In this article, we’ve summarized crewing tips shared by Olympians Stephanie Roble and Maggie Shea of Roble-Shea Sailing and present them below with links to the full video content. These insights are a small fraction of the rich content provided in the Fast Forward webinar series – a partnership between the ILYA and SailZing.com. Watch the entire Fast Forward webinar series for more ideas.
Racing Strategy with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
30:01-30:32 Make it quick
“If it’s unstable and it’s frequently changing, starting with the bottom bullet point, and it’s frequently changing in a high tempo, you’re gonna be tacking more often. You’re gonna have to sail with your gut like Steph was talking about earlier. Feel the shifts as they happen and roll with them immediately. That’s a pretty decisive way of sailing. In those moments when you tack and get an auto header, an auto tack and you have to tack immediately, you don’t have time to talk it through with your crew. You don’t have time to say “Oh, what side of the race course are we trying to get to?”. No. It’s like boom, boom, boom. You just gotta go with it, right?”
“To those of you guys that sail double-handed boats, mentality can also apply to the way you communicate. So on those meerkat days when Steph should be looking around the boat constantly, I’ll have to remind her to get her head out of the boat or where’s the next puff, what’s the next phase, where’s the next pressure coming from. …and that’s a lot more important on the days that Steph is literally trying to connect the puffs and sail up the race course like that. I’m on top of speed that day. Speed is not the priority in those moments and so therefore I’m, in my communication styles and as the crew, I can help guide Steph’s focus out of the boat or into the boat.”
45:16-46:00 Mental attention
“…like to focus on the process and this is definitely a way that when you’re feeling nervous when there’s a lot going on when you know you’re you’ve got these jitters before the race like having a chart that you look at to categorize the race type day or having a list of reminders to go through it really helps you direct your mental attention to that process and feel like okay I’m focusing on my next step of executing what I know how to do and and this these I mean these race reminders are also when you’re just nervous and trying to kill time before the next race starts it’s a really great way to make the time go by you feel like you’re engaged just helps you visualize you’re like we’re gonna lock in oh yeah I remember that one time I locked in and then you visualize it and then you know…”
46:26-49:50 Anticipate decision points
“…it’s a lot harder to make good decisions either when you’re in a hurry or the pressures on or you feel nervous or you’re at the disappoint and the time that you have to make it right like that’s hard time we make the student so anticipating decision points really helps you get the right in for me have clear thoughts in your mind about what you’re trying to do and it kind of helps you execute any plan that we’re talking about if we don’t talk about the fact that we’re gonna tack until we tack you know it’s it’s not always obvious or it’s not always in the right place but if we talk about okay where are we getting on the racecourse what are we doing are we getting the pressure we thought are we in the max pressure now then the decision comes a lot more naturally and it’s a little bit more calculated…”
Wind and Racing Strategy for Youth with Roble / Shea Sailing – Excerpts
51:05-52:09 Quick code
“…something we practice a lot too it’s like when there’s a boat immediately to windward of us and we feel like we can’t tack because if we tack we’re gonna hit them and we’re gonna be wrong and have to do a penalty circle. So we practice this a lot especially on starboard when we’re tacking onto port we practice um like dipping down creating a bit of space and then tacking and ducking all in one maneuver and I work on as a crew if Steph wants to tack and but she asks “Okay can we tack?” …and I look back and I see someone there, I’m like “No.” We don’t tack. If I say NO, then we don’t tack, but if I say something like “It would be a Tack & Duck.”
…usually Steph actually is watching upwind and and so she’s watching she’ll be like standby for tacking duck and so just remembering that that’s an option to either tack and duck or duck in the tack it helps to get out of those situations where you feel like a little bit stuck and you know the boats around you’re doing the wrong thing and there keeps going on this header and you really want to tack…”
“…I think when you when you’re thinking about designing a workout program for sailing you have to remember that every crewing and skippering position on each boat demands so it’s like such different physicality you know like it needs my needs as a crew on a 49er I need to be strong and explosive and have a lot of power in a short period of time because our races are like 30 minutes whereas like a 470 crew needs to have much more muscle endurance and they need to be able to maintain like an aerobic state for a longer period of time because their races can be like an hour and so and I would say lasers are a little more like that lasers are pretty like endurance driven …the role you play on the boat and the type of boat you sail really should determine what kind of fitness you are trying to achieve…”
Starting Strategy with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
53:59-55:37 When it gets tight
“I think a really important point to touch base on is what are your options when you need to bail out. It kind of depends on whether you are on the line. If you’re further down the line, it’s a little bit easier because I think it’s important to jibe around to sail against the grain and then find your next spot.
