Let’s be honest why we can’t get or keep crew

Published on November 16th, 2014

by Glenn McCarthy, Commodore, Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation
I have been contemplating this issue of “I can’t get crew.” Why is this? While racing is not as big as it once was, it seems that there should be a much bigger pool of sailors to draw from. Where did the sailors go? Why aren’t there a ton of people clamoring to get on race boats? We all only have anecdotal evidence. Nobody has studied crew statistics. Aging may be one answer, another could be that crew have a much wider variety of interests today, another could be that it isn’t fun, or fun enough to beat out their other interests. If something or someone is really fun, and you laugh every time you are around them, don’t YOU want to go back soon and experience more of that?

I have observed how the Olympic ideals of removing luck out of the sport, and making it all a test of skill which places a very high level of required competence of crew members, may be contributing to a perceived or actual lack of fun experience. One little error on a boat could be the difference between winning or not. In the sport of sailboat racing we have placed all of our energy on the belief that winning is everything.

I’ll come out and say it. Short course racing sucks. It leaves no time to socialize. It leaves no time to get to know one another on the boat. It leaves no time to tell jokes, or network in life, or in business. So what’s left? Crew work. Nailing everything perfectly. And how is that going for YOU? Do you have that perfect well-oiled machine where only two different words are spoken throughout the race: Tack or Jibe? Does every crew member understand all other positions on the boat, have they all sailed through all variety of conditions, lived through all different types of circumstances on the water and can just do their job without being told and know exactly when to do those things and sail the ship silently?

I know I haven’t been on that type of boat yet. I once asked Richie Stearns the question of what it was like sailing on a silent boat. He said he has sailed on that type of boat, it was during the Chicago Yacht Club Heart of America Challenge in the America’s Cup. Training day after day after day, they finally said that no one will talk, except for the skipper when a tactical move was to be made. Everyone knew their jobs and the jobs of everyone else. He said it was really cool.

Well, dang, doesn’t that sound like fun? No discussions at all? Two answers:
1. From a pure racing perspective I would like to try that once in my life.
2. From a recreational sport perspective, camaraderie is what it should be about. It should be about laughter, goofing around, making tight knit friendships and business relations. If perfect racing means no communications, socialization is completely lost. What is the goal we are working towards?

I sailed on a friend’s boat for a weekend event earlier this year that had multiple short course Windward-Leeward races. While we may have learned what each other does for a living or where they go to school, in two days of being together, there wasn’t much more learned than that. Is all of this supposed to happen at the party after the race? Is that the time to flush this stuff out? I say, “No” to that question. Seeing your regular friends and the mixing with the crowd prevents becoming close to these new crew mates you just met.

With a longer distance course, there is time to share with one another the business, politics, news, jokes, stories and whatever else might come up (planning to prank a close competitor!). We need to start figuring “social time” on the water and how important this is in maintaining a team. Without social time, each person is a hired gun (without the pay) to perform a variety of tasks to get a boat around a course as efficiently as possible. Maybe we don’t need crew, maybe we all need mercenaries.

I do get it that tight racing and short courses serve a purpose for those who make everything about winning. As we see, there are fewer and fewer of those boats and crews coming out each year. So why not tear a page out of yesteryear when racing was growing and make it about socialization on board and to accomplish that, make the courses longer where crew performance is much less of a factor?

And then, of course, we have not yet figured out how to break down the silos that segregates the sport. Boat owners need to contact the sailing schools (at clubs or commercial operated ones around town), high school sailing teams, collegiate sailing teams. There should be thousands of young people available. Some clubs have crew lists on their websites, all should have one. We need to look at these other avenues and start bringing the young people onto adult boats as a regular habit.

Source: Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation, Nov. 2014 newsletter

Editor’s note: The movie ‘A Few Good Men’ came to mind, and the exchange between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Maybe not fully relevant, but still an excuse to watch a classic movie moment…

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