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For some of us, sailing is a hobby. For others it’s a passion and for some others – I raise my hand and confess – a true obsession! Well, I have been sailing for decades and I think I can say that no sport activity is more attractive to me than a sailing trip with friends.

No, it isn’t. I lied. There is nothing in the world more attractive to me than a sailing race.

This does not mean that the words “race” and “friends” cannot find place in the same sentence, only it has not to be taken for granted. Mutual esteem and team spirit are the essential basics for a successful crew. There are people I sail very happily with in the spirit of focaccia and white wine, but of whom I don’t have a high opinion as sailing racers. On the contrary, I have felt deeply understood in sailing matters by people wholly incompatible with my nature.

It is not always an easy choice. However, the two alternatives are luckily not always poles apart.

As you will have gathered, the issue today is the race crew. The topic will be approached from an unusual point of view. A description of roles and duties on board is not the focus of this article since, to be honest, a lot has already been written about that. I will concentrate on the ship owner’s mindset during his campaign, trying to put ourselves in his shoes, determined as he is to take part to mid-level races with good prospects of success.

I won’t deal with million-Euro projects such as America Cup (www.americascup.com) or top level international circuits such as TP52  (www.52superseries.com) but rather with the path to undertake to make e.g. a 35/40-foot complete a honourable zonal race season (winter, interclub championships etc.) as well as some prestigious trophies such as 151 Miles, Roma per tutti or Giraglia Rolex.

Therefore, I will start from the ship owner, a quite interesting figure, by the way. The ship owner is the one who owns the boat and pays the bills. Well, this is too easy and, frankly speaking, does not reflect reality.

Actually, a ship owner is a combination of child’s passions and managerial capacities, with a touch of insane attraction for sailing. At the top, a competitive spirit which keeps all these elements together.

It is interesting, first of all, to understand a ship owner’s expectations and compare them with the realities: here the plural is not a misprint but – in my opinion – an important addition. In fact, there are at least two different realities, which sum up and overlap. One is true reality, which objectively sets limits to expectations (budget, technical training, state of the boat, time and energy to invest in the project). The other -not less important- is mental reality, which measures the ship owner’s inclination to victory. 

What is meant by winning mindset? Actually, as we all know, if you want to win in sport you need to use your head, but what does this really mean?

Let’s try to find an answer starting from a formula about excellence in sport: excellence in sport = technical skills x tactical skills x physical ability x mental ability.

Tecnique: all you need to know about boats and sailing

Tactics: strategies to sail a race

Physical attitude: ability to perform athletic actions

Mindset: every action that can and must be carried out, so that your mind makes performance efficient, balanced, precise, smoothly flowing from thoughts to acts.

An important and (often) undervalued truth is inferred from this formula: if one of the multipliers is 0, then the result will necessarily be equal to 0. In simple words, if an athlete is very well trained from the technical, tactical and physical point of view but he is not using his head, he could have all his training frustrated.

Nowadays, luckily, the importance of sport psychology in making mental ability stronger and more performing is widely known. Let’s go (virtually) to sea to try to understand why.

TEAM BUILDING

According to my friend Gianluca C., a very good tactician, great crew recruiter, perfect mate for a drink on the quay, what matters is that both «…the ship owner and the crew enjoy themselves…» And if you think about it, this a perfect synthesis of what team building means. Moreover, what makes the crew enjoy? I know from my own experience that having fun has a lot to do with sharing goals, being involved in boat care, feeling valued in your role, being totally aware that your presence on board is closely linked to that of the other crew members and, last but not least, that nobody wins alone.

One last tip: a high crew turnover undermines efficiency and cohesion. A ship owner may decide to please all those who want to join his crew list but, honestly, to manage a 24-foot’s season through a 76-people Whatsapp chat is a little too much!