That’s something that Maggie will help me manage as well. So she’ll be looking around. She knows when we’re maybe getting into trouble she’ll look around and say “Oh there’s there’s a hole above boat S” or “There’s something below boat B” and she’ll help me make that bailout call. The other option is to start on port. If you’re boat G and you don’t like how this is going or you’re boat H you don’t like how it’s going, just tack onto port and then rabbit start everyone.
I want to point out, as the crew, there are ways that you can use communication to help improve confidence and offer options and be problem-solving and proactive and then there are ways that you can just make the situation so much worse. Right? So we’ve all…Steph has never done this before… but say imagine we’re in boat H and we’re not making the pin and it’s like obvious to us crews, right, we’re like “Oh gosh. It’s not getting any better.” Instead of being like “We’re totally not making that line now, we’re totally not making that line.” You can say things like “What are our options? How about starting on port? or you know “Could we tack and make the committee boat?” …or “I think we do have time to go find another hole.” You know, offering potential options instead of just identifying how bad the situation is is helpful and helps be proactive and forward-thinking so just wanted to point that out that we crews have some power.”
57:11-58:22 Time & distance communications
“…the key to really having good and accurate accelerations is understanding your time and distance and the communication. So on our boat I talk about boat lengths under the line and boat lengths to the line and that can be slightly different based on the wind shifts.
Like Steph was talking about earlier. So we might be one boat length under, but in a big left shift it might be three lengths to the line or two lengths to the line or vice versa. And a right shift we might be one boat length under but only closer you know one boat length under but one boat length traveling once we once we trim sails and go. So just understanding like the time and distance and and how you communicate that to your skipper or crew is really helpful. We have a couple different kinds of accelerations so like we’re talking earlier about when it’s windy we’ll just trim sails and basically like go slow and then go fast you know and that’s like a “flow acceleration”. Steph might say we’re gonna “get flow and then go” and then a “pivot” would be when we’re really close to the line in really light air and we literally pivot our bow down, trim sails and go with a big rock and pop. And so we name those just so we’re on the same page and they require slightly different steps from each of us but it allows us to at least kind of have a process…”
59:16-1:00:35 Locking in fast
“…none of it matters if you can’t sail fast right after the start. So that is a skill in itself that in our opinion was more than 50% of our starting ability. If you can’t lock in immediately after the start then it doesn’t matter how you start. So being able to lock in for us means are we able to hike 100% you know or are we like fidgeting around with our trapeze lines or am I fidgeting around with the controls? Do we know where the jib sheet is getting sheeted to because we have a mark on the jib sheet in a marking system and you know we don’t want to be adjusting that so basically just knowing that we can like fully lock-in right off the start and being able to kind of get everything to their marks for those three things and then focus on nothing but speed…”
Starting Strategy and Tactics for Youth with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
19:05-22:22 Line sag tips
“…if they were both head to wind with their sails luffing and they were on the starting line and they’d be bow even. Right? …and now when you pivot those boats 45 degrees down I want to point out where the bow of the windward boat is on the leeward boat. It’s like almost back by where the skipper sits. Right? …but that’s not generally where people sit when they’re setting up, because they think…you feel exposed there. Usually, I’m the crew, usually I’m probably where the bow of the next windward boat is. And so, if you look at the diagram on top with the sagging boats, the bow of the boat directly to windward of most of these boats is about where the crew would sit and so that doesn’t line you up in a line that’s parallel to the starting line, that basically creates a SAG…”
24:29-25:15 Line sights – location matters
“…the reason we said you want to get line sights where you want to start is because they change a little bit based on where you are on the starting line. So let’s talk about this tree example. If we set up directly under the committee boat and we said the tree on the shore line is three boat lengths under, you have to know that’s three boat links under the line at the committee boat. Then, if you were to actually start in in the dead center of the line, then in theory, it would be one and a half boat lengths under. I would basically say that if you got the transit or the line sight at the committee boat, I don’t usually find it helpful at the pin…”
25:53-26:50 When you can’t see
“On those days when we don’t have any line sights, I say that to Steph “No line sights.” and then our default is to match the bows around us. …and I would say there’s kind of one caveat to that. One thing to be careful of, to know, is that if you kind of have a sense of, in your fleet, are boats over early a lot or are they very infrequently over the line early? You know and that can kind of help you with your confidence level of matching boats around you. Sometimes Steph and I look at the scores and certain people will be over a lot in specific conditions okay and then we know that like well if they’re poked out on the whole group group and I know they’ve had like two OCS’s already this regatta, we’re not gonna like match their bow. You know, but then there are some boats that you know start really well and if you don’t have any transits you can always like kind of default to being in line with the crowd and pulling the trigger at the same time or just before and like, generally speaking, you’ll be okay…”
39:22-40:15 Assist with blind spots
“Skippers have a blind spot. There’s always some spot that they can’t see if they’re holding onto things with both hands and then as a crew that spot is your job. I know that Steph cannot see anyone coming from that specific area and so it’s my job to say something. Sometimes I’ll say “Shark Shark Shark”, whatever, but it also works really well if you point at that boat. You literally point at the boat that’s trying to come in there and then Steph knows exactly where they are but THEY know that we know that they’re trying to come into our hole. I don’t love yelling “Don’t come in there! Don’t go in there!” because if someone yells at me and there’s plenty of room, I’m going in. But if you see that someone’s pointing at you and they’re basically communicating non-verbally “We’re gonna make this hard for you. We see you and we don’t want you to go in there.” I really like pointing for Steph instead of screaming.”
