Steer to become a better crew

A female sailor describes the steering lessons she learned while she co-skippered a dinghy during a weekend regatta. She expressed surprise that the experience taught her to be a better crew member.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of the Snipe “crew union” for nine years. I’ve perfected the last-second pole douse and hike hard even when the skipper is sitting in (to adjust something of course). I thought I knew everything about crewing – until I tried my hand at steering.

Competing in the Snipe Women’s Worlds was the ultimate goal. But I also thought that, by picking up the tiller, I’d pick up a few skipper tricks as well – like the elbow jab to keep the crew hiking hard, or the strategic excuse for tacking just as your legs start to burn. To my surprise, it taught me to be a better crew.

The biggest lessons came from a weekend regatta I co-skippered with Andrew Pimental in preparation for the Worlds. Andrew and I have sailed Snipes together for a long time, and I figured sharing the helm with him would let me ease into steering in a familiar setting. But even with the same teammate, the view is very different from the back of the boat.

Lesson No. 1: Little adjustments do pay. The first surprise was how much taking hold of the tiller and mainsheet improved my feel of the boat. That half inch of jib-sheet ease, slight tug on the cunningham, or sliding an inch farther out on the rail dramatically altered the load on the tiller. So maybe all those times I’d been asked for a minuscule adjustment, my skipper really had been able to feel the difference – which meant that what we crews call “skipper over-sensitivity” is not a form of crew harassment.

Lesson No. 2: You can’t make every call from the front of the boat. As my feel increased, Andrew’s decreased. “How ’bout layline?” I asked as we approached the weather mark the first time around. “You call it. I can’t tell from up here,” was his reply. To my surprise, I was able to call the layline right. We had only moved one body width, but our specialties had swapped. So now I can blame what I’d thought was a personal failing (my inability to call laylines) on my position in the boat.

Lesson No. 3: Make yourself small when blocking the skipper’s view. Steering also changed my blind spots. As a crew, sitting up front, you don’t care about seeing directly behind you. But set a body smack dab in your line of sight when looking forward and it sure can be distracting. When it was too light for Andrew to be fully hiked, he sat up straight (just as he would have back aft) to look around. Seeing the waves around him was like playing chicken with a city bus. I vowed to always hunch my head and shoulders when I reclaimed my crewing territory.

Lesson No. 4: Be precise in describing the course. Because I was new to the helm, if I didn’t concentrate on steering, we’d hit waves and stop. I had to rely on Andrew to describe what was happening on the race-course, but any hesitation in his wording (“It almost looks like the pressure might be better on the right”) sent my head swiveling to check. Most of the time I agreed with him, but what was the point in him speaking at all if I had to look?

The same thing applies when calling the breeze downwind. “Here comes a puff” seems pretty specific when you’re facing aft, watching it fill. When you turn off the visual and become the skipper, facing forward (eyeing the waves, mainsail trim and traffic, and only listening with a small part of your brain anyway), “Here comes a puff” is somewhere just short of useless. Estimated time of arrival, relative location and effect on wind direction, even if not perfectly accurate, are a must if this information is going to do anything more than distract the driver. I resolved to work harder on effective communication as a crew.

Lesson No. 5: The stress of steering makes you obsess on silly things. And now for a confession that may force my resignation from the crew union. On a light-air reach, the top third of the Snipe jib (unseen by the crew sitting to leeward) is always undertrimmed, because of the location of the outboard jib leads. I know (as a rational crew) that keeping the bottom two-thirds of the jib working is more important than properly trimming the top third, but I still (as an irrational skipper) became instantly obsessed with the lifting upper yarn. “Trim!” I barked. Andrew just laughed. “See how annoying it is?”

I now understand that this skipper obsession with detail is stress-related, not a symptom of a serious personality disorder. Now that I have experienced the continuous tension in the back of the boat, I will take stress-related comments more positively – and less personally.

Fortunately, Andrew didn’t treat switching off as just a special favor to me. He used the experience to make some rigging changes so the crew’s job would be easier, and he learned quite a few mechanical tricks about the front of the boat that he can pass along to future crews. Most importantly, he will no longer assume his forward teammate has as much feel for the boat as he does, and won’t hesitate to ask for those small changes in weight and trim that make so much difference.

And even if I accept the crew union presidency (my fourth overall at the Women’s Worlds shouldn’t disqualify me), I’ll never forget how a positive response to “Hike harder!” can alter the touch of the tiller. With my new perspective, I can now tell my skipper with confidence, “I never would’ve done that if I’d been steering.”

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