Sailing Small Boats: Three Is Not a Crowd!

Communication tips for sailing with three or more crew

Sailing with three people offers very different communications challenges than simply sharing information and making decisions with only one other person (or just talking to one’s self). It has been several years since I have done much racing on boats bigger than a singlehanded ILCA 6 or doublehanded Snipe. Recently, though, I’ve had the opportunity to race on a Lightning, and triplehanded is different for sure!

Whether in heavy air, like my 15- to 20-plus-knot Lightning debut on Biscayne Bay this spring, or in super light air as on Long Island Sound in early August, like my follow-on regatta last month, communications can make or break a team’s success. How can three or more people work together? I have noticed a few themes that lead to good group communications. 

small boat sailing
Laura Jeffers , executive secretary of the International Lightning Class Association ( sailing bow #45). Photo by Arthur Petrosemo/ Nautical Photography

Define your lanes

The goal is to get the Goldilocks amount of information shared among the team—enough so that everyone has what they need, but not so much that they are overwhelmed and confused. It may occur naturally, or it may need to be defined as you’re heading out to the racecourse, but figuring out who is calling puffs, who is tracking compass headings, and even who is counting down time to the start are key elements. In clarifying these roles, it’s important to note that some crew positions are better situated to contribute different bits of information. For example, a spinnaker trimmer is looking up and forward, so a different team member should be the person to talk through downwind puffs. Defining these “lanes” helps team members share the right information, rather than having too much confusing information about puffs cluttering the air.

Realize and fill in gaps

That said, sometimes things happen. Maybe the watch of the person who usually handles calling time to the start isn’t working. Perhaps the team member who shares information on compass headings to track headers and lifts upwind is dealing with a mechanical issue. That information is still very important. If you usually share information, but something’s getting in the way of you being able to do that—be sure to let your teammates know so they can backfill. 

Less can be more. A lot of success in sailboat racing can be achieved simply by minimizing chaos. Especially when there’s a chance that more than one person might talk with (or at!) the skipper at the same time, be sure to take turns and be clear and concise with your communications. Often, it’s completely fine for no conversation to be taking place; letting the skipper have some quiet time to simply focus on sailing fast is good. Make sure that when you do have information to share, it’s in simple, commonly understood terms—a puff coming from the “left side” is still from the left looking upwind, even when you’re sailing downwind; talk about your boat’s speed and height when you’re doing lineups before racing, and so forth. Try sailing a race, and then ask your skipper if they are happy with the amount of input they got. Do they want more or less, and in any particular area(s)?

Let your emotions show… when you really need to

While less can be more and calm conversation generally rules the day, when used sparingly, an elevated, insistent voice can be key. Not getting to the start line on time? That’s a key point in the race where inserting a “gotta get up there” into the countdown can be helpful. Enjoying a breezy day with nice puffs, but a big gnarly one is headed your way? Crank up the urgency and let your skipper know a “big puff” is coming. 

Who’s your loudspeaker?

Did that interaction constitute something your skipper would like to protest? Or how will you, a boat on starboard, communicate to a port boat closing in whether you’d like them to tack or cross? Certainly, crew members should share input with their skipper on items like these (along the lines of “she absolutely took us above close-hauled; I think you should protest her” or “why don’t you let him cross so we can continue on this way without him tacking too close to leeward”). But different skippers have different levels of comfort with delegating communications between boats. It can work in a bunch of ways, but make sure you’re all on the same wavelength. 

Communicating about team communications isn’t the most exciting part of practicing and racing, but it’s elemental in achieving success. Review guidelines on the way out to the racecourse so that you can talk about how well it worked on the commute home!

By Kim Couranz

About the Author: SpinSheet Small Boat columnist for more than a dozen years, Kim Couranz has earned several national and world titles in Laser Radials (ILCA 6) and Snipes. She has also raced J/22s, J/24s, and Ynglings on an international level.

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