Professional sailor and ocean bowman Jack Bouttell discusses bow team communication with Andy Rice

Sailing on big boats is the ultimate team sport, and part of the key to success is putting aside your ego and doing what’s best for the team. It’s easy for resentment to build throughout a boat, especially once you’re up to a crew of seven or more when the front of the boat can’t always hear what the back of the boat is thinking.

This is particularly true when the bow team are doing the wettest, most physical, and potentially dangerous roles on the boat. Without careful management and considerate communication, before you know it you can have a mutiny on your hands.

Jack Bouttell has been there, and he’s also learnt some techniques to keep things running smoothly and in harmony. It’s all about making sure the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. Here are Jack’s five best tips for avoiding a mutiny and keeping a collective calm head while all around you other crews might be losing theirs…

1. Appoint a crew boss

Once you get up to 40ft or more, it’s a very good idea to have someone in the pit area who operates as the link between the front and the back. The crew boss acts as a middleman to make sure the front of the boat has got all the information from the back of the boat and vice versa.

A good crew boss will also be a decision-maker in their own right, and may well have some experience as a navigator or a tactician. A crew boss really comes into their own when there’s been a mistake or something on the boat breaks. When the routine is broken and there’s a tendency for people to turn into headless chickens, the crew boss can calm things down and help everyone refocus on the biggest priority of the moment.

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2. Learn to say no

Don’t always accept an order from the back of the boat. Of course, you want to accommodate every command that you possibly can, but if it’s just not doable, it’s your duty to say so. If you haven’t been given sufficient time for a manoeuvre, or if a piece of equipment in your part of the boat isn’t functioning properly, you need to turn around and say, ‘Sorry, but we can’t do that right now because…’

Where I often see things going bad is when the back of the boat makes a last-minute call, and the bowman says: ‘That’s way too late…’ But goes ahead and tries to execute the manoeuvre anyway, and then doesn’t manage to do it. When a manoeuvre starts out badly and too rushed, that’s when things tend to start snowballing out of control. So when appropriate, just say ‘no’.

3. Don’t try something new

This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often people will try new things for the first time in the heat of battle. Unless you’re really lucky or extremely talented, the things you’ve never practised before are highly unlikely to come off well the first time you attempt them in the middle of a race.

It might be tempting, as you look across at a rival boat setting up for a gybe peel, to want to do the same. But don’t, not unless you’ve practised it before. Know the limits of your crew and its capabilities, and stick to the simple manoeuvres that everyone is already familiar with.

The gain from pulling off a complex manoeuvre might be worth 10% compared with a simple move, whereas the potential loss if you fail is 100%, so the gamble is rarely worth it.

4. Save it for later

When things go wrong, don’t analyse the mistake there and then, unless it’s something that absolutely has to be addressed because the same problem might crop up later in the same race. If there’s something that absolutely can’t wait until the debrief, it’s best to involve the fewest people possible. So if it’s a problem between the pitman and the bowman, they’re the only two that talk; the rest of the boat doesn’t need to know.

5. Embrace your mistakes

When you’re working on the bow you’re in a very visible place. Because everyone is looking forward, it can feel like the spotlight is on you. I’ve learned not to feel the pressure so much these days, but in the past if I made a mistake I used to feel it badly. It’s important to acknowledge your mistakes, and then embrace them as learning opportunities.

One thing that has helped me with this process is keeping a log of my sailing. As an experiment, for two months I wrote down what happened that day, both good and bad, and with mistakes how important or minimal I thought the mistake was.

By being able to look back through what I’d done, I could see the progress that I was making. It helped put a bad moment into perspective and reminds you that you are improving. Since then, logging my day has become part of my routine and it’s a habit I’d highly recommend.

bow-team-communications-Jack-Boutell-bw-headshot-credit-Ainhoa-Sanchez-Volvo-Ocean-RaceAbout the author

Jack Bouttell is one of the most in-demand bowmen in the racing world. In 2018 he was part of the Volvo Ocean Race winning crew on board Dongfeng Racing Team, and is part of the crew on Spindrift Racing, the giant trimaran attempting another round-the-world assault on the Jules Verne Trophy.

First published in the December 2019 edition of Yachting World.