47:54-48:03 Positive feedback
“When you do have a good spot, it’s nice to say that, because it helps the nerves to say “Good position here. I’m just trying to hold this. We’re in a good spot.”
57:41-1:01:11 More aggressive starts
“A couple pointers about starting mentality because we dealt with this and we’ve been working on it for a while. We noticed that we have the technical skills to have good starts. Our accelerations were good. Our boat speed was good. Our hole would look good, but we realized that I was getting nervous and I was afraid we were gonna be over early. And so I was saying things to Steph like “Don’t be over. I don’t know where the line is. Don’t go forward.” I was literally saying those things and the information she’s getting is “Be careful. Be careful. Be careful.” You can’t perform if someone is sitting in your ear going “Be careful. Be careful. Don’t get over. Don’t screw this up.” So I really had to change my communication to say things like “I can’t see that transits, so we’re going off bows.” Change it to a proactive thing…
…we had to divide up who was doing what and that was important. So I became in charge of how far we were from the starting line and Steph became in charge of making sure we had a good hole….you know like a space to leeward and bow out on the boat to windward. So we were each in charge of different things and we broke it down into like small little tasks and it became more clear who was responsible for what and we felt like we could work on those specific skills and we actually made a lot of progress on that.
So I’ve heard coaches say “If you don’t get an OCS every six races you’re not pushing the line. I think that the moral of that story is, if you don’t have an OCS every once in a while, you’re not pushing the line hard enough. Having an OCS is okay. That’s why we have drop races. I had to get over this myself and then realize like actually what’s worse is to start behind the fleet every single start. Because when you do that, you start second-guessing your speed. You second-guess your tactics. You start thinking the boat just doesn’t feel right. I couldn’t make any good decisions. All those thoughts really affect your confidence levels and it’s sort of this downward spiral and then you think you’re not sailing well. Then you start badly again and then it happens again. So we had to make sure, really sure, to not question our speed and tactics if we had a bad start, because if you have a bad start you don’t get to make your own decisions.”
1:03:35-1:04:42 Help with traffic
“If you have a bad start and you need to tack, keep an eye on the boats that are on port tack ducking you, because if a boat has altered their course and they’re ducking you, or if any boat, maybe not even altering the course, if you tack and while you’re still tacking they have to avoid you, then you have fouled them. So you want to make sure that you’re not gonna start your tack and be in anyone’s way while you’re tacking. So you kind of need to let, if a boat started ducking you, kind of let them duck and then tack. …but you’d only be tacking on their hip. So crews, that’s a really great time for you to help your skipper out and keep an eye on boats to leeward. …and sometimes I’ll say “You can go after that boat.” or “You can go after Denmark.” Whoever’s kind of focusing on driving keep an eye on the boats behind you. If Steph and I were talking about tacking out there…if we have a boat that’s like pinning us and preventing us from tacking instead of saying “No. You can’t tack Steph. Don’t tack. Don’t tack.” I would say “You can tack and duck or dip and tack.” Just mention that there’s a boat there and the skipper has to look and see how far you’re gonna have to dip in the tack.”
Winning Upwind Tactics with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
04:35-6:33 Questions to stay in the game
“There are days, we’ve all had them, when you’re like I don’t really have a good handle on what’s happening today. It’s just tricky and seems a bit random and and this just helps you keep learning, keep addressing forward and keep honing your skills and calibrating throughout the day. So a few questions we ask each other on board a lot and this should just be like a running dialogue in your head. What place are we in? Are we lifted? Are we headed? Do we have clear air? Are we in the max pressure? Does anyone also have more pressure than us? Are we going fast? But also you know you should reflect on are we focusing on the right thing right now the most important variable? Are we sailing the course or are we sailing the fleet?
