Don't Do What I Did, Do the Opposite

A good first impression can mean the difference between having a "cup of coffee" with a dream program, and latching on for the long haul.

Fortunately for all involved (in this case: you, me, and anyone else who will read this), the subject of this piece is how to make a good first impression, specifically how do to so as a new member of a big-boat team. Were this blog to cover generally how to make bad first impression, this would likely be the first page of a something quite a bit longer. Now that's a subject I know quite a bit about. I could probably qualify for a PhD in that department. Sure it might be one of those degrees you can pick up in the back pages of Maxim Magazine from a university that sounds impressive but is slightly lacking in official accreditation and is willing to give generous credit for "life experiences." But it's a PhD nonetheless.

I could wow the dissertation panel with fond memories such as the young woman with whom I locked eyes across a beer keg something in the spring of my senior year of high school. She was rather fetching with her extensively frosted hair and Body Glove bikini top—it was 1989, both were in fashion at the time.

“You’re kinda cute,” she said, maybe running together her words ever so slightly.

“And you’re not too drunk,” I said, the sarcasm all but dripping onto the floor along with the overage from the foamy beer I’d just poured.

Suffice to say, that relationship didn’t get much—scratch that—any further. I never even got her name.

What has helped, however, is good old-fashioned trial-and-error. And a vice-like memory that allows me to relive in vivid detail my past mistakes. As I traveled down to the 2010 Melges 32 Gold Cup, to sail on a boat on which I've never sailed before, with a number of people I've never sailed with, I thought it would be a good idea to review the list.

So without further digression, here’s a few things I’ve learned (mostly in the first-person, thought some I’ve learned as a spectator) about making a good first impression on a raceboat.

  1. Arrive early, stay late: Often times the person that you'll impress most by showing up early and staying late to help put the boat away is the boat captain. But never underestimate his sway. He (or she) is often the one true constant on any program. Of course, as I write this I'm flying down to Fort Lauderdale as the last member to join our team. The realities of one final night helping the wife manage two children under three are no match for even these rules of thumb.

  2. Pack light: The nuisance of carrying a few extra pounds is a small part of why it's best to step on board with the bare minimum of personal gear. There's just something about the guy who comes carrying a portable closet of sailing gear. Check the weather in advance. Dress accordingly. By the end of the day you should've worn—and needed—everything you brought on board.

  3. Know your job: Every boat is unique. A little advance research goes a long way. The best teams spend their practice time refining nuances, working on new maneuvers, speed testing with other top boats. Keep to a minimum the time spend figuring out how to cross the boat during a tack, or your responsibilities on a standard bearaway set, the sort of things that everyone else on the boat likely already has down pat.

  4. ** If you aren't sure, ask:** A dumb question can make you look, well, dumb. But that's infinitely better compared to how you look after making a crucial mistake at the wrong time.

  5. **Keep your eyes up…: **If you're new to a boat, the tendency is to focus so intently on your job that you lose track of the whole picture. When you're tailing a halyard, watch how the sail feeds into the groove, not the winch. Same for when you're grinding. The winch isn't going anywhere, so look at the leech of the spinnaker or the luff of the jib and try to anticipate when the trimmer is going to call for more sheet.

  6. …and your head down: Unless there's a tactical or strategic reason for keeping your head up, make sure you're hiking at least as hard as everyone else. There are few things less fun than hanging over the side of a big boat. On the other hand, it's an easy way—at least from a skill perspective—to show your commitment to winning.

  7. **Don't scream…: **It's fairly rare to find a boat that needs another loud, angry voice. In fact, I've yet to find one.

  8. **…unless you have to…: **There'll will be the occasional situation where you need to raise your voice. Maybe it's the only way to get heard. Maybe you need to stop the pit assistant before he accidentally trips the jib halyard clutch in the middle of a windy beat.

  9. **…and then apologize: **No one likes to get yelled at, even when it's justified.

  10. **Be positive: **It's easier said than done when a boat is oozing acrimony like a rotting peach. It may be the only time you'll sail on this boat, but remember that sailing is a small community. People will remember the guy who kept a smile on his face and remained focused on his job as everything around him was devolving into a nasty game of "Pass the Blame." They'll also seem to remember the rookie who joined in, even if he was no worse than anyone else on the boat.

  11. **Leave your shoes on: **This wasn't me. A number of years ago, I was sailing on a boat on Lake Tahoe. The final member of the team showed up a little late and quite harried. He jumped onto the boat, took off his shoes, and then proceeded to run around the foredeck redoing everything—whether needed or not—we'd set up before he arrived and telling us what a great sailor he was. I remember sitting there, mouth agape, wondering if, among other things, this guy was really going to sail in his socks. He did. I still don't know how he managed to stay on the boat (for the race that is. I never sailed with him again.)