About Crew Positions

Crew Positions on a Race Boat

If are considering crewing on a race boat, but feel a bit intimidated by the whole prospect, you are not alone.   Many of my Basic Cruising students ask me which position would be ideal for someone new to racing.  As someone who hopped on a friend’s boat without knowing anything about sailing and many years later ended up helming her own boat through races and teaching cruising, I can offer a somewhat unique perspective.

crew positions during downwind sailingFirst of all, do not be intimidated by all the unfamiliar racing jargon, sailing terms, fast maneuvering, yelling and all sorts of strange behavior during races.  It’s all just part of racing and you will get used to it soon enough.  Most sailors were not born on boats and they pretty much started where you are starting now – with a determination to sail, but very little experience and/or knowledge base.  Sailing is not a simple sport.  There is an endless list of terms, maneuvers, rules and skills to learn, so just relax!  I have been sailing for over fifteen years now and sometimes I get off the boat thinking that I know nothing.  The key is to develop a good base that you can build on by getting as much time on the water as you can.  You can read all the books you want, but nothing prepares you for dealing with an unexpected situation as well as hands-on experience.  Take every opportunity to get out on the water and soon you will be the one explaining things to the new crew.

What do skippers expect from their crew?  We can start a very long discussion here, but I would guess that most of us expect the following: that you show up on time (or a bit early if you can), that you help with prepping and putting away the boat, that you respect your crew-mates and the equipment and that you show a willingness to learn. Some people learn faster than others, but everyone has the potential to become a good sailor if they are persistent, open-minded and spend enough time on the water to continually build on their existing skills.

Crew Positions

On my boat, a J/29, there are 7 basic positions.  This boat has a symmetric spinnaker with a spin pole which needs to be manually tripped during each jibe.  This means that we need a few extra crew for this task, especially if the wind is strong.  Every boat is a bit different, but here is the basic set up for a J/29 team:

Skipper – helms the boat;

Main Trimmer / Tactician (for some boats these are separated into 2 positions) – trims the main sail and provides tactical feedback to the skipper.  Skipper and main trimmer work very closely together;

Port Jib/Spinnaker Trimmer (could also be the Primary Trimmer) –  trims the jib on the upwind leg and spinnaker on the down wind run;

Starboard Jib/Spinnaker Trimmer (could also be the Secondary Jib Trimmer if one of the trimmers is just learning) – same as above. If the trimmer is new to the position, then we will have him/her release the jib sheet during tacks, gets up on the rail and from there and helps the Primary Trimmer bring in the jib on the new leeward side (this is called tailing). During the downwind leg, we usually ask the Secondary Trimmer to trim the pole-side of the spinnaker;

Pit (this position is necessary on a J/29, since most halyards are controlled from the pit, other boats might have a different setup) – helps to hoist and lower all the sails during the mark roundings, controls the spinnaker tweekers, the down-haul, helps with adjusting the height of the spinnaker pole; helps with sail changes, helps with reefing the main if necessary.

Mast – assists the Pit in hoisting the sails at the mast and assists the Foredeck with sail take-downs and sail changes.  Mast is sometimes also responsible for the outhaul and cunnigham;

Bowman or Foredeck – calls the line at the start, hoists and lowers the sails at the bow of the boat, jibes the spinnaker;

Mid-deck just an extra position we end up with if we have 8 people on the boat.

In high winds, we definitely need all 7 people (preferably 8) to complete our manoeuvres efficiently and safely.  During light-wind days, we can easily get away with 5 or 6 people.

Let’s go over the experience level required for each of the positions:

sail trimmer trimming a jibBack of the Boat:  

High Experience Level is required for Skipper, Main-trim/Tactics, Primary Jib/Spinnaker Trim.  This group should work together to sail the boat as fast as possible while keeping the crew and the equipment safe.  Since this part of the sailing team is located in the back of the boat, you will notice that most of the yelling during races tends to originates from that area.  Some boats will be quieter than others, but I tend to prefer sailing on boats where tactical decisions and the reasoning behind them are discussed and all useful input is considered. A new sailor can learn a ton during races just by listening to the back-of-the-boat whenever they get a chance.  So if you do manage to get a position where you can hear the tactics being discussed, soak up as much information as you can while on the water, ask questions after the race, read books at home and pretty soon you also will be able to ‘get your head out of the boat’ and contribute your

Possible Positions for a New Sailor– ideally, I would want all our crew to have a foredeck crew dropping the jib on a sailboatlot of experience.  But stars rarely align this way and we often do need new people.  When a new person joins the team, we will usually start them at one of the following positions:  Mast, Pit or Secondary Jib Trim.  This does not mean that these crew positions are easy.  On the contrary.  They are key to fast maneuvering during jibes, mark roundings and sail changes.  However, one has to start somewhere and these 3 positions are the perfect place to ‘learn the ropes’ on a raceboat.

