RYA start yachting
RYA Coastal skipper
RYA Yachtmaster Offshore
RYA Yachtmaster coastal waypoint amsterdam sailing school

Performance Racing Trim

by © Bill Gladstone
Chapter 2 – Introduction to Boat Handling

2.1 Introduction2.2 Crew Organization Principles

2.3 Practice

2.4 Finding & Training Crew

2.5 Don’t Kill the Messenger

2.6 Can We Talk?
Crew are made through careful training in practice sessions, not with animated gestures in the heat of battle.

Find another boat to practice with to add competitive fervor.

2.1 Introduction

If you want to drive the boat, trim the sails, watch the instruments, read the compass, track the fleet, and call tactics, then you should race single-handed. A skipper who fails to make good use of his crew through careful division of responsibilities is handicapping himself, and will not succeed against well balanced teams.

This chapter will explore Crew Organization and Boat Handling. We’ll start by defining broad areas of responsibility on a boat. We also will explore a set of principles to help guide you and your team, and then explore specific training methods. Finally, we will delve into the mystery of where to find good crew.

Subsequent chapters will look at specific upwind and downwind boat handling techniques. We assume here that your boat is properly laid out and equipped. In fact, the equipping and preparation of your boat is the hidden foundation of your racing pyramid. It is covered in detail in Chapter 14 of this book.

2.2 Crew Organization Principles

Crew assignments should be based on the number, skill, experience and interest of your crew. Each crew position should have clearly defined responsibilities during each maneuver. The maneuvers should be executed the same way each time.

Your crew must be organized so each block of the pyramid gets the attention required. A crew boss is needed to orchestrate boat handling. Sail trimmers and a driver are needed to focus on boat speed, and a tactician is needed to manage the course. As soon as you have more than one person on the boat it is time to divide up the chores. On championship two person boats the driver drives and the crew does tactics. As the crew number increases the responsibilities should be further divided. On a three person crew the forward crew and driver focus on trim, while the middle crew handles tactics.

Boat Handling Principles

As you train and organize your crew it will help to have general principles to guide you: Fig. 1.

Several principles should guide you in crew organizations:
First, for each maneuver the crew should be divided into two teams – one to sail fast with the sails you’ve got, the other to get sails up and down….
Second, each boat handling evolution – tacks, jibs, sail changes – should be broken down into step by step procedures. Each crew member should have specific responsibilities during each maneuver.
At a spinnaker set, for example, the driver and trimmers should sail fast with the main and jib, while other crew manage the hoist.
Divide and Conquer

Perhaps the most powerful principle is Divide and Conquer. During each boat handling evolution divide the crew into two teams: One team should sail the boat with what you’ve got while the other team takes care of the evolution. No one should serve on both teams.

Define crew positions.

Each crew position has a specific responsibility during each evolution or maneuver. You need to figure out the correct number of crew, define each position, and then sail with a full complement of crew each time you race. Once positions are defined then you can plug new people into a specific position with clearly defined responsibilities. It helps to write out and diagram your standard maneuvers. This will help during routine evolutions, and during the inevitable ad-lib.

Create crew pairs

A second guideline which is particularly useful as you bring aboard new crew is crew pairs. Ideally, you would have the same people in the same position for every race [yea, right – if pigs could fly]. Since you can’t expect to have all the same people all the time, you want to have a nucleus you can count on. New (or less experienced) crew should be paired with a regular crew member. For example, a new mast crew can be paired with an experienced foredeck, an experienced trimmer can watch over a new grinder or trimmer.

Do your job

One final principle is Do Your Job. If one person is having trouble completing a task that can create a problem. When the next person tries to help out, and leaves part of his job undone, the problem grows. Pretty soon the entire crew is one half position out of place – each trying to help another – and you have a huge mess.

2.3 Practice

The key to developing good crew work is practice. It is simply impossible to train crew during a race. There is not enough time teach and learn, and there is too much to do. You must practice to win. It is that simple.

