Communication for Speed

by Andrew Kerr

Picture yourself on port tack, going fast, with a wall of starboard tackers coming at you. You can barely see them, but you know their bows are charging at you! Your team communicates well and is all on the same page, you cross the first three starboard tackers and then do a smooth duck on the last one before tacking on to the lay line for the weather mark. The whole situation seems almost routine. Why? One big reason is that the team was communicating well as each crew member was apprised of the situation and his or her subsequent role in it. 

New teams, boats with new crew, and teams that haven’t sailed together for a while would be well served to sit down and talk about communication and terminology so that in the heat of competition all team members can quickly understand, implement, and execute. 

I typically sail with a wide variety of teams in a fairly wide variety of classes and have found it helpful to ask the team I am sailing with what type of and how much communication they like. It is particularly important to get on the same page terminology-wise. For example, needing to communicate that we need to go faster might be termed “bow down fast forward” by one person, “bear off” by another, or “foot mode” by another.

Have you ever notice sometimes that a team goes silent after a bad start and is fighting it out in the back of the fleet on the first beat? If you recognize this trait in your team then now is the time to try and change it. You can be the one to start a conversation with your team, whether it be about puffs, angles, waves or looking for lanes and opportunities. It gets the team back in the game and before you know it you will be passing boats and be back in the race. 

The trick is to all agree on the terminology to minimize misunderstandings. One of the challenges of good communication is formulating ways to get across your observation or idea to the rest of your team in the most efficient and understandable way possible. Let’s look at a suggested communication model for a five-person J24, which can also be applied to other boats. 

Imagine yourself on the rail as tactician trying to describe to the skipper how your team is doing against 20 or so boats that are to windward and on the same tack.

My suggestion for doing this is to divide the fleet into thirds—the initial (closer) third, the middle third, and the top (most windward) third. The communication would go like this: “Initial group is bow down, middle group is bow even, and the top group is bow up.” That may be followed up by an overall performance analysis of “It’s net gain/net even/net loss to us.” Any management course will tell you if there’s a net loss then we need to bring a solution to the table rather than simply present a problem. (No need to kill the messenger here!) So take a look at what’s happening. Maybe part of the fleet has more breeze, a favorable wind shift, or simply is just going faster. If the latter, ask yourself why? Look at their set-up. Pay particular attention to the other boats’ forestay tension and Genoa halyard tension and how much backstay they have on and compare it to your setting. Also note what mode of sailing are they in. Is it a fast forward bow down mode or a bow up height mode?  

Next, let’s break the race into segments and look at the basic communication roles that each team member has. We will assume that the tactician/strategist in this example is the middle person. 

Before the Start—Practice & Prep

This a great time to get the communication flowing. Hoist the genoa, go upwind, get settled in, and then start the communication flowing both upwind and downwind. Once the dialogue is established, then we have a model and understanding to build on. If you are sailing with a new team, this is a perfect time to talk out what will be clear to everyone on board and what each person’s communication role will be. 

On the Final Approach to the Start      

Bow: Communicates distance to the line in boat lengths using hand signals, communicates where other boats are, and looks through the Genoa vision window to warn of encroaching boats. Example: “Do you see bow #32 and #71?” 

Note: Try to do this off the bow as much as you can on smaller keel boats by crouching at the shrouds with an occasional run up to the bow for a confirmation. This keeps the weight off the bow and also increases skipper vision. 

Mast: Communicates time clearly. A good technique is to make eye contact with the skipper when calling the time to be sure times are clearly understood. 

Middle: Warns the skipper of boats to windward and behind who may try to reach down and overlap to leeward late in the starting sequence. Example: “Watch #65—he might try to hook us.” 

Middle also verbalizes the big picture to the team from a strategy standpoint. Example: “There is more breeze left and the line is square. Let’s start to the left of midline.” 

Another task for the Middle is to communicate clearly any broadcast on the VHF radio and also communicate any flags that may have been hoisted from the RC. Middle also backs up time calling if needed. 

Cockpit: Warns the skipper of any boats approaching from clear astern and boats to leeward, particularly port tack approaches. Example: “Do you see #22?” while pointing at that boat and making eye contact with #22’s skipper.

I have seen the top cockpit crews do this. It alerts the skipper to the port tacker and also communicates to that port tacker that they have been seen and defensive action (usually bow down and aiming at them to make them tack early or duck) is about to happen. 

