October 14, 2014

The view from the middle of the boat | Phil Toth talks about what makes a good crew.

 There have been loads written about winning from the perspective of how to be a great helmsman or a brilliant tactician. Practice a bit, win the start, hit the first shift and extend from there. What could be more simple….right?
Phil Toth in the middle of a Melges 20 
Truth is, from the high lofty exulted position of helmsman or tactician it may appear to the gods in the back of the boat that sails get trimmed perfectly each and every time, and the crew still have the time to clean everything up and scramble across the boat and hike after maneuvers like mark roundings.

I have been sailing on the Olympic circuit almost full time over the last 8 years both in the Finn and the Star. It really opened my eyes on how important the crew is! Many of the top Star crews in the world can swap and change drivers, it does not matter who is steering behind us we can still win. Many of them have gone on to be highly sought after crews in other classes such as the Dragon, Etchells, Melges 20, Volvo, Americas Cup and TP52s etc. Good crew will have a set of base set of skills that will really work successfully in any class!

Phil Toth Star Sailing
Team Work- Good crew are people that can work well and constructively in a team. The last thing a driver or tactician needs is someone in the middle of the boat chirping away second guessing there every move. It wrecks their confidence and only creates turmoil and frustration on the boat. Everyone needs to know their job and the strengths and weaknesses of the others. Make sure that you can back up the person beside you, if they don’t fail in their job neither will you. Always be positive and say only what needs to be said and only that which will move the boat forward to a better position. Never give up and never stop sailing at 100% till you cross the finish line. Many regattas are decided by a single point. Being a good crew means you get everything done even if it’s just coiling a line before the gybe…most of it will happen in the back ground and no one will notice. It is often when nothing happens (the spin sheets don’t get knotted and screw up the gybe) that it means you’re doing your job right. Debrief after each race to talk about how to improve for the next one.

Compass- I sail a lot of small boats that do not have the fancy electronics that give you all the wind and speed info. I have found that a compass is all that you really need. The fancy stuff is nice to have for sure, and I will use it to confirm what I already know from the compass. No matter if it is a new digital compass or an old school one it will help you figure out when there is a shift, the favored end of the line, or the wind heading. When crewing I will keep track of the boat heading (as I know the tactician is too) so that I know when there has been a shift and I can then be ready for any maneuver to take advantage of the shift that just happened. Keeping track like this will keep you a step ahead of the boat. It will help you keep your head in the game tactically as well as inform others on the crew that there is a maneuver likely soon and to be prepared when the tactician calls for it.

Feedback- A crucial ability for any good crew is to be able to give feedback to the driver and trimmer. Giving precise information as to what is happening is key. A mistake I often see is crew that gives out too much information, most of which is not even relevant. When giving speed comparisons off the start line, I like to give the driver constant feed back for about 30 sec…then once he is settled in I just give status updates only when I see his mode change in comparison to the other boats to keep him on track. That way he can concentrate on making us go as fast as possible and is not distracted by a lot of chatter. If the boat in front of you tacks and the driver can see it….no need to tell him about it he can see it as easily as you, it is redundant information. The boat on your windward hip (the drivers back is to it) blocking you from tacking however is worth a mention.

Reference Marks- No matter what class of boat you sail, the key to trimming is having reference marks that you can use at a glance. On the Farr 40, Star, and TP 52 we have them on the spreaders, but on the Melges 20 and J-80 we have marks on the sheets that line up with a fixed point on the deck. Part of my pre race routine is to make sure that these marks are properly fixed in the right spot and visible to the trimmers. I never use just one mark, I put them on halyards, sheets, jib cars, guys etc. That way when I find a fast setting I can repeat it every time.

Crew Weight- Kids learn from a young age in summer sailing class that moving your weight is a major key to winning in any class of boat. This is the one aspect of crewing where I see most people falter. This is the area where most teams can make the biggest improvement. It is often overlooked and many crew sit and wait to be told where to move their body weight to. Be active in the boat. I always keep my weight moving to achieve the proper level of heel. I also learned that hiking hard is the key to speed in a lot of situations. Hiking hard is not always a matter of being bigger or fitter… as we all know hiking is not always comfortable (ok it never really is “comfortable”), it is however down to a matter of the will to win. In the Finn, Ben Ainsle is not the biggest, strongest, heaviest or tallest guy in the fleet…but he is the one that is the most driven to win!

By Phil Toth
Contact Phil with questions at Ptoth@ullmansails.com