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Crew Communication

(From Racing the Lightning)
By Hale Walcoff
Bristol, Rhode Island
New Eitgland District
1991 World Champion in June 1977

Bruce Burton and I were sailing for Tufts in the intercollegiate North Americans. In the seventh race we rounded the weather mark first and jibed onto port, closely followed by Ed Adams of URI. Converging with us from to leeward was Washington’s Brian Thomas, still beating to the weather mark on starboard. Bruce didn’t see him until we were one boatlength away and by then it was too late. As we were doing a 720, Bruce said, “Hale, you have to tell me about these things.” “I would have,” I replied, “but I thought you saw him coming.” What was potentially a good race - one that in retrospect would have won the NAs for us - became a disaster because of a lack of communication.

We all engage in pre-regatta boat and physical preparation, but equally important is preparing to communicate. So before you rush out on the water and have a communication breakdown, think about the following ideas. First, when assembling a crew, remember that you don’t need Arnold Schwarzenegger to hike or Gary Jobson to call the shots--you just need a compatible crew that will work together toward a common goal. The amount of talent you need will be determined by the type of boat you sail. For instance, a J/24 is difficult to steer precisely in waves and has a large genoa that restricts visibility, so the helmsman must concentrate totally on steering and rely on the crew to tell him or her what is going on. Conversely, an E-22 is easy to sail upwind and only uses a working jib, so the skipper can afford to look around part of the time without losing boatspeed. For the Lightning, some suggestions have been put forth in this article and elsewhere in this booklet.

Once you have gathered your crew and ascertained their strengths and weaknesses, assign responsibilities accordingly. Remember, people should do what they’re good at. If someone has eagle eyes, put him or her in charge of calling out puffs and/or mark location. Next, decide what information the crew and skipper need to sail the best race possible. For closed-course, one-design racing, I include the following: compass heading, puffs, mark location, boatspeed/pointing, waves, current, location of major competitors, port/ starboard situations, sail trim and’s clear that with this much information being discussed, you don’t have time to talk about the party the night before or why the forward crew thinks the boat is a pig. But you also don’t want a running commentary on everything that is happening at every point in the race. Quiet periods are an essential part of the communication process. When no one is talking, the helmsman can optimize his steering, and the crew can concentrate on sail trim, balance and collecting information. Then, when there is something important to say, the other crew members will listen.

Once everyone is tuned in, be sure you’re talking the same language. At the 1979 Lightning Worlds in Dallas, Texas, I was the middleman tactician for Don and Ann Brush. In the fifth race we were in second place on the port-tack layline, 50 yards from the finish and on a collision course with starboard-tacker Jim Dressel. I told Don to “go below him;“ in other words, to bear away below Dressel and harden up again on port. This would have assured our beating him. Instead, Don interpreted “going below” as leebowing, so we tacked under Dressel and he tacked away, beating us to the finish. As a result of that communication breakdown, Dressel beat us by one point for the series.

After defining your terms, you should decide how you want the information collected and communicated. I’ll briefly describe each piece of information and how I like to deal with it:

Compass Heading

This should be done on a relative basis rather than absolute. In order words, “Up five, normal, down five,” instead of “295 degrees, 290, 285.” Absolute numbers only serve to confuse in the heat of battle and are something the skipper shouldn’t have to remember. Having a feel for what the compass is doing is important, especially at critical points like the start, port/starboard situations, and the beginning of each successive beat, but continuous compass readouts are not only unnecessary, they’re distracting.


It is imperative that everyone on the boat knows when a puff or lull is coming so proper sail trim, boat trim and tactical decisions can be made. Don’t just say, “A puff is coming.” Estimate the strength, direction, time of arrival and how long it will last; then using telltales and a wristwatch, determine if you are correct. This may seem difficult at first, but with practice anyone can be right about the breeze 80 percent of the time.

Mark location-Before the start, you must know where the weather mark is. As you sail the weather leg, refer to the mark location as time on a clock. Twelve o’clock is straight ahead, while three and nine o’clock are on the starboard and port beams, respectively. An alternative way to describe mark location, if there are some good landmarks visible, is to say, for example, “The weather mark is just to the right of McDonald’s” When you get within a hundred yards of any mark, find the next mark and determine what angle you’ll be sailing at on the next leg.


Boatspeed and pointing go hand in hand, for the faster you go the higher you can point. But they are relative terms in one-design racing because no gauges are used to determine actual speed or closewindedness. At the start, it’s especially critical to know what the boats on your lee bow and weather quarter are doing so you don’t get squeezed off or run over. Then, as you sail around the course, keep watching other boats so you know immediately when you are not going well. This is an easy way to realize that a boat or sail trim adjustment is needed or that there are weeds on the rudder. Be sure to realistically evaluate your speed and pointing; overly optimistic or pessimistic reports are simply counter-productive.


Discuss what waves are coming that you should power up to get through. Also, locate relative flat spots in which you can go for pointing or that you might want to tack in.


Make a note of the current strength and direction every time you pass a lobster pot or moored boat. As you sail each leg, be sure to range the next mark to see which way the current is setting you so you can compensate for it.

Location of Major Competitors

No matter how fast or in phase you think you are, you still have to beat the other boats. This means knowing at all times where your major competitors are on the course, what tack they’re on and how fast they’re going.

Port/Starboard Situations

Right-of-way rules were established for our protection, but you must be judicious in using them to your advantage. Don’t just yell “Starboard!” when you see a port tacker approaching. First determine which way you want to go and which way you want him to go; then wave him on or hail “Starboard.” Be sure someone on your boat is always watching for other boats so you will have time to make the correct tactical response.

Sail Trim and Boathandling

Hopefully your crew will be prepared enough so the need for communication in these areas is minimized. This will allow you to talk about more important things. If you have to explain how to do a roll tack on the first weather leg, for example, you need more practice. However, the skipper may have to ask for fine-tuning adjustments such as, “Bring the spinnaker pole back six inches,” and the crew might tell the skipper, “Move forward about a foot, I think the stern is dragging.” This kind of communication is essential in attaining optimal performance.

Once you know what information you will need, you have to determine who’s going to make the decisions. Basically there are three communication systems you can use: the “crew dominant,” “skipper dominant,” or “feed system.” In the crew dominant, the helmsman is simply responsible for making the boat go fast, and the crew tells him where to go. The dominant skipper drives the boat, collects most of the information and makes all the tactical decisions. In the feed system, the crew collects information, recommends a course of action and lets the skipper make the final decision. The latter system is usually the best since it makes the most of everyone’s talent. It still lets the person with the best feel for the boat have ultimate control. You can also innovate on this. When I sail with Dave Curtis, he controls the starting procedure; I decide where to go on the weather legs; and then he takes over again during mark roundings. Once you know who is collecting information and who is making the decisions at various points of the race, the information flow will go smoothly.

The last thing you have to prepare for is dealing with the emotional aspects of communicating. For sailing in high pressure situations with cramped physical quarters, I follow these guidelines: When skippering, never yell at the crew. When crewing, never yell at the skipper. Also, don’t respond emotionally to someone else’s emotional outburst. Yelling only serves to distract from the race at hand and has never helped to get anything done in the boat. Instead, give encouragement to your crew or skipper in tight situations, and save critical comments for onshore discussions.

A good system of communication should enable all crew members to contribute their fullest to the team effort. If you talk about the kind of information flow that you want with your crew before each race and then encourage everyone to evaluate how things went afterward, you will develop a system of communication that matches the needs of your particular crew and boat, and this will give you the best chance of winning.

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