  • Mast  – this was my first position when I started sailing and I loved it.  Mast person’s main job is to assist the Foredeck in any way they can without putting too much weight in front of the mast.  Ideal mastperson is tall and has strong arms.  I was tall without the strong arms, but I learned tricks which helped me hoist the sails fast enough for my size.  Mast is busy during sail changes, mark roundings, spinnaker take-downs and sometimes jibes.  It’s easy to learn and it’s a great introduction to foredeck and pit positions.  Use the time between mark roundings to check out what the other crew-members are doing, so you have an idea what to do if you get asked to fill in for them in the future.
  • Pit – my second position on the boat was Pit.  This is an extremely busy position during sail-changes and mark-roundings and it requires a ton of multitasking.  During mark roundings:  at the upwind mark the Pit is in charge of hoisting the spinnaker, lowering the jib, adjusting tweakers, adjusting pole height, working the down-haul – all of which tends to happen at about the same time.  Pit takes orders from both the back of the boat while watching what’s going on at the front and making sure that the orders makes sense considering where the sails and the crew is at. Needless to say, attempting to juggle many hopes while listening to the tactical team and watching the foredeck takes a special kind of person. This position is relatively easy to learn, but it takes some experience to master.  The best Pit crew is a mind-reader who knows which maneuver is next and will have their hand on the correct clutch and rope a few seconds before anyone calls it. Fast and competent Pit-work will help the rest of the team outmaneuver their competitors during mark-roundings, so if done well, it can definitely help to win races.
  • Secondary Trim – my third time on a race boat, one of the competitor’s J/29 was short of crew and I was ‘volunteered’ to help them out.  They put me in the secondary-trim position, it was windy, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what I was doing and I absolutely loved it.  The first bit of feedback was to “pull on that jib sheet as if I meant it!!!”…  This is a fabulous position for a new crew.  All you need is to be able to scramble from the low side to the windward rail as fast as possible while assisting the Primary trimmer in any way you can. Learning to load winches without causing overrides is a must and figuring out what is the meaning of “blow the guy” is helpful.

    If someone offers you this position on their boat grab the opportunity before someone else does.  Immediately start reading books on sail trim (North Sails has some wonderful books on that topic), watch, listen, ask questions and use this time to learn as much as you can about trim and tactics.  This is where the transition happens from just enjoying the thrill of sailing to learning how to sail the boat fast.  Good trimmers are hard to find, so if you can become one, you won’t have any trouble finding a ride.

Foredeck – why did I separate this position from all the others?  Because it takes a different type of person to excel at foredeck…  Agile, fearless, strong, knowledgeable and confident are all great traits at the pointy end of the boat. That and a few secrets which will be whispered to you on occasion during some post-race beer gatherings of the Bowmans’ Union.

During my first few years as crew, every time new positions were being assigned, I crossed my fingers and thought: “… anything but foredeck…”  But during one particularly windy day, we were short-handed and I was dispatched to the pointy end with no Mast to assist me and with everyone else hiding in the back of the boat.  It was quite interesting!  Every now and then, as I sat there staring clueless at the macrame of lines at my feet, I heard yelling followed by a loud ‘stomp-stomp-stomp’ from behind and finally a set of arms reached over my head and magically sorted all that puzzling mess.  After some reading and more foredeck practice, I overcame my mental blocks and ended up actually enjoying my new Foredeck role.  It is a thrilling position and once you get good at it and understand the ‘when and why’ instead of just ‘how’, you can make the rest of your team look like rock stars.

No matter what your initial position on the boat, just remember to have fun, challenge yourself, work on your skills and realize that spending your free time bobbing around on expensive boat with a bunch of friends who are just as crazy about sailing as you are is a privilege and not a chore.  Learn from those more experienced than you and share your knowledge with those who are new to the sport. Do some reading, take a few courses and don’t stop learning just because you master one position.  If you get bored with being stuck in the same spot one season after another, ask for more challenge.  Most skippers will try to accommodate.

Good luck and I hope to see you out on the water soon!



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