sailors. In classes with limitations on professional sailors, these positions are reserved for amateurs. For a one-design crew racing under a weight limit, these spots are cast as much by weight as anything else. How many times have you heard a one-design owner asking if anyone knows of a 135-pound floater, or a 190-pound mastman?
Yet there’s tremendous value in having a consistent presence at one of these positions. The right person can be the adhesive that binds a team and makes sure it is more than simply the sum of its parts.
Being a glue guy isn’t easy. It requires a certain mindset and personality, and a lot of dedication, but for people without a tremendous amount of sailing experience, it’s one way to become an integral part of a developing program.
For Phil and Wendy Lotz’ Arethusa program, on which I raced regularly for five years, the glue guy was sewerman Scott Bihl. He sailed with the Lotz program for more than a decade, on both a J/105 and a Swan 42, and rarely missed a regatta. In watching Bihl work, I came to greatly appreciate what he brought to the Arethusa program and developed an understanding what traits are fundamental to this role.
Know it cold Many of these “secondary” jobs are considered easier, but none are easy to do well. Packing a spinnaker is difficult. It’s no fun spending a third of each race stuffing an acre of nylon into a bag that seems only just big enough while trying to avoid being thrown around the sharp-edged interior of a boat that’s beating into six-foot seas. When a spinnaker pack goes bad, it can be a race-losing mistake.
Hoisting the spinnaker to the top—ringing the bell, in mastman speak—on a 40- or 50-footer requires great handspeed, strength, and balance. The responsibilities of a floater can change from race to race based on the windspeed, sea state, or the other crew on the boat. Never take the job lightly. Spend the necessary time to become not merely proficient, but perfect.
Know other roles as well
Once you’ve nailed your position, spend some time learning what others do. You never know when you may be asked to fill in, whether for a regatta, a day, or even just one leg. Additionally, having one crewmember versatile enough to handle a few positions will make it easier for a skipper to fill out the crew.
These positions usually involve long periods of inactivity, whether it’s spent hanging on the lifelines or crouched on the leeward sidedeck. It’s essential to stay mentally connected to the race. A jibe set at the windward mark due to a 20-degree right shift on the beat shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Embrace the details
Sailing a big boat well means doing many little things at exactly the right time. Many of these tasks are not wedded to a specific position and can get lost in the shuffle, costing a team a boatlength or two each time. A good glue guy knows all the maneuvers and the order of execution required to make them go smoothly. He may not be the person releasing the vang before a breezy weather mark rounding, but he knows it has to happen and will remind the new crewmember to get the vang tail in his hand and out of the cleat before the bow reaches the mark.
Find a non-race role
Building a successful program requires as much work off the water as on it. When the owner is also the helmsman, one of the best things anyone can do for a team’s performance is to lighten his mental load so he can focus more on sailing. Things to take off an owner’s plate include: rig tune, sail management, team nutrition and hydration, interior management (minimizing excess weight and organizing sail placement), and gear maintenance. Take over one or more of these things and own it.
Swallow your ego
For many sailors, these “secondary” crew positions are merely steppingstones. However, a good glue guy can’t spend every race trying to move up the food chain. This is often why the best glue guys are not the best sailors. They’re happy with their spot on the boat and they’re at peace with the fact that their contribution to the boat’s success may be subtler than that of other crewmembers.
Become a source of institutional knowledge
A good program is always refining its technique, but when the crew isn’t consistent, teams will find themselves going down the same wrong road multiple times. This is where longevity is so valuable. A veteran glue guy will remember trying a technique or piece of equipment two years ago, as well as the end result. He’ll also remember the idiosyncrasies of certain competitors or events and venues, both on and off the water.
For tacticians and trimmers and bowman, who are so obviously connected to the performance of a boat, it can be hard not to get down on occasion. A glue guy has to always be a positive influence, encouraging the team to look forward, not behind, and to never give up. Knowing how to lighten the mood after a tough day can be a big step in getting a team to focus on the future instead of dwelling on the past. On the other hand, gently reminding a team that one great day or race doesn’t make a regatta or a season can be invaluable too. It takes a veteran presence to watch the pulse of the team and do what needs to be done to keep it on an even keel (no pun intended).
Lead by example
On the water, this means being active and engaged in the racing and maintaining a positive attitude. When the breeze is variable, don’t wait for the call to shift the weight. Feel the boat and react. Off the water, it’s important as well. As a senior member of the team, it’s important to show newer crew what is expected of them. Whether it’s being on time to the boat in the morning, how to hike during a race, how to put the boat away in the evening, or what to wear for dinner, a glue guy will keep the crew in line and the owner happy.
Find Your Glue
As with most things in the sport of sailing, it’s a lot easier on paper. But there are a few things an owner or crew boss looking to find the right adhesive can do to bring a team together. This starts by working with what you have. You may have a regular team member who can fill this role. Consider your roster for a loyal crewmember that meets most, if not all, of the criteria. It may be a simple as giving a regular crewmember some extra responsibility and expanding their role with the team.
And while doing so, favor dedication and desire over talent. The most talented or experienced sailor may be the best call in the short term, but choosing someone who can grow with your program usually requires looking beyond the résumés.
As part of this selection process it’s key to reward loyalty. Develop team spirit and reward those who stick with the program. Maybe it’s a team jacket, or a season MVP award, or a trip to an away regatta. Never take for granted the guy who shows up every week. Most importantly, look for the right personality. A surly glue guy is an oxymoron. A glue guy needs to get along with everyone. He will help bring new crew into the fold and ensure everyone enjoys the sailing.