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The Art of Crewing

Mastering the Forward Crew's Position

by Adam Walsh, winning forward crew at the Lightning 1997 North Americans

Few crew positions on any boat are as difficult as the forward crew on a Lightning. This position requires agility, strength, balance, feel and smarts. Far too often skippers overlook the contribution of the forward crew, merely finding a warm body, who weighs enough for the specific conditions, who can pull in the jib and who can gybe the pole.

I hope I can help forward crew to perfect their techniques and, in turn, help their team to succeed by sharing information in this article and several articles through the winter. The forward crew can, and should, make a strong contribution by acting and reacting independently of the other crew and the skipper. This article focuses on prestart and upwind activities. Next, I'll talk about tacking and jib trim.

Racing Upwind

Many crew neglect taking advantage of the few minutes prior to the warning gun to warm up. Everyone should make it a habit of sailing upwind on both tacks, collecting data on the breeze, the shifts and the wave conditions. After you've arrived at the race course and checked in, do a wind shot to get a wind direction and write it down. Generally, the forward crew keeps track of the compass headings. Then, you should sail upwind for several minutes.

On our boat, we sail like we are racing, reading the compass and creating a high, a low and a median compass heading for each tack. Before we head back to the line we check the wind direction again to compare with our previous compass readings.

A tuning partner can help check speed and settings upwind. You can split tacks and sail on opposite tacks for about three minutes and then tack. When you converge, any benefit to one side or the other should be evident and you can discuss the trends in the shifts and velocity.

During this warm up, the forward crew must get in tune with the waves, wind and the jib.

As we're sailing upwind in the warm-up, I watch three things, the compass, the lower third of the jib, and the waves and wind a few boatlengths to weather. When I see a bad set of waves approaching, I make a quick decision. Do I slide in off the rail, heel the boat up on one chine and knife through the waves? Or do I ease the sheet a bit, gain power, hike hard and flatten the boat as it powers through the waves? More than likely, I will choose a combination of these techniques. Almost everyone, your skipper in particular will agree that the best time to figure this out is BEFORE the first beat!

The benefit of working 100% during this warm up is obvious; everyone gets into phase with the wave patterns, the breeze, and the puffs and lulls, so when the gun goes off your boat is already in the grove, sailing fast and you have a good idea of what phase the breeze is in. Sailing off the starting line is probably the most crucial time of any race.

Let's face it, few of us can hike as hard and as long as an Olympic Finn or Laser sailor. I've spent the last 14 years hanging from trapeze wires, so I despise hiking more than most. The key to successful hiking is to know when extra effort and pain will pay off. All the crew must max hike at specific times during a race, like at the start. By max hike, I don't mean droop hiking and groaning more than usual. I mean placing your weight out as far away from the centerline of the boat. This requires the crew to move their butts outside the rail, straighten their legs so that their torsos are extended out and place at least one hand above their head or up on their chest. This max hike is going to hurt, but think how good it will feel to slide in a bit and just hike hard after a mean max hike!

When its windy, the most important time for a max hike is the three to four minutes off the starting line. The max hike helps the boat accelerate and point. If you can pinch off the boat to weather, roll the boat to leeward or just save your lane, the rest of the race will be that much easier. The max hike helps when approaching a crossing situation port/starboard. Another time max hike works is when it's 'blowing the dog of the chain', as it helps get the boat up to top speed before throwing in a tack. Too many crews let the boat become overpowered before the tack and the result is poor boatspeed out of the tack.

Balance and Boat Trim

It should be the job of the forward crew to continually balance the boat. Only one crew should do fine tune balancing. The middle crew often has their head out of the boat looking for breeze, competition and determining the tactics, so the middle crew may not have the best feel for the waves and balance. For this reason, the forward crew, with the finger on the pulse of the boat and its speed, should be the one to make the slight adjustments.

As a rule of thumb it is better to keep the middle crew and forward crew close together, centralizing the weight. The middle crew should never be on the rail while the forward crew sits to leeward. Occasionally, the forward crew will have to ask the middle crew (because his mind is elsewhere) to move in or out to maintain a good separation between the two crew. With practice your team can become fluid and smooth, so that the boat remains at perfect trim all the time.

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