Practice Drills

As you plan your maneuvers keep the Divide and Conquer principle in mind. Always have part of the crew focused on racing fast with what you’ve got, while the balance of the crew attend to the boat handling maneuver. Try a simple walk through with no sails to figure out the rough details and positioning. Then, go out on the water and go through maneuvers one at a time. Tacks, jibes, sets, douses, reefs, sail changes, plus straight line trim and speed. Detail each person’s responsibility during each maneuver. Once you can run through each evolution smoothly in open water try it around a closed course of buoys to add the element of timing. Fig. 2.

Fig. 2 Practice each maneuver, one at a time, in open water; and then around a fix set of buoys.

Another excellent drill is to perform maneuvers in total silence. A single word from the helmsman (or crew boss) is all that is needed to initiate the maneuver. In silence you learn to watch and work with your crew mates. Learning to work quietly keeps the airwaves open for remarks to deal with the unexpected.

Another effective practice tool is rotating crew positions. If the pit and foredeck, for example, switch places, each will understand better what is going on and anticipate the other’s needs during a race. Similarly, trimmers and drivers can trade places and better understand how the impact each other.

Find a Tuning Partner

When your crew work is smooth find another boat to practice with. Sail parallel courses to work on boat speed. Use cat and mouse drills to improve boat handling. Try short match races to add competitive fervor. When you are confident of your boat handling and speed then you are ready to race. Fig. 3.

Fig. 3 (at right) – To really learn trim you need to find another (well sailed) boat to practice and tune with. A training partner also adds competitive fervor to boat handling drills.

The difficulty of boat handling increases with the wind. Keep practicing until you are confident in all conditions. Try to refine your techniques to reduce crew movement. Pay attention to weight placement all the time. Figure out ways to keep weight properly placed as much as possible.

Your crew organization and crew assignments are dictated in part by your boat’s layout. If you find one crew member is over burdened during a particular maneuver look into reorganizing the crew – and perhaps changing your layout, to redistribute the load.

2.4 Finding & Training Crew

Q. Where do you find good crew?

A. Good crew are not found, they are made.

Find eager inexperienced crew and train them. There are plenty of people out there who would love to be involved. Put up notices at the local sailing school, yacht club, and college sailing programs. Find people whose company you enjoy and train them carefully, with patience and understanding; in practice sessions, not on the race course; with big ears and a small voice.

A crew you train will be loyal and trustworthy. S/he will not run off when the next hot new “fast rideÓ comes along. Plus, you will be able to train your crew to your standards.

Women are among the best crew, and they are often overlooked. While some women may not have the raw muscle bulk of men they overcome this through more careful attention to detail and technique. Note also that some of the very fastest helmsmen are women.

Q. I’ve trained ‘em. Now, how do I keep ‘em?

A. As each crew member masters the responsibilities of a particular position new responsibilities must be added. One way to add new responsibilities for your crew (and reduce your burden) is to turn over part of the care of the boat, or crew finding, or regatta planning, to your crew.

Another way to keep crew involved is to rotate crew positions for some low key events. Get off the helm for the beer can races; put the pit crew on the bow; see what the crew want to try. This will give the crew the chance to learn new skills, and the better understanding of the whole boat will also improve crew performance when they go back to first string positions for major events.

If your crew are stuck in a rut they will go elsewhere to seek new challenges. You also have to keep your boat, sails, and equipment competitive. If your crew feel the boat is holding them back they will look for a new ride. You may have to seek new challenges by seeking out tougher competition. Eventually, after you have mastered your present boat and retired all the trophies in your fleet, you will have to get a more sophisticated boat.

Another way to keep crew is to win. Aye – there’s the rub.

2.5 Don’t Kill the Messenger

No one likes to receive bad news, and no one likes to deliver it. Legend has it that in Medieval times if a messenger delivered bad news he was put to death.

On the race course bad news can be the most important information you receive. Bad news is needed promptly because it often requires action. Good news can more easily wait. When things are going well there is no urgency for change. Yet most crew members are eager to deliver good news, while bad news is often slow to get through.

How often have you sailed a windward leg with reports that all was well only to arrive at the windward mark in the middle of the fleet? The bad news – “We are slow” or “We’re going the wrong way” – must get through, and the sooner the better, so you still have time to do something about it.

