One of the easiest ways to lose a sailboat race is to not communicate clearly. Whether its with other boats on the course, as we talked about in Week 11, or within your own boat, any words between sailors should be concise, effective and with the other sailor’s interest in mind. Because I’ve talked about communication with other boats so much I’m going to focus on internal communication within one boat for this week’s rule.
From 420s to 100 footers, the effectiveness of our communication with one and other can be critical to the outcome of our day on the racecourse. Effective communication on the boat can be summed up in three easy steps:
1. Plan out the action and discuss what words to use
This first step is the most important and takes lots of practice. When you’re racing with just one other person, communication can be limited to very few actual words, because you learn how to trust and then anticipate your teammate’s moves, capabilities, and pattern recognition. Through practice, we learn what to look for and what to listen for from our teammates. We also have the opportunity to ask questions and reassess our communication style if need be.
For instance, in the star boat, i knew it would take my crew 4 seconds to be fully prepared to gybe in more than 10 knots of breeze, and 2 seconds in less than 10 knots of breeze. I would have to adjust my communication style for when I wanted to gybe depending on the breeze. If I just yelled out “Gybing” and threw the helm over, then Ian might not be in the correct position to do his job correctly and we might have a bad gybe. Instead, I would say “Standby to Gybe,” thus ensuring that Ian was ready for my call. Then I could say: “Ok, Gybing,” and allow him his time to get properly set up. Ironically, without getting the initial attention of your teammate, the maneuver might actually take more time than if you just yell out “gybing.” The conversation up to that point would also be indicating that a gybe was coming up. We would probably be talking about our options, our course heading to the next mark, our lane choice, or the breeze on the race course. As we talked about it, then the entire team knows we’re getting ready to gybe.
In a boat with lots of role-players that tactical conversation doesn’t always get heard all around the boat. It doesn’t always need to, but it always helps to review the decision with the team before it happens. Even if the anticipatory call is: “Be ready for a maneuver here!” then the team can clean up their stations and listen carefully for the tactician or the skipper’s next call.
2. Be consistent
Lots of practice and discussion of our communication points will enable us to be consistent from maneuver to maneuver. Anybody that races with me on small boats knows that I tend to chatter quietly about what I’m seeing, feeling and thinking. Sometimes that can be confusing, but I am very careful to use simple words when we’re going to make an actual maneuver. On big boats I use those same simple words even though I’m generally very quiet and in more of an observant mode. Whenever we’re about to make a maneuver, I will ask my teammates to be ready and listen up by saying: “Standby.” That word means very simply: keep doing what you’re doing, don’t move around and give away to anybody else that we’re getting ready to maneuver, but make sure that you know what you’re next move will be, and LISTEN for the next call. Often I will have reviewed our plan before I ask the team to Standby. We might be setting the spinnaker, or dousing at a leeward mark, or getting ready for a tack, or getting ready for a gybe, but regardless, the first call of the maneuver is “Standby.”
The only thing that my team is allowed to do when I say “Standby” besides listen is to respond: “HOLD!” if they can’t make the maneuver. There are a thousand reasons to say “HOLD!” Maybe the spinnaker sheets are tangled and need a quick fix. Maybe there is some traffic on the course that they know I can’t see. Maybe there is an override on a winch that won’t come out. This simple moment between: “Standby” and “Go” allows the entire team to check their stations and be mentally prepared for the maneuver. This brief glance can save your race.
After the “Standby” call is made, the next word is to execute the maneuver. “Tacking…” or “Gybing…” or “Hoist!” but always with the same words every time. If you say “Helm’s Alee,” then say that every time. Don’t say “Tacking,” then “Helm’s Alee,” then “Ready about,” then “Arriba!” Just keep it simple and keep it consistent. Your team relies on your words.
3. Use names
Lastly, when we’re communicating within teams, it is important to use names when making assignments. This is my biggest pet peeve when I’m racing with big boat teams. Skippers and tacticians like to yell out, in the middle of a bear-away: “Ease the vang!” What good does that do? If Bob (who’s job it was to ease the vang) hadn’t already remembered to do so, why will he think you’re talking to him? If the Robert, next to Bob on the rail hears it and realizes that Bob forgot, he might drop what he was supposed to do and reach for the vang. Now, both Robert and Bob are not doing their assigned jobs.
This does take time and patience for every sailor to understand every job assignment on the boat, but it pays off in spades when you see a job that needs doing and you can assign the right person to do the job. When the skipper says: “Hey Bob, ease the vang” he’ll reach right for it. If the skipper yells: “Ease the vang” nobody might reach for it.
Communication on sailboats is always a work in progress, but hopefully this is a good start. Planning our words carefully so nobody is confused when you say “Put the bow down” to the skipper, and the bow man responds by going down below. Using the same calls and timing for each maneuver alleviates much of this confusion as well and helps everybody else organize their maneuver checklists as well. Using names clears up mistaken assignments and guarantees everybody is happier at the end of the day, unless you were calling Robert: Bob, instead of the other way around. That might get confusing
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