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The Capture, Care, and Feeding of the Deck Ape

One of the most common complaints I hear from racers is "I can't ever seem to get good crew." This excuse is often used for justifying a poor finish in a race, or worse yet, as a reason to stop racing together. This commentary will present some ideas on how to find and keep good crew for your racing sailboat. I will outline a common sense approach to this seemingly impossible task. If you look around in your fleet, you will find that yes this is possible and the more successful you are in keeping steady crew the more successful you will be at the finish line.

Looking for Crew in All the Wrong Places?

So where do I find this elusive crew you ask? The truth is they are everywhere. Especially if you look outside of your yacht racing circle of friends. There are many people that you are in contact with on a daily basis that would love the opportunity to learn how to race, if you are willing to teach them. The problem most skippers have is they want experienced crew members, not realizing that most veteran crew have already made commitments to other boats. In others words, the pool of experienced crew is very small and the demand is very high. It is not very realistic to expect to find experienced crew willing and available to join your program, especially if you're just putting your program together. However, if you are willing to recruit and teach a crew you will find a large pool of people that would love the opportunity to race on your boat.

Running a Race Program is Like Running a Business

The first task at hand, whether you were to hire a new employee in your business or solicit a new crew for you race program, is to come up with a list of desired qualifications. The first qualification on my list would be willingness to make a commitment. It is important to make it very clear to prospective crew that this is your number one requirement. It is very frustrating to spend hours training someone to find out that they can't make half the races. Insist that your candidates commit to at least one full season. Show them the race schedule in advance and explain to them that you want them to reserve these days for sailboat racing or practice. If they are unwilling or cannot make the commitment, then look for other candidates. The second on the list of qualifications should be enthusiasm. There are many people who would love the opportunity to go sailing and learn more about racing. Do not waste your time on someone who is isn't bubbling over with excitement. You want to work with people who want to learn. The last qualification on my list is sailing experience. If they have the other two qualifications and have sailing or racing experience that's a bonus. One important side benefit to recruiting new crew is that you will be introducing new people to the sport, which it certainly could use.

Some Basics about Basic Training

The first place to start your training is the most difficult position and that's at the pointy end. Assuming you're are going to race with a spinnaker, one of the most important crew members on the boat is the foredeck crew. This will be one of the hardest positions to fill because this person needs to be very agile, a quick thinker, strong and light weight. Spend some time qualifying this person and take the time to train them properly and it will save you many hours of frustration later. Do not overlook women for this position because often they can be the most qualified. Speaking of women on the crew, I would encourage all men racers not to exclude women from their crews. My experience has shown that they can be among the best crew members and they add "symmetry" to the team (this subject can be an acticle of its own). Once you have trained your foredeck person the next area is in the cockpit. Everyone should first be trained for a specific position, grinder, tailer, trimmer, etc. Keep them in that position until they have learned it well. Once you have trained, let's say, a genoa trimmer, let them train any new trimmers that come on board. This is important. Not only does this reinforce their training, but it relieves you of the responsibility of training every new person that comes on board. The idea is once you have your basic crew trained they will train all the new crew members for you. The next very important part of crew training is cross training. Once your crew have their jobs down have them cross train each other. Again, this serves a dual role it reinforces their training and also provides you with a replacement should you be short a crew member for a race. Once you have your crew trained for several positions let them switch around once in while, if they want. This will help them appreciate the other positions and keep them learning and interested. However, some crew members can get very possessive about their positions once they have learned them, so be sensitive about this fact.

Be a Successful Manager

Like I said before, managing a crew is like managing a business. It's no coincidence that some of the most successful race boats belong to successful business people. One of the qualities of successful business people is the ability to delegate. This is also true for yacht racing. Have your crew help you with all the different responsibilities of running a race campaign. Assign a "crew coordinator" who calls other crew before each race to remind them of the time and place. Have some one else be responsible for managing the boat maintenance. Make sure that the helmsperson of the boat is not also the crew boss and the tactician. These positions should be delegated to someone else. The helmsperson's job should be only to steer. Make sure the most qualified person does this job, not necessarily you, the owner.

How to Keep a Good Thing Going

You will find that if you train the crew yourself and the crew shares the responsibilities of your race program, they are more likely to be loyal to you and your program. Do not be shy about explaining to your crew how important their loyalty is to you. Training a new crew yourself will take longer to get up to speed, but once you start doing well you will all feel a sense of accomplishment. Because your crew will remain loyal you will do well over a longer period of time.

O.K. Now you have a good steady crew and you're winning some races. How do you keep them from being stolen by a bigger faster boat with gorgeous women on board? Well, some owners provide gourmet meals and all the imported beers the crew can consume, that usually works (it would for me). However the best way is to develop team spirit. Your crew will want to stay to keep the team spirit alive. Again, have the crew share the responsibilities. If you're on a limited budget, your crew can share the food and drink budget. And in some cases they can contribute to the equipment and maintenance budget.

Another basic ingredient in keeping your crew together is you have to keep racing. If you stop racing for a year don't expect your crew to be there waiting for you next year. Now that you have your crew all excited and enthused about racing and winning they will want to race as much as they can. If you decrease your schedule they will want to get on other boats. That's O.K., but remind them of where their loyalties should be. Actually, I would encourage you to let your crew sail on other boats. They will come back with new ideas that will contribute to your racing program.

Death, Taxes and losing Crew Members

No matter how hard you try or plan, it happens. It's part of racing, part of life. So be prepared. Many people I see get so discouraged when one of their best crew leaves they want to quit racing. Well it is going to happen and you might as well be prepared. Have backup crew ready to replace them. If you normally race with six people have seven or eight on your roster. Just like professional sports you have to have backups. It is better to race with more people than less. Movable ballast can be used to your advantage even in light air. But, if you only have six crew and one is sick and he or she is foredeck it can cost you the race. Constantly be looking for new recruits. No matter how loyal your crew is you will lose some sooner or later. People get sick, they get new girlfriends or boyfriends, they move out of town, Believe it or not, even their interests change. Be prepared, it will save you from disappointment later.

Fun, Fun, Fun & Yelling

Now that we have compared sailing to owning a business, lets talk about fun for a moment. Remember! this is supposed to be fun. I always tell my crew that winning isn't everything, but it sure is more fun when you do win. However, not everyone can win and very few win all the time. In those times when "all hell breaks loose" and your hand picked and trained, loyal crew fouls up another mark rounding be patient and don't yell. Let's face it no one likes to be yelled at. A certain amount of over excited verbiage can usually be tolerated by the crew, but constant barrages of insults and cursing usually results in the crew not having any fun. If they don't have fun they won't come back. This is probably the single most common complaint by crew members "I am tired of being yelled at". Most crew members realize their mistakes and feel bad enough when they make them. Save your comments for a constructive critique after the race where everyone can comment on what went right or wrong during the race. These sessions are very important and can be the single most important source of your improvements during the year. But remember, everyone is open to criticism including the skipper.

Yacht racing is one of the most challenging and difficult sports in the world. There are many variables which can lead to success or disaster on the race course. How you train and manage your crew is one of the most important factors which will determine success at the finish line as well as at the bar afterwards. Pay extra attention to the suggestions in this article and you should at the very least have more fun. Which is why we do this, isn't it?

© Jaime Muniz