Gary Jobson 368
Major professional sports teams have the luxury of a healthy payroll and a director of player personnel to recruit, develop, and retain top athletes; and building a competitive team is still a significant challenge. Most sailors don’t (or can’t) race for the money, which makes the task of building and retaining a competitive amateur big-boat crew less expensive and much more challenging. Regardless, leading a team still comes down to careful planning and management.
I’ve learned through many different experiences, as well as from watching others, that this part of sailing takes considerable effort. The challenge is often underestimated. For this summer’s racing season on the NYYC Swan 42 I co-own, I’ve been spending time almost every day working on our campaign. Like most of you, I don’t have the luxury of an open checkbook to pay everyone on the boat, so an amateur-based program is the only viable option.
As I was putting my own pieces into place, I kept being reminded of the difficulty of scheduling crewmembers around work and family commitments. I was curious how other successful owners deal with these and other issues, so I asked a handful.
Chuck Bayer races his Beneteau 36.7, Grizzly, on the Great Lakes. His son, Chas, a recent collegiate sailor at Boston College, is heavily involved in the Grizzly program, and brings a youthful element (as well as his friends) to the team. One competitor described the Grizzly crew as a “good team with a competitive soul.”
Bayer says he looks for compatible crew that will sail well together. “On windward-leeward courses, positions are specialized so athleticism and focus are requirements,” he says. Bayer makes logistics easy for his crew for out-of-town regattas. “I generally pay for hotel rooms and wrist bands for the food at the regatta,” he says. “I never pay for airfare.”
He also provides good crew uniforms and gear with team logos. “Being part of a team and a band of closely knit friends is a reward in and of itself,” he says.
Dennis and Sharon Case have been successful J/105 sailors in San Diego for many years. Dennis explained that, for he and Sharon, commitment is key. “I look for a crew who can commit for a season because I think it is important to work together as a team. My wife has been with me for 25 years, and two other sailors for more than 16 years.”
Secondly, he says, he looks for desire and energy, “people who want to win and become the best sailors they can be.” As for incentives, he says, his routine has evolved over the years. “In the early days we had the crew work on the boat. Sanding the bottom, and taking turns delivering the boat to out-of-town regattas. Now we rely more on paid yard help, and paid deliveries-we are getting older. We rent rooms for the crew and pick up dinners. Crew gear that clearly identifies them to our boat is important for pride and team building.”
For Phil and Wendy Lotz, based in Newport, R.I., racing was a family affair in their J/105, but with the switch to a larger Club Swan 42, more crewmembers are required nowadays. When I asked what attributes he looked for in an amateur crew, he told me the individual must be competent. “A good crew attracts good crew,” he says. They need to be enthusiastic and get along with the rest of the team, on and off the water.
The onshore social element of the equation is always important. I know of some teams that organize golf outings and ski trips. Lotz says he doesn’t organize any such outings, but he does have organized sailing in different places to keep things interesting for the team, places like San Francisco, Key West, and the Caribbean.
When I asked all three whether they rotated crew to mix things up and, perhaps, build more interest, their answers varied, depending on the type of racing they do. On distance races their crews do rotate positions during watches, but on short-course races all three emphasized the importance of crewmembers becoming specialists in specific areas. I once tried rotating crew around on an America’s Cup team, and it was a disaster. Everyone was far more comfortable working in assigned position. So, fellow sailors, scratch that idea off the list.
Professional sailors are much more available nowadays, but is it really necessary to hire a pro or two to bring the team to a higher level? Certainly having a paid hand that can sail full-time can be an asset, but this can get expensive, and hired hands may not always be available, so it’s best to not be reliant on having one onboard all the time. My advice is to hire a pro (if your budget allows) and have them spend time training with your team, similar to hiring a ski or golf instructor for an early season tune up. In the long run, most teams will be better off racing with the same crew through a full campaign.
As I thought about the skill difference between professional and amateur sailors, I received some interesting comments from my focus group.
“The professional crews are often way too serious about winning,” says Bayer. “It is a business for them because they have to do well in order to sell their wares, be it sails, hardware, or crew services.”
“On average (the difference) is huge,” says Dennis Case, “but for those that are the very best amateurs, there is very little difference with the average professional. The real pros, however, have answers to questions us amateurs haven’t even thought to ask. The cross training they have between boats is invaluable.”
Phil Lotz mostly sails with amateurs, but does see a difference. “The amateur crew knows what to do, but often just doesn’t have the sea miles to hone skills,” he says. The key to sailing with all-amateur teams, he adds, is to work on practice, coaching, and developing consistency. “I would add that a program is not a program if the equipment is not top notch,” he adds. “No one wants to spend their weekends fixing things or dropping out of races.”
Inevitably, a team will have a setback or bad day on the water. A professional has most likely learned how to shake off a bad race, but for an amateur crew, it can be a challenge overcoming adversity. I asked how each of these sailors handles difficult situations so the crew stays intact, and looks ahead, not back. Bayer’s suggestion is most poignant.
“The most important organization issue is to avoid blame,” he says. “Everyone wants to win, but if you race a lot there will be some bad races. We try to focus on how we can avoid problems. We talk about what we did wrong after every race. It is regular routine that helps us look ahead to the next regatta.”
Lotz agrees, emphasizing the need to evaluate mistakes and work through what needs to be improved. “No yelling, no finger pointing, after or during the race,” he says. Dennis Case doesn’t like yelling either. “One thing we don’t do is yell at the crew,” he says. “That’s no fun. I once heard a crew member tell a yelling skipper that if he wanted to get yelled at, he would have stayed home.”
The flip side to this story is how crews can be sure to remain an invaluable member of the team. My suggestions include paying for your own travel to regattas, teaming up with other crew to pay for a crew dinner, making or providing lunches occasionally. And if you want to be a hero, buy a nice year-end gift for the owner. Crew clothing, binoculars, or some handy boat item will always go over well. Whatever happens, many owners I know say there’s nothing more annoying than getting “nickel and dimed” for every little expense.
Racing together is a big commitment for the owner, crew, family, and supporters, and everyone likes to be part of a team. The insight from Bayer, Case, and Lotz will help me this year, and I hope it will for you as well. Now let’s get out there and get sailing.