Five Things That Great Racing Skippers Do

Five Keys to Success for Racing Skippers

The role of “team leader” (skipper) varies with boat type and size. It often involves being the principal helmsperson. In many racing programs the skipper is also the owner. This means you have a lot on your plate. Regardless of how the role is structured, there are some common threads that all successful skippers share.

1. Communicate

2. Define responsibilities

3. Be organized; take care of your crew

4. Prepare

5. Practice

All great sailboat racing skippers communicate, define roles onboard, prepare, practice, and more. Photo courtesy of Quantum

1. Communicate. If you sail with a skipper who yells and screams, find another boat. This is a sure sign that they don’t have control over the situation and are in over their head. When you are good, you anticipate and prepare your team so that there is a lot less potential for the unexpected or for things getting out of control. Also, yelling is counter productive. Sometimes you just have to sit back and do your job and let the rest of the team sort it out. A well-sailed boat is a quiet boat.

There are three onboard dialogs going on with a certain amount of overlap. First is the helmsperson-trimmer’s constant discussion about how the boat is going. Second is the tactical conversation about what the plan of attack is and where you are on the course. If the skipper is the helmsperson, this is handled by the tactician or other crew. You can’t drive and look around at the same time. It is the tactician’s job to paint the picture for the rest of the crew so they can anticipate what is coming up next. Third is crew mechanics: Bear away or gybe set? Taking down on the port side, etc. Crew boss and tactician sort the big picture. The crew boss works with the team to make sure everyone knows what their job is.

  1. Define responsibilities. Every maneuver should be choreographed and scripted. Tacks, sets, gybes, and douses should each have defined roles in the playbook. New crew on board? Here you go. This is what you do in every maneuver. Good skippers and top teams take this even further. Not only are racing mechanics defined, but everything including getting off the dock, raising the mainsail, folding sails, and cleaning up the boat has the same people doing the same thing every time. No relaxing until the boat is taken care of.
  2. Be organized; take care of your crew. Great skippers let you know exactly where you stand and what to expect. The schedule is out well before the season. Dock time, race details, and travel logistics are all laid out well in advance. You will periodically run into a skipper with the attitude that it is a privilege to be sailing with them and you should be happy to be there. These are not typically successful programs. The best skippers take care of you and make you feel valued. It could be simple things such as an off-season crew dinner or cold beer waiting on the dock after the race. On bigger programs it can be good accommodations and great meals. (Tip from the top: if you are doing an away regatta with a big team, hire a cook. It’s cheaper and much more time efficient). 

    Treat your crew well, and you’ll get better crew who will keep coming back. Continuity is the key to developing winning teams. Onboard be a teacher. Learn from mistakes and let your team take initiative. You don’t want automatons that only move when yelled at. Encourage initiative. They can see when the mark is coming up; they can figure out what needs to be done to get the next maneuvers done. In the spirit of teaching and learning have a crew debrief after a race to go over what you learned and what you can do better next time.

  3. Prepare. No one wants to sail on a boat where the systems don’t work, the sails are shot, the running rigging is ancient, and the bottom hasn’t been done. Sailing is a hard sport with a lot of uncontrollable variables. Just tell me you can predict the next shift or on what side of the course there is going to be more wind. The mechanics of making a boat work are the controllable variables. You have to have these covered if you are going to provide a platform that lets your crew excel. Since this is also a budget issue, it is wise you ask yourself the question not “how much boat can I afford to buy,” but “how much boat can I afford to race?” Keeping the boat in top-notch racing condition is the expensive part.
  4. Practice. This is a sport. Even if you are only casually doing Wednesday nights, schedule a weekend session before the season starts. Even better, hire a coach to help organize. This is an investment in your crew that will pay huge dividends. If you are going to a big event, you are going in with one hand tied behind your back if you don’t schedule in a day or two of training beforehand. On race day be the first boat off the dock and out on the course. Give yourself time to do a full windward-leeward practice session to dial in speed, tuning, and mechanics. Use the time to take a look at course possibilities, what the wind is doing, etc. You can’t just pick up the driver, walk up to the first tee, and give it a wack, and expect to not hit it out of bounds.


Mark, measure, and record everything. All control  lines and systems should have marks for repeatable settings. Keep a log (trimmers can be delegated to handle) of where everything is for a specific sail in a given condition.

By David Flynn of Quantum Sails, [email protected]

Find more articles by David here.