This past weekend I had the chance to be tactician for Travis Odenbach in the J/24 class at Charleston Race Week. Travis is the current J/24 North American Champion and has a brand new US Watercraft J/24. He just started working with us at North One Design and I was anxious to sail with him and excited to do tactics. While we were disappointed to come up just short of a victory (losing by two points in the final race of a ten race regatta) I did come away with some fresh ideas about the tactical side of sailing and the role the tactician plays on a crew. I had a great time, Charleston is a very challenging place to sail with variable winds, lots of current, sandbars and islands to dodge, a tacticians nightmare if you want to look at it that way ( I tried to look at it as a challenge). Here are some things I took away as the tactician’s role and how the tactician contributes to a team.
Painting the Picture
Even on a small boat like a J/24 everyone has a mechanical job to do. Trimming, driving, doing the mast and foredeck. All these jobs require the each team member focus on the task they are responsible for. When focused on their specific job they cannot see what is happening out of the boat and so the tactician’s role is to fill them in on what is taking place. A constant discussion is led by the tactician to “paint the picture” of what is happening on the race course during the race. This painting of the picture helps each person in the crew be ready for what is coming next. A typical discussion from the tactician might go like this. Assume for now the boat is sailing upwind on starboard tack. “OK, even height and speed with the boat on our hip, right puff coming in 10 seconds, be ready to hike. Long term looks like a header coming on the boats directly ahead, be ready for a possible tack in the next 30 seconds. “ This type of talking out loud about what is happening and what the tactician is thinking keeps everyone’s head in the game and alerts them to what the next move might be. It minimizes surprises and allows the team to take advantage of any situation.
You’ve probably heard the terms course and fleet management and maybe wondered what they mean. Same with me. Basically, they are a fancy way of saying that a good team has a plan on how they want to sail the course and how they want to position their boat against the fleet. Talking about that out loud is the tactician’s job and each time you encounter another boat on the course you’ll have to express the crew how you want to handle each situation. For example in Charleston almost all of the starts we had were across a line with a strong positive push from the current with better (helpful) current to the left side of the course. With that in mind, we talked a lot about how we’d want to start near the pin end and always keep to the left of the fleet heading upwind. With help from the bowman and jib trimmer, who were watching closely, we’d talk about each time any of our close competitors tacked and how we would handle each crossing. A typical discussion would be like this (assume upwind sailing on starboard ). “ OK, we’ve got bow #10 ahead and to leeward, if he tacks now we’ll be bow to bow, I want to keep working to the left of the fleet so if he tacks we are going to want to wave him across on port and continue to the left, bowman, please keep your eye on him and tell us when he starts to tack”.
This type of discussion, if kept up around the course means you and your crew will never be surprised by anything that happens and is especially important when you find yourself back in the pack. It’s by trying to think 1,2 or 3 moves ahead that you can really make some gains.
Be Open, Observant and Flexible:
In Charleston I got into the mindset (partially correct) that one side of the course was always favored for current. With 2-2.5 knots of current this was generally the case. It typically made one of the gate marks the only option downwind. Leading one race, with our closest competitor right behind us I had my mind and our crew focused on defending that one mark because I felt getting to it first would put us in better current right after rounding and help to cement our lead. With all my energy focused on defending our position to that mark I completely missed the fact that the Race Committee was moving the other gate mark much closer and also that the wind was shifting enough to favor the other mark. By the time I realized what was happening it was too late and our competition had jumped us to the other mark! Lessoned learned: constantly recheck all assumptions throughout the course of the race. Assume nothing is going to stay the same and be open to change your game plan. Encourage the crew to be on the lookout for signs of changes and funnel them back to you and the skipper.
Being a good tactician is a real challenge. I’m not completely sure what the analogous job in other sports would be, maybe like the manager or first base coach in baseball or the coach of a football team on the sidelines. You’re not really sailing the boat but you sure are guiding it’s direction. It’s a lot of fun! Please send your questions and or comments!