Sailing World - - Contents -

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

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