Of course, no one likes to be a “nay sayer” so how can you get your crew to give you the bad news you so desperately need?

The goal is quality information without distracting chatter. You can find out what is going on without looking by asking your crew for reports. Ask specific questions until the crew understand what kind of information you are after.

You need to create an atmosphere where you view your performance objectively and work to solve problems as a team.

Without accurate information you have no basis for evaluating your performance and responding appropriately. Of course there is a downside – the more information you have the greater the chance for truth to get in the way of opinion and wishful thinking.

Remember. Also, that a crew member’s report of something you already know is not necessarily chatter. A snap response of “I know” will discourage further reports. A simple “Thank you” will do. The report has, after all, confirmed something (you thought) you knew. The goal is not to claim credit for being the first to know. The idea is to circulate any important information.

It’s a Write Off

The same principles apply to your business. If you want to be able to continue to afford to race sailboats then you need to confront problems in your business head-on. If you ignore problems, pretend they don’t exist, or discourage your staff from openly dealing with troubles then your business will soon be in trouble. There; now this is a management training text – you can write off the cost as a business expense.

And while we are on the subject, you can also apply the pyramid to your business. The base of your business pyramid is product (or service). If the thing you are selling is not fundamentally sound then success is difficult. Next are your production, distribution, and sales efforts. These bring your product to market. We all know that a great product is not enough.

Finally there are tactical business issues for dealing with things you cannot control – like behavior of competitors, and other outside forces.

Structure your business and focus your effort [Sorry – got a little carried away with this digression. If you’d like to know more about our business services, and what we can do for your business, give us a call, or drop us a line.]
2.6 Can We Talk?

Driver to Trimmer: “Give me a little jib sheet.”

Foredeck to Pit: “Give me a little halyard.”

Sheet trimmer to guy trimmer: “Give me a little guy.”

Effective communications requires a common language. You can improve communications on your boat by agreeing on consistent terminology and avoiding ambiguous or non specific instructions. It doesn’t really matter what words you use as long as everybody is using them in the same way.

Here’s a catalog of terms I like to use:

For sail trim, including sheets, guys, and other running controls, like vang, cunningham, outhaul, backstay, runners, use Trim and Ease, and use specific amounts. Instead of Give me a little jib try Trim the jib two inches. If you aren’t sure how much you need make your request with a specific reference so the trimmer will know the order of magnitude: Trim about two inches will give the trimmer a better idea of what you want.

By using trim and ease for sails we can save in and out for weight. People move in and out, with sails you trim and ease.

Halyards can be tricky for a couple of reasons. One is that there are times to hoist or drop, and times to take up or ease down a little. You need to make clear which is which. Problems are compounded by difficulties hearing requests from the bow as the foredeck crew bounce around. Hand signals to reinforce words can minimize misunderstandings. Here are some ideas:

Take up – Take up slack (and one finger up).

Hoist – All the way up (and thumbs up).

Slack or Ease – Ease down a little (and one finger down)

Lower – Ease down all the way (and one thumb down).

Drop – Let halyard run (and two thumbs down).

Hold – Hold it there or stop (gets a fist).

Fig. 4 – To get what you want you have to know how to ask for it. Use specific terms. Trim and Ease apply to sheets and other sail controls. In and Out apply to crew weight, which also moves fore and aft. With halyards, you often ease down or take up slack before you hoist all the way. Sometimes you ease a halyard, sometimes you drop it.

The other area of confusion is in amounts. How much is a little trim or a little halyard? Guess at specific amounts. With new or less experienced crew “a little” can go a long way. Try, “Take up the jib halyard three inches” instead of “Give me a little jib halyard,” which might get you six inches and a ruined sail. Sometimes you ease a halyard to make sure it isn’t jammed before you drop it. Fig. 4

Specific directions will get you the desired results. Otherwise you may end up exchanging words and gestures not repeatable in this family oriented text.

previous next

RYA Courses

Our Sailing school

RYA day skipper


Excellent combination of fun and learning !



Frequent Asked Questions



Handy and free articles



Overview of all RYA courses