The importance of comparing your performance to another competitor during a race is an underrated part of sailing a boat competitively. We hear a lot about having good onboard communication about what’s happening on the boat. While that’s true, it’s also important to communicate what’s happening outside the boat and what’s happening relative to your nearest competitors. So, let’s cover some techniques to improve this aspect of your next race. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on calling upwind relatives.
It’s best to start calling relatives as soon as possible after the start. This first few minutes is a critical boatspeed part of the race, and the sooner your team can get locked in, the better. Oftentimes, the teams that get their performance going the soonest after the start are the teams that emerge from the fray in the best position.
Once you start calling relatives, do so with confidence, announce that you are calling relatives, and identify who or which boat you are calling relatives against. For example, “I have us with (name of boat).” Knowing who you are gauging performance against is important.
On a boat with true wind direction displayed somewhere, announce that number. For example, I might say, “Starting wind direction is one-eight-five.” If the wind direction changes during the lineup, this will be valuable information to provide accurate comparisons.
If there’s no TWD displayed on your boat, or you don’t have instruments, you can use your compass heading instead and say something like, “Starting heading is one-four-six.” It’s not quite as accurate as TWD, but it’s better than nothing.
Always refer to your boat first. For example, I might say, “Higher, same speed.” To avoid any confusion, don’t refer to them first. If they are higher than you, state, “We are lower.” Be consistent and always use the same process, no mumbling. Remember, the goal is to let your teammates know how you’re doing.
Some examples of describing clear-cut VMG differences are “higher, faster,” “lower, slower,” and “same angle, same speed.” However, if the speed and angle are split, you will need to judge which VMG is superior. For example, I might say, “Higher, slower, VMG them,” or “lower, faster, VMG us,” or “higher, slower, VMG even.”
Accurately and confidently judging performance and VMG differences takes time and experience, so if you’re new to it, there is no time like the present to start practicing. And speaking of practice: A great opportunity to get in the rhythm of calling relatives is during your pre-race tuning-partner lineups. (Of course, you do that already, right?)
At the beginning of an upwind lineup, try this technique: Imagine you were to tack. Where would you end up? Would you be behind them? Would you cross them? Would you hit them at their mainsheet winch? Their front hatch? Start every relative performance call with this information. For example, I might say, “If we tacked right now, we would miss them by 6 meters.” One minute into the lineup, I might say, “If we tacked right now, we would hit them on their transom; we have gained 6 meters since the beginning of the test.” Another minute later, I might say, “If we tacked right now, we would hit them at their mast; we have gained one boatlength since the start of the test.”
If you are clearly outperforming a competitor above you, or if they are in a compromised position, make the announcement that you are switching relatives to another boat. For example, I might say, “(Name of boat) won’t live there for long, switching to (name of new boat or sail number).”
If there are no boats above you to call relatives with, announce you are going to hike instead. This lets your team know why you’ve gone silent. For example, I say, “No gauges above us; I am hiking.” Or take it a step further and challenge your teammates to hike even harder. I say, “No good gauges above; showing the young guys how to hike.”
Having been a pro sailor and coach for a long time, I’ve experienced my share of situations where a lack of calling relatives or poor calling in general leads to unwanted outcomes. To prevent this from ever happening on your boats, let’s run through a few common scenarios.
Silence is deadly
What happens: We start the race and nobody says anything.
The result: We come off the line in a low mode that is not optimal VMG. The boats above us are able to live in an otherwise compromised position all the way to the layline, which costs us a lot of places.
The fix: Identify immediately who you’re calling relatives against and make it clear how your team is going against them.
Head in the clouds
What happens: We don’t take note of the TWD or heading when we start the relative calls. We state we are losing a lot to the boat above us, oblivious to the fact that the wind has lifted us 15 degrees.
The result: We start changing settings, away from what we know, to try to improve based on the feedback, but we only perform worse and lose a lot.
The fix: Announce the TWD or heading when you start the relative calls. Then you can allow for TWD/heading changes in your analysis of performance. For example, “We are doing well against the boats above considering we’re in a 15-degree lift.”
What happens: We say, “They are lower.” The helmsman puts the bow up to sail a higher mode because he only hears the words “are lower” (the other words err out in the wind), and the helmsman and trimmers assume we are the lower boat.
The result: We sail too high and slow, and get rolled by the boat above us.
The fix: Always talk about your boat first, not the other. In this case, we were already higher and should have said, “We are higher.” Instead, by switching between us and them, we create confusion.
Stay on task
What happens: We aren’t going well, so we stop calling relatives.
The result: At a time when we need to be honest and identify there is an issue with our performance, we go quiet. Nothing is done to address our performance issue, and we go backward because of it.
The fix: No one wants to be the bearer of bad news or a Negative Nancy, but this is an important part of the race. Be consistent. Be honest. Keep the process the same, rain or shine.
Lost in translation
What happens: We say, “Higher, slower.”
The result: Our skipper responds, “Is that good or bad? Are we gaining or not?”
The fix: If the speed and angle are split, finish your call with whether that mode is a gain or a loss.
What happens: After a very long lineup, you are unsure as to whether it has been a gain or a loss over all the changes that have come and gone.
The result: You don’t really know how you have gone over the long term and just make something up.
The fix: From the beginning of the lineup, announce where you would be if you tacked. Five minutes later, you will know how you have gone by checking in using the same method. Maybe you haven’t gone well in the last 30 seconds, but overall you have moved forward by two boatlengths.
Hang up and dial again
What happens: The boat above you has a poor start, and now they are in your quarter waves going even worse. You keep calling relatives on them because they are closest to you.
The result: Your team thinks they are going very well based off your calls. But the boat you are calling is compromised. The next boat up is outperforming you, and you have not identified that your team needs to change modes to match.
The fix: As soon as the boat you are calling relatives against is compromised or going really badly, look for the next boat above them to keep improving your mode.
Lost in space
What happens: All the boats above you tack away. There are no other nearby boats to call relatives against, so you go silent.
The result: Your skipper yells, “Please keep calling relatives!” and loses focus in the rage.
The fix: As soon as there are no boats above you to call relatives against, announce that fact. And hike your butt off.
The takeaway from all these scenarios should be that it’s critical to continuously call your relative performance against your competitors, and when you do so, be clear, confident, accurate and consistent. Doing all of the above will help relieve tension on the boat and improve performance. If there is no one left to call relatives against, hike hard and do the rest of your tasks well. Enjoy yourself. And don’t forget to call your mom or dad after racing to tell them how well you went. If anything, it’ll be the most important call of the day.