Forming a crew that works well together and that can always perform on the racetrack, even when the going gets tough, can be tricky. It is a careful balancing act of combining the right skillsets with the right personalities for a harmonious union. However, by adopting some basic crew work principles, that are often overlooked, you’ll go a long way to creating that dream team that can win races.
We asked Lead Coach for the RYA British Keelboat Academy, Niall Myant-Best, to give us a few tips on how to fine tune your crew work to help propel you to the front of the pack. With extensive keelboat sailing experience and plenty of years of coaching under his belt, Niall is well placed to offer advice on the best ways to build a coordinated and strong sailing crew.
Good preparation is absolutely vital to good crew work. By making sure that everything is organised, in good order and ready to go, everyone can focus all of their attention on getting the boat around the racecourse as quickly as possible. Share all of the important information with the crew such as sailing instructions and weather forecast and let all of your crew know where they need to be and when. Timekeeping is also key. If possible, allow lots of time - there’s nothing worse than starting the day with a chaotic rush to leave the dock. Also, make sure you get out to the race course early so you can put some sails up and practice a couple of manoeuvres to warm up.
Even on a small boat it’s hard for sailors at either end to hear each other. The noise of the water, wind and creaking deck gear can mean that instructions, questions and tactical plans can often get lost and not be heard. So, nominate a crew link. Rather than set up a chain of Chinese whispers, one crew member in the middle of the boat can act as the link between the afterguard and bow team. The Pit crew member is well suited for this in terms of position on the boat, but also because they work closely with both the bow team and the trimmers. Some of the best Pit crews I have sailed with take great pride in knowing what information the bow team will need to know ahead of a manoeuvre from the afterguard and visa versa. Then it’s just a matter of not using ten words when three will do - keep it simple!
A well oiled machine is always going to work better than a rusty one and the same goes for your crew work. Yacht racing is very much about teamwork and each and every crew member should be working towards the same goal. Get this right, and you’ll be well on your way up the rankings and into a podium position. Practice makes perfect and finding time to rehearse manoeuvres is one of the most useful things you can do to improve teamwork onboard. And this doesn’t mean grabbing a spare 30 minutes before racing - try and set aside some dedicated training time when you can run through manoeuvres again and again until everyone knows exactly what they need to do in order to pull off a slick, smooth and fast manoeuvre.
On racing yachts, manoeuvres are broken down to ever smaller levels, right down to whether you grab the sheet with your right or left hand. I’ve personally seen ‘crib sheets’ on what happens in a tack broken down into nearly 60 individual actions. While this is certainly too much detail for most teams, defining who does what, and in what order is very important. In simple terms I would always recommend discussing a few key jobs that must be done and who is going to take responsibility for them. For example, who gets off the windward side first? Or, who prepares the new jib winch and when? This is a discussion that can be done on the way out to the start line, or you can spend time training before a race to work out the best procedure, but whichever way you do it, WRITE IT DOWN. The list could be short and clear, but keeping a record of what works means a new crew member can come onto the boat, look at the manoeuvre breakdown list and know exactly how to fit into the team seamlessly.
We’ve all experienced that moment in a race when something goes wrong, and we’ve got to decide whether to help out or not. Providing effective support can save the moment from disaster, but it’s really important to know if you can safely leave your job to help others, without causing other issues. There are quite a few situations when you shouldn’t pitch in to help a struggling crew member, for example, when you are on the helm. Operating within a team means relying on others and sometimes things will not happen as quickly as you wish, but always consider the possibility that if you step away from your role it could mean there are now two jobs not done and mistakes can snowball from there.
I’ve sailed with great teams and had bad experiences, I’ve sailed with bad teams and have enjoyed myself massively. The key is to know the result and level of performance that everyone is striving for. If you have one person with a very casual approach to a race within a serious team it will cause problems, and likewise someone getting frustrated with a team being more relaxed than them is no better. A solution is to be open about what you’re on the water for - Fun? Performance? Winning at all costs? Any level is fine, and as long as everyone is aiming for the same agreed intensity, team friction can be avoided.
As race yachts get quicker, more advanced and physically more demanding, it’s becoming even more important to make sure you and your crew are strong, fit and healthy for the racing season. Make the most of your winter training, maximise your off season and keep it up throughout the year to maintain performance. Also, an area that is often overlooked is onboard nutrition. Grabbing a few garage sandwiches and chocolate bars may seem like the easy option, but your crew won’t be getting the fuel that they need in order to work hard and perform well. Instead, pre-order some good quality food that is nutritious and full of energy to keep everyone going right through the day.
Creating your dream sailing team isn’t easy, but if you take time to look after and nurture your crew, you will get the best out of them. With good preparation, communication and training comes great teamwork and a crew that can win time and time again. Work to the strengths of the people and skillsets that you have onboard to optimise your overall output and invest time into some training for the areas in which you feel less strong. Creating a great crew does take lots of time and effort, but if you persevere, it will pay dividends on the racecourse and everyone onboard will have a fantastic time out on the water.