Steph and I had a great chat earlier when we were putting this presentation together about the differences between the first beat and the second beat. When you’re talking about the first beat, it’s much more strategy-based and you are trying to sail against more…everyone’s closer together you’re trying to sail against them. The second beat is a lot more tactics-based. You’re trying to stay in front of who you’re in front of or pass a few more boats and so that would be an idea of like what’s the most important variable right now, the wind or the fleet? Then maintaining a dialogue like I’m in charge of the compass information on board so just making sure that I’m consistent with how I’m saying it, how frequently I’m saying it, the feedback I’m giving, and what the next steps are.
I also like to point out to the crews…okay I should say for the “non-tactician”, because on our boat, Steph is a skipper and she’s a tactician. I’m the crew and I give supporting information and there’s a lot of ways that the you can ask prompting questions that are framed in a supportive way that sort of try to helpfully nudge the skipper’s focus onto the right thing. And this tactical intelligence I think is really a big part of that. You know, for example, if we’re on a layline and windward marks coming up, I’m not gonna spew compass numbers to Steph and take her focus off the mark rounding. At that point, the most important thing is what kind of rounding? What happened that last leg? What place are we in? How much risk are we trying to take? So you filter the information based on what’s most relevant and most important at that time.”
29:17-30:25 Recognizing & verifying
“If Steph says “We have to luff, we have to luff”, it’ll be in the back of my mind…that lane isn’t going well. Sometimes the skipper gets really focused on driving once we tack onto port and it helps to just ask “Was this a clearing tack? Is this still a clearing tack?” and just identify how many boats are taking your hip.”
1:11:44-1:12:25 Remind your skipper
“If it’s a priority for the day to get to an edge and stay out of the middle, which sometimes it is, then crews it’s good for you, when you’re approaching packs, to remind your skipper “We are at the top third. We need to get to an edge. You got one more tack.” Whatever it might be.”
1:14:34-1:15:10 Give time for smart roundings
“A little thing to remember, that port layline, unless you’re in first, second or third, port layline there’s a little risk associated with that, because then you’re tacking in the zone at the windward mark. So it’s always safer to go port layline minus four (boat lengths) and if you go minus four and then you have a full tack, speed build and then we’re at the zone which is three boat lengths to the mark…happy days. Very safe. You also have some decision time and, if you’ve got Spinnakers on your boat, gives your crew a chance to get the controls off, get spin sheet set, whatever it might be. A tack / set is always terrible. No matter how many times we practice a tack / set, they are never good. They’re always bad. So skipper’s remember that.”
Winning Upwind Tactics – Youth session with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
56:06-57:15 Checklists can ease tension
“When I’m nervous, I like to go through all of these boat prep checklist. That just makes me feel like I’m more prepared and that everything that’s in my control I am controlling, which is equipment readiness, preventive maintenance, and you know checking on your gear, making sure everything’s in order, everything’s clean, everything’s been polished, everything’s been measured…and all those things make me feel like, okay, you know, what happens tomorrow on the racecourse isn’t totally in my control but I can at least know that I’m ready and that I have a system and I use my lists and that yeah that really helps me. And puzzles pass the time, but if we’re nervous on the water we really go through more pre-start homework. We go through our reminders…”
58:09-58:25 Learning together
“There’s nothing wrong with learning together. You’re learning together and you might think you’ve got a leg up because you’ve more experience and time in the boat, but eventually your learning curves will meet and yeah don’t worry about having a lot to learn. It’s actually a good thing, good place to be.”
58:51-1:00:30 Conflict resolution
“We both have the same goal at the end of the day, so we’re just you know anytime that a conflict might happen, which it doesn’t very often luckily on our team, but if it does it’s just “Hey you know we’re working towards the same goal here. How can I understand your point of view a little bit better? …or something like that.
Yeah. I also say that we found being really careful with how we communicate helps conflict resolution. Like the way you say things can make a situation erupt in flames, right, or it can make a situation be you know pretty peaceful and we can work through it. So we learned pretty early on that it’s not what you say, most of the time. It’s how you say it. When you think about it…it’s when you say it. Right? Like, on the race course, I wouldn’t say “Steph, that was so stupid!” You know what I mean? First of all, I would never call Steph stupid, but in the heat of the moment, that’s never the time to like point out an error. You know? If they make a mistake, they know it was a mistake. It doesn’t need to be addressed at that moment. …and so you have to be really thoughtful about when you bring things up.
