Annie and Joanie, pictured above, are “Team Dodici” —  what a great sailing duo!

One of the best things about racing a small boat like my H12 ½, is that since there are only two people on the boat, there’s a lot for both the skipper and the crew to do — unlike on some of the bigger boats where the crew is relegated to scrabbling over the boat to get to windward in time for the next tack. On a small boat, the crew can help with so much, and in the best boats, the skipper and crew work on developing their own team approach to racing. It’s quite interesting to see how different teams operate; in some boats the skipper does nearly everything, and in other boats, skippers rely heavily on their crew for tactics and sail trim — not to mention psychological encouragement! On my boat, it’s the latter, with a constant conversation regarding boat speed, tactics, sail trim, and wind. Each team will be unique, and that’s part of what makes racing such an enjoyable challenge.

From both the skipper’s and the crew’s perspective, a little preparation can go a long way. A few summers ago, I was training a new crew nearly every week, plus I was teaching a beginning sailors’ course, and I noticed that people had a hard time remembering what was where.  So I went out, bought a label maker, and labeled the important things a new person on the boat ought to know about. It’s been my experience that when someone new is helping out on your boat, labels can be especially useful in the “heat of the moment,” when quick and ready action is required!  But, as is generally the case with label makers, you do have to know when to stop labeling things. . .

My boat has two mainsail halyards since it’s a gaff rig, so those were labeled, as well as the spinnaker halyard and the jib halyard, which are right next to one another. One of the crucial things the crew can help with is getting the mainsail trimmed in during a leeward mark rounding, so I marked the mainsheet with a sharpie so that the crew could pull in quickly and know exactly where to stop. The other sheet you can mark this way is the jib sheet – mark it where it should be pulled in for windward work, so the crew can replicate it without having to think about it. Often these sail maneuvers happen in the midst of chaos, so the more accurate of an approximation the crew can make right away, the faster you’ll be able to go. In racing boats, seconds really do count.

When there are new sailors interested in racing as crew with our fleet, I like to have them start with a session or two helping out on the Race Committee boat. We supply them with a packet of materials that explains the start sequence, the rules at the start, and how the racecourse is set up, which gives them an overall picture of what the start is all about, and how the race is organized. There’s always plenty of work to be done, and the Race Committee is happy to have extra help.  The new recruits can assist with the flags, keep track of the boats as they check in, and record finishes.  It’s also a good time to have them learn how to use the stopwatch.

On the way back home after racing, make sure your crew gets time on the tiller, and let him or her sail the boat back in.  And since it’s usually a bit of a sail back to the mooring, there’s ample time to talk about what went well, and what could have been done better. This time can also be used as a lesson in sail trim, too.  One fun thing to do is to try to “race” the other boats back. Even if you’re not a novice, you can always figure out useful things when sailing next to other boats on the way back home — it gives you a perfect opportunity to try out different sail trim and settings in a non-racing situation.

It’s been interesting to see how the different teams in our fleets have developed their own strategies for splitting up the work they do.  I have noticed quite an obvious evolution in each team’s growth from race to race, and season to season, as trust builds and they find better and more efficient ways to work together.

So what’s the moral of this story?  By working together and helping each other develop the skills to be the best sailors you can be, you, too can develop a winning team, and have a lot of fun doing it.

Go team!

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Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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