There’s a lot to be said about onboard comms, because what you say can change a race.
O Words can easily be lost over the noise of wind and waves, overpowered by a loaded sheet being eased on a winch, or silenced by some mechanical system at work. Add the extra pressure of racing — where decisions need to be made in a split second and shared among the team — and you have the recipe for a very tough communication environment. Sail with a team that has been racing together for a long time, and onboard dialogue might seem minimal because a lot of nonessential communications have been eliminated. However, I can guarantee that team will still never feel like they are doing it perfectly. In my 25 years as a professional sailor, I have never had a day when I’ve felt as if my comms were as good as they could’ve been. Communication on board is a constant evolution, and something almost all teams can improve on. I’ll share some common mistakes and how to avoid them.
Avoid the words “No” and “Go”
SITUATION: We did not want the port-tack boat to cross us upwind. The port-tack boat hailed, “Tack or cross?” WHAT WAS SAID: “No!” WHAT HAPPENED: The port-tack boat thought we said, “Go,” and we collided. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: Our response should have been, “Starboard” or simply, “Tack.”
Always acknowledge requests
SITUATION: We wanted the lazy sheet to be pulled up out of the water. WHAT WAS SAID: “John, pull the sheet out of the water!” WHAT HAPPENED: John heard the request but decided to wait for a good opportunity to perform the task. However, without taking immediate action or giving acknowledgment that the command was heard, the original request was reissued: “John! Grab the sheet and pull it in!” Frustrated, John yells, “I heard you the first time!” WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: John must show he heard the request, either by taking immediate action or by acknowledging that it was heard. The simple reply “Copy” would suffice. Or, if there is a delay for some reason, he could have said: “Copy. I’m waiting for this set of waves, and then I’ll get it.” This avoids having to repeat comms and allows the requester to move on to the next important task.
Choose words wisely
On a noisy boat filled with chaos and pressure, eliminate any words that can cause confusion. With every sentence, try to imagine what would happen if some words are drowned out by noise. That’s what happens on raceboats. Words disappear. THE SITUATION: Ten seconds after squaring the pole, Peter wants to ease it forward again. WHAT WAS SA I D : Peter calls out: “Pole back forward.”
The old saying goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it”; with sailboat racing, it’s also what, when and where.
WHAT HAPPENED: Amid all the noise on the boat, the pitman eases the foreguy, and the pole goes shooting up into the air. Peter screams, “Pole forward!” The pitman, frustrated, spins around and says, “You said pole back!” WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: Even though Peter thought he was easing the pole forward again after a short time, he still shouldn’t have used the word “back” in his sentence. Instead, he should have just said, “Pole forward.”
Use someone’s name before the request
Beginning with the person’s name will get their attention so they know a request of them is coming their way. When time is not of the essence, say the person’s name, pause for a second or two, and then deliver the request. This also avoids having more than one person reacting to the request. THE S I T UATION: Sailing upwind on port tack, the tactician suddenly sees a starboard tack boat on a collision course. The mainsail trimmer immediately eases the mainsheet, but it is windy, and the vang also needs to be released. WHAT WAS SAID: The mainsail trimmer yells, “Ease the vang, Mike!” Mike is hiking very hard with his head between his feet, where the sound of the bow wave is bouncing off the hull. WHAT HAPPENED: Mike hears his name, turns to the back of the boat and asks “Yes?” The mainsail trimmer screams, “Ease the vang!” but it is too late. The helmsman realizes that without the vang eased they will crash into the other boat, so he spins the boat into a crash tack. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: In a noisy environment of a race boat, words get lost, especially when you’re not listening for them. This is made even worse when the crew member who is being requested to do something is hiking hard with their head upside down and between their feet. Instead of adding “Mike” at the end of the initial request, it should be at the beginning of the request. “Mike (pause), ease the vang!” would have grabbed his attention with his name. Then, he is far more likely to hear the command that followed it. Even if he heard the word “vang” after his name, he would have known what to do and would not have needed to ask for the request a second time.