LEARN FROM MISTAKES

There is a race I especially remember. It was a round of Tigullio Winter Championship, about two years ago. I was on board a Genoese ship owner’s 40-foot as a mainsail trimmer. The round didn’t go well as we came in third or fourth also due to an awful start planned and led by the helmsman-ship owner.  

I remember the debriefing afterwards, when the ship owner said: «…well, let’s check the mistakes … I did nothing wrong, what about you? ». I must confess that such self-confidence left me speechless and I was immediately convinced not to continue the championship aboard that boat. This, in my opinion, is one of the greatest dangers: not to be able to get rid of the embarrassment and the inconvenience for the mistakes we have made. Blaming the weather forecast, the race committee or unfair behaviours is just a way to avoid to face our mistakes and so sweep the dust under the rug. In the words of a Japanese proverb: “Seek the mistake, not the culprit, and the problem will be solved”. This saying, be it Japanese or not (I’m not so sure about that),is the perfect synthesis of what the role of a ship owner should be. He, who is responsible for the crew and is supposed to be a crew leader, has to know when he has to step down from his role and leave it to someone else technically and mentally stronger than him.

ROLES AND MINDSETS

Let’s consider now the psychological differences between the 4 roles of a boat crew. If the ship owner chooses the right crew, he will actually affect the performance of his boat!

Helmsman

This role requires important mental abilities such as good management of emotions, good error handling approach and above all very good listening skills. A helmsman relies upon visual reference and focuses both inside and outside the boat. Detailed observation is guaranteed by his keen sense of how a boat responds to the helm. His ability and mental training should provide him the calm necessary to manage errors with utmost clear thinking and be constantly focused and balanced.

Tactician

The role of tactician is to stay focused on wind changes and always analyse the situation planning how to react to competing boats positioning. His decisions will be decisive for a successful competition. The mind of an expert tactician in action always considers new scenarios as the situation changes, which are useful to foresee the most different strategies. Moreover, the tactician has to keep communication effective and share information with the crew in a clear and easily understandable way, while at the same time, coordinate actions during the performance. In addition to that, should things go wrong during the race, the tactician is expected to manage the frustration of the crew, or its lack of confidence, all while keeping a clear mind.

This is a critical role on a boat, subjected to a heavy psychological pressure.

Here, again, the ability to keep attention capacities during the whole race is an essential mental skill for a tactician.

Trimmers

Trimmers not only have to select the most suitable sails according to weather conditions, but they have to modify sails’ shape and decide which one is the most efficient for different wind strengths and kinds of waves. This role implies being also a “careful watcher”. In particular, when running free legs, trying to sail at the best wind angle to maximize speed and with sheets in hand, the downwind sail trimmer informs the helmsman about changes in wind intensity and wind angle he can sense through his hands, arms and body. This role requires to be very good at perceiving even small sheet tightening variations, and to let that be timely known.   

Bowman

There’s no doubt that a good bowman must be strong, fast, nimble and brave. The mental abilities this role requires are targeted to limit rational thinking and runtime: I don’t think, I act! So the bowman must act without slowing down the performance. This is why limiting thoughts, which may cause obstacles, blocks and performance errors, must be reduced to a minimum. Sailors who undertake this role must train to act quickly, sometimes very quickly. And, here again, it is the mind that has to be trained to develop automatisms that make the body react quickly. Once the action is over, the bowman must know how to come back, quickly again, to a state of calm in order to recover his energies and be ready for future performances.

If a ship owner or a skipper considered the peculiarities of each role pattern described above (to know more refer to reference literature), they could place the right people in the right place. Just keep in mind the formula described before, as the “0” value of one of the factors will negatively affect the efforts of the whole team.

Last but not least, excellent communication, closely linked to mental activity, will improve any performance and increases serenity on board. And, as my friend Gianluca says: “a happy crew makes a fast boat!

Well friends, believe it or not, while I was writing this article I heard the voices (of my boat mates) and I shivered! I think this is a clear symptom I absolutely need to race again.

See you at sea!

Renzo Crovo
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