Crewing on a sailboat can be a very enjoyable way to spend the day. Mastering a few
minor skills makes it even more enjoyable for you and the others on the boat. Too often
newcomers to the sport are simply told to stand on the dock on Sundays and someone
will ask you to crew for them. The potential crew may have little more than a basic
knowledge of sailing, and very little of either racing or the boat they will be on. With a
bit of additional knowledge you can become in demand as crew. Skippers will be calling
you during the week to request your skills. Those that travel to races and regattas off
the lake may invite you to go with them as their race crew.
A sailboat crew is like the engine of a car. Small boats, one crew; motorcyle or small
car, small engine. The bigger and faster the car, the more moving parts required. Same
with sailboats. And like an engine, all moving parts must work well together. Sailboat
crews are professionals in their own right. Too often crewing is looked at as something
that must be done in order to learn how to skipper a boat, or until dad finds another
hobby. Many top race crews never aspire to skipper a boat. They become very good at
what they do. Sometimes they are co-owners with the skipper of their racing machine.
Here are a few tips to become a top crew, and be invited out more often.
1. You and the skipper are a team. He can’t do his job well if he is doing yours too;
2. Know the boat;
3. Know the Racing Rules of Sailing;
4. Know the course you are sailing.
Some boats are weight critical. They either need minimum weight for light air, or
maximum weight for stronger winds. Don’t be upset if you weigh 250 pounds and the
skipper of a 420 passes you over. Instead pick a windy day and go find a C-Scow
Some boats require a certain agility and athletic ability. Hop on a Thistle and you may
find yourself hanging off the rail and roll-tacking, not to mention spinnaker sets. Prepare
for these with the same stretching excercises as if you were going for a run.
Back to our list:
Know the boat: Each sailboat class requires certain techniques and skills. There are
only 3-4 active classes on Jacomo. Research the boats on the internet. Each class has
its own website, and also many onlne discussions on past races and crew techniques.
Ask a skipper in the class of boat and he will steer you to good websites.
Know the Rules: There are a lot of these, but focus on the basics of right of way.
Particularly study mark rounding. This is often where the racing is really tight with many
boats crowded into a small area. Also know the start sequence of flags and horn signals
so you can advise the skipper if he misses these. Often he can’t see the flags due to the
sails or other boats. Know also the Sailing Instructions for the event. In club racing there
is usually one set of instructions for the whole season. If you are at an off lake event,
these will be different.
Know the course: The Jacomo Sailing Club has set courses described by a letter.
Know for instance that an “M” course is a triangle, or an “I” course is a windward-
leeward straight line. These courses are depicted on the club website.
We will add here know the lake. The club manual and website recommends certain
areas of the lake for certain wind speeds and directions. These diagrams also show
“wind shadows” where the wind can be expected to be lighter or completely blocked.
Last but not least, team up with the skipper. Ask what he wants you do to. Some
skippers want a constant information feed. Some only want traffic information. Always
call out if you suspect a collision. If the boat you see crossing your course is not moving
in your line of sight, you are going to hit it. It is a tendency for skippers to point too high.
A luffing jib or drooping telltale often can’t be seen by the skipper, or he is concentrating
on the race. Call out “Luffing” or other agreed call when this occurs. After the start, say,
“Good start, skipper” even if it is obvious that only the spirits above kept you from
ramming the committee boat. This will get him back on track. Keep him abreast of the
mark you are approaching. Let him know when the first boat of your group rounds a
mark. Call out when approaching the “layline” (course to round the mark without a tack
or jibe). Let him know if a boat is about to pass to windward. He may want to luff or tack.
Advise of any course changes posted by the committee boat.
Captain Blighs: There are some skippers who are very quiet on land and never raise
their voice to anyone; yet, put them in a sailboat race and they become raging
monsters. This is usually because they are over stressed. Do your best to aid them and
reduce their workload. They will usually calm down, particularly as they become
accustomed to your professional crewing skills.
There is a learning curve to crewing. This varies with the boats and skippers. Stay at it
and you will improve, just like the skippers. You will form a team, and all in the boat will
have more fun and place better in the race. Skippers, take a turn at crewing. You will
be surprised at how much respect you gain for the crew after an afternoon of squeezing
between the boom and the centerboard, and how much your own racing skills improve.
Most of all, have fun. It is what it is all about.