5 Tips to improve Onboard Sailing Crew communications
5 Tips to improve Onboard Sailing Crew communications

Effective communication on your yacht can go a long way towards helping you win races (and of course, have fun).

Have you ever been on a yacht where someone is constantly barking out long-winded and inaudible instructions? Or where the constant chatter on the rail makes it impossible for crew to hear any calls from the back of the boat?

To be effective, communication between the skipper, tactician and crew requires discipline and process. Without this, you’ll probably find yourself (and crew) feeling a little confused, and likely frustrated.

Perfect your on-board crew communications with these five simple tips.

Use Clear, Concise Language to Communicate with Crew

When communicating an instruction, use simple and clear language and minimise the number of words used.

Aim for words that sound obviously different from other instructions, so crew do not get the wrong message. For example, ‘trim’ and ‘tip’ or ‘no’ and ‘go’ sound very similar and one might be mistaken for the other when on the water.

Focus on only saying what actually needs to be communicated in the moment; when crew hear an instruction, they are likely to think it’s a ‘now’ instruction, not a ‘later’ instruction.

For example, the skipper could say: “Ok team, in a few minutes we’re going to tack. Load up the new winch and put the handle in it. Keep your weight on the rail until we tack. Ok we’re getting close. Trimmers go to your winch and get ready for the tack. Ok everyone ready? Going through the tack now. Don’t pull on the headsail all of the way. Everyone on the rail. Ok pull on the headsail a slowly, a little more, ok set it there. Lock it off. Go to the rail.”

That’s a very long-winded way to let crew know you’re tacking. It can be distracting for the skipper or tactician who are now speaking instead of focusing on steering fast or what’s happening on the race course. Inevitably, crew will also get confused or leave the rail early, as they are not likely to hear every word of the instruction (especially on a larger yacht or windy day).

Instead, try saying: “Set-up to tack” (trimmers get off the rail to set up). “1-2-3, tacking” (crew are alerted it’s about time to move with the ‘1’). “Speed trim, upwind trim” (depending on the experience of your crew, this might be an instruction from the skipper to the trimmer, or vice versa).

As you can see, example two is much more concise and easier to both say and understand. If crew know that this is how a tack is called each time, they will be ready for it and know exactly what to do, and when.

When talking to someone on the yacht, try and look in their direction if possible. This makes it more obvious who you are talking to and will direct the sound towards the recipient.

Lastly, hand signals are a great way to clearly communicate a message without it getting lost in inaudible verbal garble. One place this is regularly used is on the start line, when the bow person uses hand signals to alert the helms-person and tactician as to what they’re seeing from the pointy end. You can find an article on common bow start line hand signals here.

Assign Communications Roles by Crew Position

If everyone is trying to talk at once, chances are nobody will be heard.

Assigning communication roles by crew position is a good way to minimise the amount of talking around the yacht and provide a clear guide as to who is responsible for different communications.

A few areas you might want to assign are as follows:

  • Communicating outside of the yacht to other vessels – tactician;
  • Communicating inside the yacht about manoeuvres – tactician or crew boss;
  • Tacking and gybing calls – helms-person;
  • Passing messages from the back to the front of the yacht or vice versa – pit person;
  • Providing start line or yacht crossing ‘all clear’ calls – bow person;
  • Advising on bow issues or ‘ready’ and ‘clear’ calls – bow person;
  • Calling wind gusts and shifts – assigned to someone on the rail;
  • Calling changes to crew weight positions – assigned to someone on the rail.

Between the headsail or spinnaker trimmer, main trimmer and helms-person, there should be a ‘trim communications loop’ to ensure these crew are all working towards a common goal for speed and direction.

Minimise Crew Chatter

Sitting on the rail with your fellow crew members often seems like a good time to catch up on the latest gossip.

If you’re out for a social twilight sail, a bit of crew chatter might be ok.

Generally, for competitive races, crew chatter should be kept to a bare minimum, or none at all.

If you’re discussing what happened at work last week or the latest footie match, you’re likely not focused on what’s going on around you in the race. You might also miss important instructions from the after guard.

So, when sitting on the rail it’s best to keep focused on the task at hand and leave catching up with fellow crew to the bar at the end of the day.

Communication with Other Vessels

Inappropriate communication with other vessels is not only unsportsmanlike but may be a breach of the racing rules of sailing and a danger to your yacht or another vessel if they misunderstand your intentions.

One person – generally the tactician or helmsperson – should be responsible for any and all communication with other vessels on the race course.

If onboard crew see an issue or potential collision with another vessel, they should let the tactician or skipper know so the tactician/skipper can decide on how to react as well as communicate anything required with the other vessel.

Rule 69.1 of the Racing Rules of Sailing states the following:

  1. A competitor, boat owner or support person shall not commit an act of misconduct.
  2. Misconduct is:
    1. conduct that is a breach of good manners, a breach of good sportsmanship, or unethical behaviour; or
    2. conduct that may bring the sport into disrepute.

Heated communications from crew members (or the tactician) to another yacht may breach rule 69, so are best avoided.

Keep Calm

Generally, no situation is improved by the skipper on a crew member yelling at other crew, so it’s best to try and keep calm while on the race course.

At times it might be necessary to raise your voice to portray urgency to get an important message or instruction heard, but consistent loud exclamations of your frustration during a race is hardly motivational to crew. If something doesn’t need to be said to get a job done, it’s probably best left to be discussed in your post-race debrief.

Do you have great crew communications on your yacht? Share your techniques with fellow sailors; comment below with your tips or stories about what works well for you.