I’ve sailed many types of boats, from singlehanding a Laser to being one of seven people on the rail of a keelboat, but the racing I enjoy most is on two- and three-handed boats. The task of synergizing a team combined with the direct responsibility of each sailor for performance is the most exciting and difficult challenge in sailing. I probably spend way more time than I should thinking about sailing, whether it’s the regatta to come or the mistakes and successes of the race just past. The ideas here are the fruits of that thought.
I learned to sail as a crew, and while my sailing was fundamentally sound, I didn’t become what I would consider good crew until I learned to race competitively as a skipper. A good crew must know not just his or her own responsibilities but also the responsibilities of everyone on the boat. I believe this is the biggest and easiest way for most crews to improve. Once you know all that goes into skippering, you will be able to look around and anticipate the skipper’s possible reactions to a situation, which allows you to prepare for your next move. This is most important in a big fleet start when a lot of things are happening simultaneously and you need to have a pretty good idea, before the skipper tells you, if you need to luff, power up, tack, gybe, etc. Also, you’ll be better able to prioritize the information you give to the skipper and add analysis. This alleviates the need for the skipper to look at every situation and make their own analysis, allowing them to concentrate on other things. Skippering will also give you a better feel for the situations that will stress a skipper out so you’ll be able to break the tension and get the skipper refocused on winning the race. By the way, skippers should crew, too, for all the reasons just stated.
So now that you’ve laid the groundwork for success, what do you do for the regatta coming up this weekend? Start by learning everything you can about the venue you’ll be sailing at. More and more clubs post weather and tide tendencies on their web sites, and you can read these as well as checking weather reports beginning a week before the regatta. For some venues (SSA) there are also references such as Stuart Walker’s The Sailor’s Wind which can be helpful. Next, make sure you have all the gear necessary for all expected weather conditions. I’m a chronic pack rat, but this has saved me several times when a regatta turned out to be colder than expected. Make sure you own all the gear you need, and don’t forget to bring it with you. For some reason it always seems to surprise my skippers that I bring my own lifejacket, but I never go sailing without it. It fits me perfectly, it is very comfortable, which means I don’t mind wearing it all day, every day (I swim like a brick, so this is key for me), and it has a large pocket so it can double as my tool and spare parts kit. Once you get the sailing instructions, read them carefully. The most important things to note are the schedule of racing, the color and shape of the various marks, (often pins, marks, offsets, and moved marks will each be different shapes and/or colors,) whether the start/finish line is an obstacle of the course, and what the time limits are for a race. Put the sailing instructions in a ziploc or dry bag on the boat for reference.
Now that you have all of your personal gear, the next step is rigging the boat. By this I mean help put the mast up. Not only is this common courtesy to your skipper, but you need to know where all control lines are, and how the boat is rigged so if something breaks or comes untied you are better prepared to fix it. I mentioned earlier that my lifejacket doubles as my tool kit. I always carry a Gerber multi-tool, an assortment of clevis pins and ring-dings, electrical tape, spinnaker repair dots and a two to three foot piece of very thin high strength line.
Ok, now we get to the good stuff: sailing! Most skippers like to be fed as much information as possible about wind, waves, and the other boats on the course. (There are exceptions, of course, such as the skipper who growled “just sail!” if I started looking around.) First of all, the starts: obviously, you need to be calling out the time to the gun often and clearly. In heavy air don’t be afraid to yell to be heard over luffing sails. Have a line sight, know where the boat is in relation to the line, and communicate this to the skipper in boatlengths. Often skippers can get so caught up in fighting for position with the boat above or below they fail to notice they’re stopped 1 ½ boatlengths below the line with only fifteen seconds to go and a quick “hit the gas!” will turn a potential disaster into a good start. The first few boatlengths after the start are very important. You need to do everything possible to maximize boatspeed in the first thirty seconds so your boat will break out into clear air. Upwind, I try to describe the relative positions of other boats in a grid of forward/back and windward/leeward: “they’re two boatlengths to windward and one boatlength behind.” Also, spot puffs and give time, pressure, and lift/header information (make your best guess, no one’s right all the time.) When you’re sailing upwind in breeze, try to keep the skipper posted on waves. This will allow them to keep the straight line speed up and pick the right spots to tack so the boat doesn’t stop. Downwind, flying the spinnaker should consume 100% of your attention, but if you do look around, be looking for puffs, waves, and anything your skipper may have missed about what the other boats are doing. In light and medium air give the skipper a lot of information about how much wind pressure there is in the spinnaker. This will allow them to drive the boat for maximum velocity made good to the mark. Assuming an upwind finish, you need to be looking at which end of the line is favored, (further downwind,) the position of other boats, (are you covering, attacking, or both,) and the wind and waves.
One final note, sometimes your most important job is psychologist. Pay attention to when your skipper is getting their head too far in the boat, too far out of the boat, or just generally out of joint. I’m convinced that a huge part of success in sailing is in your head, and if your skipper is sure the race or the regatta is lost before it really is, figure out a way to get them thinking positively.