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The New Lingo

Editor's Letter from our October 2013 issue.

October 30, 2013
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I’ve spent most of my racing life on either dinghies or small keelboats, but as I’ve gotten on in my years (not too far mind you), I’m finding myself on bigger boats. Of course, bigger boats tend to come with a lot more people and a lot more to talk about, and what I’m starting to realize is that the communication, specifically the words we use, isn’t always the same from boat to boat.

Take, for example, the most rudimentary word once used for calling wind from the rail. For me, those dark patches streaming downwind toward the boat were always “puffs.” There was once something soothing and precise to the phrase, “Puff in five, it’s a lift.”

But somehow over the past few years “puff” has been replaced by the far more sinister sounding “pressure.”
“Pressure in five!”

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As if the helmsman doesn’t have enough pressure lumped on his shoulders already. I’m guessing some hotshot sailor once used it to sound more technical, and it eventually spread throughout the sport. But every time I find myself saying it nowadays (why I’ve switched I don’t know), it just feels hokey.

Another one of late is “press on it.” That’s what you say to have the driver nudge the wheel to leeward, get the tell-tales streaming, and allow the boat to accelerate and power through some small chop.

But what was wrong with “put the bow down,” or “foot for a few lengths?” To be honest, I never really liked either of those phrases because they have far too many words. I’ve always preferred to say, “We’re slow.” That usually gets the point across.

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“You’re too thin.” This one drives me nuts. I’d rather say, “You’re pinching.” Once you tell a helmsman he’s pinching, he knows exactly what to do to correct it.

The onboard chatter gets even more interesting when I go from a keelboat with only a digital compass to a big boat with a heap of displays showing us apparent-wind angle, heel angle, speed, heading, or anything else we want. The instruments, I’ve found, introduce a whole new and higher level of lexicon.

For example, coming out of a tack, the lead trimmer on the “speed team” might call out, “You’re at bottom speed.” I gather this means we’re at a point where the boat should not be any slower and that it’s time to start building speed as we bring the boat onto its best closehauled course.

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Then, as the speedo climbs, it’s “starting to build,” followed by “building,” and then finally, “good angle there.”

Talking the helmsman through the speed build is routine for the professional programs, and it’s something that is extremely useful, especially during those precious moments between completing the tack and getting up to speed, which can be very disorienting for a new driver. These are phrases I’ll be adding to my repertoire.

OK—one more. The “waggle.” Who pulled this one out of Webster’s Dictionary? Yes, it’s there, and as obscure a word as it is, it’s actually a perfect description of what we want the skipper to do before the spinnaker takedown. The waggle, or “schwaggle” as I’ve heard it called lately, is a quick turn down just before we reach the leeward mark, which unloads the spinnaker sheets and makes the kite much easier to douse. Then, it’s another quick turn up to build speed. I’ll take “waggle,” too, because if the goal onboard is clear communication, then one-word commands are best.

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But pressure? It’s got to go. Puff on.

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