Crewing Lessons: Those Unsung Chameleons

I’ve never enjoyed singlehanded sailing. Communicating efficiently, working together to go faster, and of course sharing sea stories are all too big a part of my racing enjoyment. As Jody Swanson Starck used to say about sailing singlehanded boats, “Who would you have lunch with?” So for the past twenty years, I’ve raced exclusively with at least one teammate.

I started out as a crew, and a huge percentage of what I know about sailboat racing came from soaking in the chatter of many great skippers: Ed Adams. Pat Connerney. Andrew Pimental. Henry Filter. George Szabo. Greg Fisher. Cory Sertl. Betsy Alison. The most important lesson of all came from sailing with such a wide variety of personalities, which taught me the value of being a chameleon. Skippers set the boat’s tone, and crews need to fit into that—because butting heads is both quite slow and not at all fun.

©Bruce Durfee Hood Trophy Corinthian Yacht Club Team Race 2V2

Team Severn Sailing finished 4th at the Hood Trophy. ©Bruce Durfee

After fifteen years of steering my own boat, the chameleon thing doesn’t come quite as easily—but when a few invitations came in this summer, I still enjoyed stepping back into a crew position. It’s a thankless job, but also a really important one—and a great way to learn a different segment of our sport. It’s also much lower stress than putting together an entire program. And last but certainly not least, it’s a great reminder of how crucial all those unsung crew chameleons are to any good result. Here are a few lessons I learned (or maybe relearned) this summer:

  • Stay positive. Crews don’t have the luxury of dwelling on mistakes (even if the skipper makes a blunder so obvious you want to scream back, “what were you thinking?”)
  • Show up physically fit. Trimming/setting/dousing sails is almost always harder than steering.
  • Listen well. As either skipper or crew, it’s all too easy to tune out what’s being said, especially if the chatter is too constant or too monotonous—which means we often miss significant suggestions or instructions. Reduce the chatter to what’s important—and keep your ears open, no matter what position (on the boat or in the fleet) you are in.
  • Do your own job to the very best of your ability. It’s impossible to steer a boat from the crewing position (though it is, of course, possible to make boat positioning decisions with the jib sheets). It’s also impossible to clear the spinnaker sheet off a bow cleat without leaving the helm. Doing the best we can wherever we find ourselves on a boat is what makes us good teammates. And that, of course, is the most important skill of all.

So apologies (again) to my forward teammates for all the bonehead skipper moves I’ve made, and all those excellent suggestions I’ve tuned out over the years, and thanks for going sailing with me! I may not be as much of a chameleon as I was in my twenties, but I can still learn and adapt—and going back to crewing will definitely help me do a better job in the back of the boat.

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