Know when to stay silent
THE SITUATION: Halfway up the first beat, Andy is calling the breeze. He faintly hears the tactician quietly telling the helmsman that he wants to tack soon. WHAT WAS SAID: Andy sees a puff coming and calls out, “Good breeze in 3, 2, 1” so loudly, in fact, that he speaks over the tactician’s quiet call to tack. WHAT HAPPENED: Andy, and some others, do not hear the call to tack and are trapped for a time on the wrong side of the boat, completely surprised by the maneuver. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: Andy was doing his job; calling the breeze is a valuable contribution to a boat’s performance. However, there is a hierarchy of information and, in this case, his puff call was not as important as the tactician’s call to tack. Andy knew a tack was imminent and should have temporarily suspended his breeze call so the call to tack could get throughout the boat.
Control your tone and volume
Being able to speak very loudly on a noisy boat can be a real asset. Speaking loudly in a calm voice is even more valuable. Work on increasing your volume but keeping your communications calm and effective. THE SITUATION: In the pre-start maneuvering, the trimmer gets an override. The grinder, Ben, sees it first. Ben screams out: “Override! Override!” WHAT HAPPENED: In an attempt to make it loud, Ben’s voice turns into a scream and sets a terrifying tone through the boat. The tactician and helmsman focus on the override and miss the fact that another boat is coming in to leeward, shutting them out of the start. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: Ben was trying to be helpful, but when he raised his volume, he also set a panicked tone. This sent ripples of panic through the team and caused a much bigger problem than the override itself. In fact, the override was easily pulled out. Ben should instead have said it more quietly to the trimmer. And if the team needed to know, the information should have been delivered with a calmer tone to make sure the ripples of panic did not affect other areas.
The worst communication is no communication
THE SITUATION: The race committee has moved the next windward mark 20 degrees to the left. They communicate the change on the VHF, which David has around his neck. The volume is up, and David thinks everyone can hear it. WHAT WAS SAID: Nothing WHAT HAPPENED: They sail to the old windward mark and lose to all the boats that go to the new mark. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: David should have repeated what he heard on the radio. In fact, David should repeat all relevant communications from the race committee. Even if David thinks that everyone could hear the radio, the mistake is not repeating it. No matter how loud the radio is, people who are focusing on the leeward mark rounding will block out a lot of sounds, including radio transmissions.
Think before you speak
Don’t rush what you’re going to say. Play the words out in your head and apply the “fivesecond rule.” If you are not sure about what you are going to say, don’t say it. THE SITUATION: On a downwind leg, you have the right of way over an approaching port-tacker. They cross you, but only by a hair, and the incident is possibly worthy of a protest. WHAT WAS SAID: One of our crew, Henry, screams out: “No way! That is a foul! Do your turns!” WHAT HAPPENED: The competitor, hearing Henry’s cries of anger, drops their spinnaker and does a penalty turn. This allows the boat behind them to overtake them and beat you in the championship by 1 point in the overall standings. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: Henry needed to keep quiet. None of us likes to be crossed by a competitor. We all love to yell at a competitor who has potentially fouled us. But in this case, that yelling cost a championship.
When possible, use nonverbal comms
THE SITUATION: Sailing upwind into a big lull, we need to power up the sails. WHAT WAS SAID: The breeze spotter calls out, “Big lull for 30 seconds.” The bowman calls out and asks, “Is it a good time to go forward and clear the tapes?” while the pitman calls down to the guys inside the boat, “Everyone to leeward.” The tactician says, “We need to power up”; the navigator says, “We are a little lower than the group above us”; and the trimmer calls out, “Runner down!” WHAT HAPPENED: The boat has too much chatter. Pieces of information go missing in the myriad of comms being passed around between the crew. We sail through lulls all day long, yet this feels like a fire drill. WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN SAID: If a hand signal, eye contact, a tap on the shoulder or any other form of nonverbal communication will get the message across without adding to the noise pollution of five people talking at once, use it. Our pitman could have stuck his head down the main hatch and signaled the crew to go to leeward; the trimmer could have looked back at the runner trimmer and made eye contact — he knows he needs to drop the runner but was waiting for a confirmation from the trimmer — which he gets with eye contact.
Boats are noisy environments, so effective communications can be the difference between a good and bad result, as well as your level of enjoyment of the day. Take time to work on your own team’s communication, and be sure to evaluate your team’s communication performance after racing. How did we do? How could we improve today’s communications? This could be the single most important area of performance and enjoyment gain in your entire competitive arsenal, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. Q