How to Find and Retain Good Crew

Finding and Retaining Good Crew – Who Wants to go Sailing?
By Mark W. Smith, J/105 USA69 Eau La’ la /J24’s After Midnight and Rally

Since I turned 66 and have been sailing since I was 12, I have a lot of experience in recruiting crew and working to keep it going. In an effort to share some lessons that I have learned through the years, I’m coming at this from my perspective. I bought my first J/24 and have raced the Texas Circuit since 1989.  I have also had years of successfully campaigning a J/80 and have been sailing the J/105 since 1999. Now I have an additional J/24 that I keep at Sapphire Bay Sailing Club in Dallas, so I have a J/105 and two J/24 crews. The J/24 is my base boat that gets me recalibrated and keeps me young.


The J/105 is a lot easier boat to raise crew for and I have to admit that I am blessed in that department.  I have 10 people on the J/24 five-person crew rotation which I can expand quickly, and then we have 13 on our J/105 rotation which includes my J/24 teams. Gathering this many good sailors to race didn’t happen overnight so if you’re working to develop a crew, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and hopefully it will help you also build your ultimate A Team.

I have been through a lot of crews. Priorities change and life happens when you’re making other plans…roll with it! So just know that we’re always interviewing for crew and exchanging data. For our Sunday afternoon club racing, we can have up to nine + a junior on the J/105. That sounds like a lot, but when it comes time for the big event, it’s amazing how many people have something else planned. To keep six on your J/105, you need about 10 in the rotation.  I send out a crew text every Friday or Saturday to all of the crew, and we usually end up with six or seven (sometimes nine if it’s priceless weather) but just know you need to build up a good rotation to pull from.

Also, crews jump ship to go with someone else so let’s take a look at that.  I too went through years of begging people to come make the club races on the J/24, and I won’t kid you – the J/105 can have the same problem. When you have a very active fleet, crew who want to sail will find another ride if you start skipping races and don’t have them locked down.  When seeking crew, I think you have to ask yourself if you would enjoy sailing with a skipper like you. How’s your team temperament and what level sailor, skipper and boat owner are you? Are you a blood and guts level pro who feels entitled to whip your crew and scream at people for taking their eyes off the chute for a split second (I hate sailing with those guys) but you win?  Or do you prefer to be very competitive yet realize your crew are not paid professionals and thus you may need to allow everyone to drink a beer at lunch to keep a good vibe going and everyone’s head in the game? What stage is your program in?  Are you in the early stages of development with your team and while you may know YOUR  job, you’re training a fresh crew to find their way around the boat and you have to patiently not explode as the kite fails to come down before the mark rounding and you lose four boats at the rounding? We’ve all been there, and we’re all at different stages of team building. Try not to put your crew in a position to fail! I believe in keeping the crew happy. Just remember also – when you have races several days in a row or a regatta, crew need food to fuel themselves so always make sure your crew has had plenty to eat and is up for peak performance.

The top sailors always seem to have a stable of other top sailors they draw upon, and they compete well because we all know that to do well you have to have a good crew. There’s nothing better than sailing with people who are better than you. I have reached the point where I’ve sailed with enough friends for long enough that I have a good crowd to choose from. So what comes first?

The number one ingredient I’ve learned to building a crew and making it good and keeping it together is keeping the fun factor always near the top of the list. Going sailboat racing should not be like out of control going to war where everyone is afraid to touch a line for fear of angering the captain. I like crews who mesh together on a chemistry level…give me crew chemistry. If you bring really good sailors onboard, but your skill level isn’t up to their expectations, find ways to engage and keep them helping everyone on the team. Sometimes it’s better to lock in people who are growing with you. I put crew chemistry down as more important than skill really. I can bring you to proficient if you have the desire and mental mechanical ability to learn, fit the team and have the real desire to win races.