The Cockpit also communicates how much space to leeward there is and when the leeward boats are accelerating. Example: “#27 is trimming on and is getting bow forward on us. We have a good gap to work.”  

Skipper: Communicates whether to go fast or slow or hold position. This can be done easily by the words “speed” or luff”.  It should be noted that a bad start very often includes a lack of team clarity on any one of these aspects, often because the skipper has lost a sense for where the line is at 15 seconds or the time not being communicated clearly. 

The challenge of starting—particularly in a big aggressive fleet is that it is a series of one-on-one situations that happen in rapid succession which necessitates each team member to take on a concise communication role. 

It is really important for the crew to provide clear information to the skipper but then to let them execute the start. The skipper doing his or her own start—in conjunction with concise verbalized observations—is able to develop his or her starting skills and instincts. 

Upwind

Bow: Communicates puffs, light spots, flatter water, waves, and where the mark is. Example: “Big puff coming in 3, 2, 1, and it sustains, mark is at 11 o’clock.” It is very helpful to know if the puff does sustain or not so your team knows how much and how long the boat may have to be depowered. Very often calling lulls and how long they last is neglected—often at the cost of many boat lengths. A good example of good communication here would be: “Light spot coming in 3, 2, 1 and it last for about ten lengths.” 

Critical communication for the bow person going upwind is about boats converging with your team through the genoa window­—especially in a big fleet! Example: “Two starboard tackers coming about 40 seconds away in the middle of the window. Looks like we are bow to bow with them. Do you see them?” Be sure your team is clear about whether a time estimate or boat length estimate is preferred. Poor communication here can lead to some unplanned but theatrical maneuvers! 

Using the genoa vision window is a great tool for judging crossings. If the approaching boat is in the forward part of the window they are likely crossing ahead; if they are in the middle of the window they are likely bow-to-bow with you; if they are in the back part of the window you are likely crossing them. 

In choppy conditions, it is very beneficial for the Bow to communicate a flat spot for the team to tack in. Example: “Good flat spot in two boat lengths.” Anyone that has ever tacked into the biggest chop set of the day will appreciate this!

Keep it up—keep calling the puffs, waves and lulls, and don’t get down if you feel you are missing some of them or not doing it perfectly. I remember years ago during a regatta taking a break from it on one portion of a windward leg as I thought I was off-beat in my calls. As soon as I stopped calling the wind, Rod Johnstone (who was on the rail next to me) said some encouraging words: “Keep it up, Jeff (Johnstone) is listening and it’s helping us a lot.” Ever since, both in my own sailing and coaching I have encouraged people to keep taking swings at it as it helps keeps the team alert and in the race. 

Mast: Helps relay compass readings and looks for the mark. Example: “Mark is at 11 o’clock.” A Mast person proves invaluable when he or she calls puffs or waves while the Bow is putting the guy in the pole. Example: “Big puff in 2, 1, followed by a chop set.” This back up communication is excellent and is one of the hallmarks of a good team. 

Middle: Communicates speed and height versus the competition and overall positioning (see communication suggestion at the beginning of the article). Middle also asks the skipper how the boat feels and communicates to the skipper what mode of sailing the team should be in – i.e.: fast forward, (bow down, genoa sheet eased, mainsheet slightly eased) or in height mode (bow up, trim tighter, sailing with a narrow groove) to possibly pinch another team off. Example: “Let’s get in height mode here, there is more wind just to weather of us,” or “Lets go fast forward here, there is more breeze straight ahead,” or “The fleet is heading to the right, let’s pick a spot and go with them.” 

Middle also translates what compass numbers mean. This is invaluable, particularly off the starting line and rounding the leeward mark. Examples: “We are up five degrees,” or “We are at the median heading,” and “We are down ten degrees on this tack compared to last time.” Being specific is the key element. Keeping the number of words to a bare minimum is always the way to go.   

Cockpit: Talks with the Skipper about the gap in the genoa trim: Examples: “Am at max trim,” or “Am in eased mode.” One of the hardest scenarios is in light air when the wind is shifting faster than the skipper can steer to. If the wind lift and the outside telltale stalls, a good communication from the Cockpit would be “I am eased,” or “We are lifted.” In light air, the trimmer will be sitting to leeward and can verbalize the performance of the boats to leeward and also the separation between the team and the leeward boat. This can be particularly helpful off the starting line. Example:  “Good gap to leeward. You have room to go bow down if you want,” or “Boats to leeward are in fast forward mode and are gaining,” or “Good separation on the boat to leeward, net gain us.” 

