Better noise, Better performance

Published on August 22nd, 2021

Bary B. Gately, a sail designer and professional coach, shares tips on how communication within the crew translates to performance on the race course:

We have all seen onboard footage of Grand Prix racing where the crew executes everything from slight sail trim adjustments to wholesale direction changes and sail sets with few words spoken. As admitted amateurs we think to ourselves: “They are professionals, they practice, they know what’s coming next.”

If the noise and anxiety level on your boat around the racecourse is not at this level, let’s dissect the steps toward improvement

Too Much Information
In a Q&A period during a seminar one skipper asked me how he could turn off the “White Noise” on the boat. Never had I heard a more succinct description of the common problem of too much well-intentioned but poorly timed information feedback that disrupted the driver’s concentration rather than providing the intended help.

Since his crew was in attendance, we discussed the communication that was coming off the rail back to the cockpit. It was the usual calls of “Wind in 4 lengths”, “Waves on the bow”, “Racer X just tacked on your hip”, “You are higher and faster or lower and slower than Racer X”, etc, etc, etc.

The owner/driver admitted that he appreciated the information but was not able to assimilate, organize and implement it all in any beneficial fashion. As a result, we decided that priorities and filters needed to be put in place.

The first thing the skipper needed to do was to let go of the feeling that all this information had to be assimilated and then processed by him as if he had to have a response or delegate an assignment for each call from the rail. He also needed to realize what calls were for his benefit and which were for the benefit of the mainsail and genoa trimmers and which were for the driver and trimmers jointly.

More and more boats are beginning to realize that the job of driving the boat is a full time duty and that tactics need to be delegated to someone else if the driver is going to do their job to full capability.

This was the case in this example so we made it clear to everyone that the calls were to be directed to the tactician and that the skipper should put in place a mental filter where the only voice that received the skipper’s attention was that of the tactician.

In essence we rewrote his job description to driving only, and delegated all the major decisions and the minutiae of boatspeed details to the tactician. After the on the water segment of the seminar, the skipper admitted that while he initially thought he was losing some authority, giving up the feeling of responsibility made him more relaxed and allowed him to focus his concentration much more keenly on his new sole priority, driving the boat.

The back of the boat is equally guilty of making random noises that are attention getting but non-specific in action intent. How many times have we been sailing downwind and heard the words “Sheet! Sheet! Sheet!” or “Guy! Guy! Guy!” in loud urgent tones directed towards a momentarily inattentive trimmer?

The typical reaction is that the entire crew swivels their collective head towards the chastised trimmer who invariably has begun tugging furiously on their attendant line without looking up at the sail to assess how much adjustment is necessary to correct whatever problem caused the verbal barrage from behind them. Suppose the correct response to the situation was to EASE the line; did you get the response you wanted?

That example is perhaps overly dramatic, but do any of these examples sound familiar as well? “Ease the pole”, “Raise the pole tip a bit”, “I have pressure, come down”, “I need pressure come up”, “Ease the jib a bit”, “Traveler up”, etc, etc around the race course. While all of them are action orientated, they all fail the communication test and as result we don’t get the changes or results we intended.

Precise Communication
A fun tool I use for crews is to ask them what their definition of “A Bit” is. Everyone has a different answer ranging from inches to feet.

With just a few more words we can take a vague command and turn it into precise communication that gets us the intended result.

“Ease the pole” becomes “Jim (the Guy Trimmer), ease the pole forward a foot”. If by the result you see that Jim’s concept of a foot is different than yours, you now know that and can modify your future increment requests. We want our communication to be directed to an individual most of the time and we want it to contain understandable increments of measurement.

Take the above examples and put them through the “Who, What, Why, When, How” test and see if we can get more precise communication that helps get us around the race course faster:

Spinnaker Trimmer to Helm: “I have good pressure, you can come down 5 degrees. Pressure still good, you can try another 5 degrees. No, that feels soft, lets go back up 5 degrees.”

Tactician to Helm and Trimmers: “There’s a lull in a length, lets put the bow down 3 degrees for speed, bring the traveler up to maintain heel in the lull and ease the jib to the new course – you may want to pull that lead forward while we’re eased. We’ll be in the lull for about 5 lengths.”

While there are a multitude of situations you can see that our communication is now getting directed to the right people and additionally it is describing the situation so people are aware of the current state and have a reference for action as the situation changes.

Keep this up around the race course and you will see that your boatspeed doesn’t go up and down as you react to changing conditions, but that it stays constantly fast as you anticipate and prepare for the changes before they occur.

Voice Attitude and Amplitude
I was working with a team that had been together for a few months, and while most of their time in the boat had been in relatively benign conditions, on this particular day it dished up conditions where the #3 jib went up and stayed up. The crew had not collectively sailed in these conditions, but they didn’t panic and had been getting the boat around the racecourse in a very competent fashion.

But in one instance while sailing downwind with about a quarter mile to the leeward mark, one of the crew yelled, “Big puff coming, Big Puff, It’s a BIG PUFF!” His tone of voice made the hair on my neck stand straight out and I felt the rest of the boat tense up, visions of disastrous broaches dancing in their heads.

When the puff passed and the crew settled down, a day’s worth of confidence building had almost been erased by one loud burst of vocal anxiety. As your mother told you, sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it!

Working with novices on windy sailboats and with rambunctious 7 year olds in hockey rinks has forced be to develop what I call a stage voice. I need to project myself so that I have everyone’s attention and all can hear me, but at the same time modulate my voice so that my emotion, or lack of, comes through and people don’t tune me out as yelling at them.

Think of yourself as an actor on stage doing “Romeo & Juliet”; you need to enunciate and project so that the last row in the audience can hear, but also not just yell your lines so that the tenderness of your devotion is lost to your audience as well.

Good communication amongst yourselves will get your boat around the racecourse faster. The elements of good communication are respect to your audience, precision in content, and the ability to ease tension and create confidence all the while making sure your voice gets heard. Keep these ingredients in mind, stay calm, and think before you speak; you will be amazed at much easier it is to get the actions or changes you desire.

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