Talk With Your Teammates

by David Dellenbaugh
When you’re sailing down the run, there’s a lot to talk about. Wind pressure in the spinnaker. The feel of the helm. Your angle of heel. Position of the spinnaker pole. If you want to keep going fast, your crew must communicate with each other about what’s happening with the wind, sails and boat. When I am a helmsperson, I like to hear as much information as possible, so I tell my crew to talk a lot and assume that I know nothing.

Here is a list of speed-related subjects that each member of a crew might talk about on a run. If your boat doesn’t have this many crewmembers, you must divide up these subjects among fewer people.
Spinnaker Trimmer

The spinnaker trimmer is a key member of the downwind speed team because he or she can see and feel the wind in the spinnaker.

Pressure in the spinnaker. Is the sail nicely powered up or is it barely holding its shape? Was there a recent change in pressure? Would the spinnaker be happier if the boat was heading higher or lower?

For example, the trimmer might say something like: “I have better pressure now, we can come down 5 degrees.” Or “I’m losing pressure, it would help to head up a little.” This is the heart of what the spinnaker trimmer must communicate to keep the boat going fast.

Note that the spinnaker trimmer describes pressure in the sail and then offers an opinion about what is needed to keep the boat going as fast as possible. He or she should not say to the helmsperson, “I have more pressure. Come down please.” The choice of whether to head up or down should always be left up to the helmsperson (and/or the tactician) and is based on a number of factors like strategy and tactics, plus the information that’s communicated by the trimmer.

Commands to the grinder about trimming the sheet. The trimmer should tell the grinder when to start trimming (“Trim!”) and when to stop (“Stop!”). Once the grinder hears “Trim,” he or she should trim as fast as possible and keep going until they hear “Stop.” Don’t forget to say “Thanks!”

Requests about other spinnaker controls. In addition to the sheet, the spinnaker trimmer must oversee the afterguy, foreguy and topping lift. If the boat is big enough that the trimmer cannot reach or handle all these controls, he or she must talk with other crewmembers. For example, “Can you square the guy back a foot please?” or “Please drop the outboard end of the pole six inches.”

Observations about potential bad air or windshifts. The spinnaker is a very sensitive sail, so the trimmer is often able to recognize the effects of bad air or a lift or header before anyone else on the boat. When you feel this, tell the helmsperson or tactician.

The Helmsperson

The helmsperson has the ultimate responsibility for making the boat go fast and is critical because he or she can feel the boat through the wheel or tiller.

Feeling about boatspeed. The helmsperson should report on his or her sense of how fast the boat is going. Are you accelerating, decelerating, sailing too fast, too slow, and so on? It’s important for everyone to know this so they can keep the boat going as fast as possible and anticipate what the helmsperson might do next.

Placement of crew weight. The helmsperson should feel how much windward or leeward helm there is, and use this info to direct the placement of crew weight, both fore-and-aft and side-to-side.

Description of your strategy. This is important so everyone is on the same page. For example, what angle and/or speed are you trying to sail. Do you want to go high and fast? Low and slow? Or exactly on your target speed numbers? It will help to give the crew a target boatspeed, a target wind angle, a target spinnaker pole angle or just a point on shore where you are steering.

Questions of other people. Ask questions to keep the crew on their toes and to make sure you have the info you need to steer fast.


The tactician is responsible for coordinating speed information with strategic and tactical concerns.

Performance relative to other boats nearby. Comparing your speed to other boats is really the only way to know how fast you are going, so this is critical. To avoid confusion, always talk about your boat. For example, “we are lower and faster.” “We are the same height and slower.”

Tactical/strategic concerns. What factors, if any, may affect the course you would sail for optimal speed? For example, should you sail a little high to avoid bad air or to get into better wind pressure?

Reminders about your target speed. On bigger boats with instruments, the tactician should help decide what target speed to sail and keep evaluating this number as conditions change. Your target speed should take into account your performance relative to other boats and tactical or strategic concerns.


Other Crewmembers

All other crewmembers should be encouraged to contribute comments about boatspeed, too. For example, someone sitting on the weather rail may have a great perspective on your performance relative to other boats. And if they have few other responsibilities, they may be able to focus on one boat for a while and give good feedback on your speed.

Reports on puffs and lulls. Other crew are often assigned the job of looking for upcoming changes in wind pressure. Remember to look in the direction of the boat’s apparent wind (use your masthead wind pennant) to see where your puffs and lulls are coming from.

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