Skipper: Can verbalize the compass numbers when they are in sight and ask for input once in a while if it is not forthcoming. Talks about how the boat feels and whether there is enough power, also talks about what mode of sailing is required for given boat-to-boat and strategic situations.  

“We thought you meant Go—not No!”

It is not uncommon to see communication lapses between a starboard tacker who does not want a port tacker to cross and a port tacker who thinks the starboard tacker is waving them to cross. If your team wants a port tacker to cross (rather than get lee bowed) then the best thing to say is “Cross, cross!” Saying “No” can easily sound like “Go”—and vice versa. 

Generally, and especially in a big fleet, it is often far better to tell a port tacker to cross as you may be lifted, going fast and in a great lane, and the last thing you want is to be lee bowed and slowed down or impeded in any way. 

Downwind  

Maintaining a lane of clear air and positioning for the next puff become paramount downwind, especially with a bigger fleet, as does an inside position at the respective gate mark (if there are two leeward marks). 

The team has to maintain the same intensity they had at the start and the first leg. This can be achieved through continued concise and consistent communication. Very often teams fall silent going downwind if they are behind (just like after a bad start). This is where you have to look harder, be more observant, and get every scrap of info that you can to gain places. Keep the dialogue going and intensity level as if you were in the lead—it will pay dividends. 

Bow: Help look for wind, scan, and verbalize where the marks are. Example: “Mark is at eleven o‘clock, big puff forming up to beam in 3, 2, and 1, now.” 

Mast: Relay the compass numbers to the middle and ask the trimmer and skipper how the pole height is and vang tension looks. 

Middle: Communicate lanes of wind and verbalize jibing opportunities and fleet performance as well as keep track of compass numbers to make sure the team is on the correct jibe. 

Middle is also talking about net gains or losses versus boats that are on the other jibe and the angles that the boats behind are sailing. Examples: “Boat behind sails 5 degrees higher than us, now he is same angle, our air is clear. Net gain versus the boats on the other jibe.” or “I like where we are, we have been headed on the compass and are on the closest jibe to the mark, the starboard gate is favored in this shift.” 

Communication that is eloquent and to the point will help the team understand what is required in tactical scenarios.  

Cockpit: A good spinnaker trimmer focuses on the sail all the time and doesn’t get distracted. Communication from the middle and dialogue with the skipper informs the Cockpit where the team is on the racecourse. 

One of the goals of ongoing and specific communication from the spinnaker trimmer is to ensure that the team does not sail too low in the lulls or too high in the puffs. Examples: “Pressures starting to develop (on the spin sheet), hold that angle, now pressures good, come down five degrees, ok no lower,” or “Down two degrees, hold, no lower, up 3 degrees, great, tight there, no higher.” On those puff/lull days information like this gives the team good opportunities to gain. 

Skipper: From a communication standpoint, the skipper’s main focus is listening to the crew communication, double-checking where the mark is, and noting compass heading changes for shifts. If the communication slows down, then some verbalized prompters such as “Where is the best breeze?” or “Is our air clear?” or “How are we doing versus the boats that jibed?” will help. 

At the Leeward Mark, Negotiate Early

One of the hallmarks of a disciplined fleet as it rounds the leeward mark are very few protests, the fleet rounding in single file (bow to stern), and little or no blocking of boats rounding on the outside. 

To me this is an indication of teams who have negotiated their overlaps or lack of overlaps early and then have focused on the best rounding possible. Most of the time, it is better to round behind someone with clearer air and the option to tack rather than outside them in bad air and with little or no option to tack. 

Good communication approaching the leeward mark requires the skipper (or a designated communicator) to start the dialogue early with the skippers of other boats. Examples: “#52, we are overlapped” or “#77, no overlap.” Obviously overlaps can change later on, but talking early will reduce the potential for late misunderstandings and potential fouls.

Keep the Process Going

This article gives many suggestions for your team’s communication, but keep in mind that each team has its own unique composition and style, so communication channels and content will be different from team to team.

I have found that you just cannot get too good at this. There are always better, more concise ways of expressing observations in an understandable way. I’m always trying to come up with new ways of communicating with teams both in my role as a coach and in my own sailing.  

The important thing though is that the team has everyone on the same page about the type and amount of communication needed for each leg of a race and for likely scenarios out on the race course. 

Keep those channels of communication open, and very best of luck at your next regatta.