The Art of Being a Good Crew

Four or five years ago the club I was sailing at was holding one of its annual events – a GP14 regatta. Someone at the club asked if I’d like to sail in it, as one of the other members had a GP14 but wasn’t going to be taking part, meaning I could helm the boat if I could find a crew. I jumped at the chance, even though I hadn’t really sailed a two-man boat for 15 years, and I had virtually no experience with a spinnaker.

As luck would have it, another club member overheard the conversation and offered to be my crew. This was both excellent news and terrible news. The guy in question had won a world championship as a crew in a two-man spinnaker boat. I was going to have an excellent team mate, but I was also going to have no excuses for doing badly. And I like having excuses.

We only got the offer a couple of weeks before the event, meaning that we wouldn’t get the chance to sail together until the actual event – not ideal preparation. He sent me a description of our roles in terms of spinnaker hoists, drops and gybes, which I duly read and tried to remember. On the first morning of the regatta we went out and practiced a couple, and then we were into our first race.

We started off doing ok, but after the second race we realised I was under-sheeting the main upwind. The boats I’ve sailed tend to have the boom around the rear leeward corner when sailing upwind, but this boat needed the main over the centre-line of the boat. Once we figured this out our results started improving.

However, the big thing I was learning was what makes a truly excellent crew. In my younger days I’d done a little crewing. Once I’d crewed in an event for a good friend and great sailor, and in light of what I know now, I didn’t do a great job. My GP14 crew was showing me how it should be done.

The first thing was the nearly constant communication. Upwind, his head was always out of the boat.

“We’ve got good speed and we’re pointing ok”

“Gust coming…looks like a lift…hitting in 3..2..1”

“We’re lifted…boat inside hasn’t got it yet…hold till next header…there’s the knock – have a look and see if you want to go”

“right of the beat is looking good…think we should look at heading over at the next opportunity…clear lane coming up”

And so on.

All this feedback was incredible. I could focus on sailing the boat fast in a straight line – only looking around when I needed to make a decision about something. I could focus on sail settings, boat trim and mainsheet tension, and because I was always being told what was going on I had an image of the race situation without having to look.

Downwind, we did something similar. Now his eyes were almost permanently on the spinnaker, trimming for optimal speed. I was looking around, and mostly behind, analysing the tactical situation and focusing on where the breeze was to sail the fastest course downwind.

He would be feeding information back to me all the time:

“good pressure…still good…going slightly soft…softer…better, good pressure…”

All this helped me sail a quick course for the breeze we were in, pointing up when the pressure was soft, bearing away when the pressure was better. And, all the time I was able to look around for the best lane, and focus on getting us into the best tactical position for the next mark.

He was also very good at letting me know when I’d done something wrong without stinging my ego – an invaluable skill for a crew. In fairness, I don’t upset easily these days, and unless the criticism had been stinging, I’d have been grateful for any advice he could give me. But he even did this well. For instance, if we did a gybe, he might say something on exiting the gybe like “great, we’re off and running again”; or he might say “good gybe, nice exit angle, spinnaker flying the whole way”. In this way, pretty quickly I knew that if I got the first response I’d done something wrong, and if I got the second then I’d done it well. And, if I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong I could ask and he’d tell me. It was a great way to communicate.

After each race we’d have a quick chat about the race, and then we’d shoot the breeze about something unrelated to sailing. It was a really nice way to spend a weekend.

Our improving results meant we qualified for the finals on the second day of the regatta. The second day dawned a force 6, gusting 7. We had a chat, and I said I wasn’t too sure about flying the kite in these conditions. He said he thought it would be alright, but that we could make a decision when on the water. As we approached the first windward mark I said I thought we might leave the kite in its bag and play it safe.

“No way, let’s throw the kite up – it’ll be great”

I don’t think he’d had any intention of not flying the spinnaker, but he knew that if he’d said it on shore then I might have dug my heels in. In the middle of the race, and in an ok position, he knew he stood a good chance of getting me to go for it. It’s normally the helm persuading the crew to move out of his or her comfort zone, but in this case the roles were reversed.

We capsized (a death roll – my fault), but we were far from alone. And he was right – it was great. Sailing downwind in a big breeze with a spinnaker up was a pretty spectacular feeling while it lasted.

We ended up fourth or fifth overall – pretty good for our first effort, although it should be said that the competition format suited us well.

But far better than the results was the learning – I had tons of new information and experience to take away with me. And a good friend too.

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