Are you “happy” to just be out there or are you striving for top performance yet recognizing the weaknesses within the level of your crew and yourself? I think that while you’re sizing up your crew, you also have to size up yourself and be reasonable about whether the team is ready for the crash lee bow or not. You have to work within the confines of your team. Success breeds success, and I frequently have different people sailing with me (like every regatta it seems), and I try to take into account things I know certain people can and cannot do. I try very hard to not put people into a position or ask them to do a maneuver in which they will fail. Reminds me of a Sambuca we tried the first race of last season. We hadn’t practiced in over a year, and yet having a full-leg lead, we managed to go from a definite win to losing. Ouch, but all I had to do was be conservative. I put that note in the big notebook – practice Sambuca before doing in an actual race. Add wing-on-wing spinnaker to that list too. We keep a notebook when we’re really dialing the crew in, and I ask the crew to write in the notebook (which includes rig settings, wind and sea state, what side worked and what didn’t). Get the crew participating in the overall weekly improvement (see notes below.)

Another thing I’ve learned in building a good crew and keeping it is having a second helmsman on the boat who can drive the boat when I’m not there. I’ll even have races where I crew for them and show the team things that can be done easier.   I think having the second helmsman is a huge help because the crew knows we’re always going, and we have helmsman/owner 1A and helmsman 1B both capable of winning. One thing our crew knows is unless it’s lightening out or something unforeseen happens, the boat is always going.

So where do we find these new crew members? Junior sailing is the lifeblood of our sport, so if you can get one or two good juniors to come, those advanced kids are great at reading the wind and eager to try new things. We also have a crew board at our club, so that can be a good place to take some people looking to crew out for a test run and see what their experience level is or their athletic level and IQ. I like to give people a “try out.” The beginners who go out with you, ask a lot of questions, and get the hang of it and then go home and do some reading and come back the next week asking better questions and remembering everything they’ve learned have the best potential to become good sailors and crew. People who sail with you for months who you still have to explain the first lessons to them every week usually end up staying with the trailer on regatta weekend.  I’m not saying that to be cruel, but its part of the crew evaluation you have make. Some folks are natural at this sport, and it’s a delight to watch them excel. Others end up going on a cruising boat where they fit in better. You can grow your own team. My teams are a combination of previous experience and sailors we’ve grown into crew.  

I used to have four full pages front and back in a notebook of sailors and phone numbers in my crew list.  These days I put “Sailor” in the business line of my contacts in my phone, and that’s all I need to bring the pages up. Just for grins, I just checked my phone and pulled up 188 “Sailors” in my contacts. The  sailing world is a very close knit fraternity, and everybody knows somebody who would like to get out to race so ask around!

Cross train your crew so they gain experience in every job on the boat. I have had a bad tendency when the crew is humming and everybody is in sync to forget about getting everybody to try a different

position…if they want to. The J/105 has four key positions that you want to have your all stars in: Driver, Main, Pit and Foredeck. The other two crew positions are there to support and fill in the gaps to make the whole crew look great and press the boat!    

There are many factors that go into building a good crew who sticks together. My Dad could keep his crew together for 10-15 years at a time because he had excellent boats, the boat was sailed well by his regular crew and he knew how to throw a great crew party! I have strived to create the same atmosphere on my boats.  Osmosis, experience and time in the boat are definitely the most important aspects to create a winning team and keep it together. Don’t forget to share the trophies. We keep a list of who gets the next one, and I love seeing the trophies in their homes or on their desks in their office.  Every trophy is a memory, and crew members relish being included in taking home the silver.

The team who spends its time at the front of the fleet and expects to win and succeed has the most fun and tends to stay together the best. In the end, sailing/racing has a huge camaraderie and is a way of life and we all have an obligation to share this with as many people as possible. If you do that I have found that the good sailors have a magical way of finding you!

Notes: From the After Midnight Notes – Scott Young AYC / Rush Creek – 93 –

Paul Foerster and Rob Johnston Chalk Talk – 93

Founder and President of Vertical Datacom, Inc

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