Control the Yelling

Strategy and tactics for keeping the noise down and performance up

When filming or watching a regatta, I find the best place to observe is at the leeward mark. The first boats around usually maneuver efficiently and quietly, but the crews of those behind can often be heard yelling as they wrestle with their spinnakers. While it’s sometimes good theater, yelling detracts from the racing for the rest of the crew and sailors on other boats. And it almost always hurts performance. Why don’t otherwise rational sailors get this? ¶There are times when shouting can be beneficial. Acceptable reasons for occasionally shouting could be to

psyche up or encourage your crew, to be heard when it’s windy, or to hail another boat in a dangerous situation. Whenever you do raise your voice, though, you should be speaking about what’s to be done and not be making personal attacks.

Most on-board yelling is unnecessary and comes in forms ranging from the sarcastic comment that deflates morale to the emotional outbursts that could be expressed quietly and more usefully, later. While I was sailing on a maxi yacht recently, the tactician screamed at a crewmember when the traveler slipped out of his hand and slammed to leeward. As the trimmer worked feverishly to grind the traveler back to windward, the tactician finished his verbal abuse by saying, "If we lose this race by one second, you’ll have been the reason." I later overheard the trimmer say to the owner that he hoped the tactician wouldn’t be invited back.

On another boat I recently sailed aboard, the crew fouled a jibe. At the worst moment, the helmsman hollered, "You guys just don’t want to win bad enough." Screamers are often unaware of how they sound. After a tirade, respect is lost. And when the howling starts again, few will pay attention--no way to improve a bad situation.

Nor should foul language be used. It seems that too many people are using harsh language to make their point, and that’s unfortunate.

Overcoming yelling isn’t easy, but the first step is to recognize the problem. You might ask yourself, "Am I as nice a guy during a race as I think I am?" Try asking your crew sometime. The way they respond, even if they’re being diplomatic, will give you a clue about how your behavior is perceived.

I know one sailor who made a tape recording of an abusive helmsman. He played the tape back on a stereo system at a crew party a few weeks later. The helmsman cringed and never yelled again. Hopefully that kind of therapy won’t be necessary, but somehow the offender has to be made to see the problem. Consider empowering one crewmember to be the "yelling czar." You can have fun with this by assigning a penalty to anyone who yells during a race; the offending party could be forced to wear a "no yelling" t-shirt.

I’ve sailed on boats where there are code words or phrases that the tactician or an influential crewmember use to calm a chronic yeller. "Shut up and drive" doesn’t usually work. Instead try a squeeze on the shoulder and a comment such as, "What can I do to help you?" or "Time for three deep breaths."

If there are junior sailors aboard, it’s doubly important to set a good example. If the noise level does get too high, take a young sailor aside after the race and point out the value of being quiet and what was wrong about what happened.

When I hear sailors on other boats barking, it actually calms me down, knowing the other crew is frustrated. When I feel my own blood boiling, I take a deep breath and think through what to say in advance. If tension is building, shift gears by chewing gum, moving to a different part of the boat, cleaning your sunglasses, tacking, jibing, rotating positions, or even asking for a moment of silence.

On a larger boat, where sailors are spread apart, hand signals are a great form of communication. It also helps for a crew at mid-deck to relay orders from the cockpit. The legendary America’s Cup skipper Charlie Barr kept his cool by passing all communications through another person. He let his communicator give the actual commands, which allowed Barr to spend his time steering and concentrating.

The best crews speak to each other in short sentences. They create a businesslike atmosphere sprinkled with encouraging phrases like, "good job" or "thanks for the help." Such crews have good morale, less attrition, and better results. It takes work to overcome yelling, but your time on the water will be more enjoyable, and your performance will improve if tempers are controlled.