We’ve also learned you do not bring things up when you’re hungry, when you’re cold, and when you’ve been in a wet sea for eight hours. That will never be a good time to have a constructive conversation that will lead to conflict resolution. No, no, no. So we ask “Are you hungry? You have to make sure everyone is comfortable in the conversation. Also, sleep on it. Write it down. Talk it out with your coach and then, the next day, say “Hey, can we talk about this… and that kind of thing.”
Downwind Tactics with Roble / Shea Sailing – Youth – excerpts
11:25-12:18 Keep your bow free
“…the Options Open rounding is one that I like because if your answer to the question of what worked upwind is “I’m not really sure” then that’s like when the skippers head goes on a swivel and is like “I’m gonna find that first puff. I’m gonna find that first puff” Right Steph? That’s all you do and you’re just like looking around. You’re aggressively trying to figure out who’s gaining, who’s got the most breeze, who’s hiking the hardest, who’s (trapezing), who’s boat looks like they’re moving fast? …and we’ve got to keep our options open so that we could jibe if we see something over there. …and the important part about that is that if you’re setting a double-handed boat, crews – help your skipper keep your bow free. That’s what we say on our boat, bow free so that we can jibe. That means not getting locked on one side or another of the boat that’s directly in front of us. So if options open is like be ready for anything…might be a jibe, might be duck / set, might be a set / straight, might be a set then jibe, but just, yep, on your toes.”
12:28-13:09 Habits that help
“I really like this discussion that we had on the U.S. Sailing Team webinar when we talked about top marks because some skipper said that every single top mark they asked the question is it a jibe set or a straight set and some skippers were like well we don’t need to have that discussion every single time…”
47:34-47:51 Give your crew time
“One thing to think about is the sooner you make the (gate) decision the better, because then you can avoid that cone of death. Often times, I find that if we are struggling to make a decision, then we end up in that cone of death, so the sooner you can make the decision or the earlier you can make it the better. Then, as soon as you make the decision, making sure your crew knows so that they can do their job really well if you sail on a double-handed boat especially a 420. I know Margo says she sails 420, so make sure you give your crew enough time to get the kite down and know what type of rounding you’re doing.”
1:04:52-1:05:30 Mental checklists
“If I were to make like a mental checklist for driving, it would be: okay do I have enough speed, okay yes I have enough speed and then does my crew know, yes you have to let your crew know. …and then once you make sure you have those two things, that you’re making a nice smooth turn, that you’re carving away slowly from the wind and then pulling the boom across as you come…as you do that turn through dead downwind. …and then the really important part of the whole process is hitting the right exit angle so you think about that nice carve downwind and then hitting a good exit angle to build that speed again. So it’s really all about speed…”
Downwind Tactics with Roble / Shea Sailing – excerpts
5:21-8:35 Questions to ask at the top mark
“So at the top of the beat, more coming in on the layline, not usually at the mark as this photo shows, but it’s a couple boat lengths away before we need to just do full focus on the set. I’ll ask “Hey… what paid?” “Did that work?”
Boat Speed with Champion Sailor Dave Ullman and Roble-Shea Sailing – excerpts
1:00:11-1:02:00 Different techniques for mental toughness
“Different things work for really different people. Like Steph and I, even on the same team, have different techniques that we respond well to. And so I’ll just offer up that my mental toughness techniques mostly revolve around actively keeping my focus on positive things during the race and not allowing my concern for a result to be a distraction. And not allowing that to make me feel anxious and nervous and trying to channel that energy in a good way. So that takes a lot of active concentrating and focusing on the small steps at hand. The next tiny baby step you have to take, like David (Ullman) was talking about, like what’s the next one thing I have to do. But also just acknowledging how often you drift into those negative thought patterns of okay if we don’t win this race we’re not gonna win the trials. That’s a distracting negative thought pattern and then you have to develop your own techniques for what helps you stop that. I’m so focused on the task at hand.
So Steph and I have talked in the past about visualizing a stop sign. Whatever works for you. Saying STOP and thinking about something else. You know there are a million techniques for that, but I think for everyone the time that they find most distressing is different. Some people get nervous on the course. Some people the morning of… some people get nervous in the racing. You have to figure out what sort of mechanisms you use at those different times that help you focus on what you need to do.
…and that’s a hard part of coaching is not to interfere with that. You can’t, as a coach, put your values or your systems on the people your coaching. You can make suggestions, but you have to let them do what they do to have the best results. The way they handle pressure…you know during the regatta, between regattas…whatever…during the race and not interfere with that. …and that’s hard, as a coach.”