"Salt and Vinegar with my ice cream" by Trygve Roberts

Trygve wrote this article on years of crew development for SA Sailing Magazine and was kind enough to share it with us. I am presenting it in two forms. By clicking on the file name, you will see it in all its glory, photos and all, but you will have to wait while the file downloads.

Otherwise, the article appears below, easy to read, but without photos.

Trygve is a real treasure, and I'm overjoyed that in spite of his sale of his boat, he contiues to contribute to our J27 collective knowledge ... in a big way.

Salt and Vinegar with my Ice cream
…by Trygve Roberts

The author takes us through a bitter-sweet journey of five years duration, going full circle from zero to hero, whilst probing some of the issues behind campaigning a racing yacht.

1. Setting parameters

After twenty five years racing a variety of dinghies, I finally reached that indefinable point (more or less based on my age and lack of agility) where I figured it was time to move on to a keelboat. I had a brief but painful owner- relationship with a Jeanneau Microsail, which left me with a slipped disc and a six month recovery period, after a stupid attempt at a low tide beach launch, which left me with the gifted knowledge that I was no longer strong enough to physically shift a 300 kg boat off a trailer – It left me with enough time to do some serious thinking. I wrote down some requirements as I lay on the bed in impossible positions trying to alleviate the nagging pain.

The next boat had to:
*be bullet proof for the Cape winds
*be 25 ft or longer
*not have a drop keel
*be stable and forgiving
*be a proper racing boat with good manners
*be one that could be cruised
*be able to be sailed short handed
*have attractive lines
*hold good resale value
*fit into a tight budget of R100,000
*not cripple me financially with high maintenance costs

My research included looking at a couple of multihulls and many monohulls. Finally, after applying the criteria above, only one boat measured up – the J27. The next step was to find one. There are only about 20 of these boats in South Africa all built between 1988 and 1995. There were none for sale, so I started networking and sending email requests to all the keelboat clubs in South Africa as well as to all the yacht brokers. Three months later with the assistance of Dave Abromowitz, I had purchased SA204, the newest J27 in South Africa. It met all but one of the pre-conditions I had set – the budget. It was way over what I had set, but the boat was good and had an excellent track record, so I took the plunge and bought her, subject to the owner still wanting to complete his racing season. The contract was signed and the deposit paid.

Lesson learned: Once you have written down your parameters, stick to them, but remain flexible enough to transact.

Above: The J27 – SA204 before being launched in Cape Town (2003)

2. Preparation

In May 2003 the boat arrived on its trailer from Mossel Bay. On closer examination, it needed a lot of TLC. The boat was stripped down as far as I could. Every deck fitting was removed, cleaned and replaced; new windows fitted; all the toe-rails and stanchions refitted; the mast and boom were stripped down and repainted, new rigging and some new sails were ordered; all existing sails were serviced; fresh paint inside and anti-fouling for the bottom; and a name change from the mundane ‘J-Too’ to ‘Smackwater Jack’ with designer decals to match the feisty nature of her new name. Four months later she was ready to be launched. She looked great. I’m not superstitious and the name change appeared to bring us nothing but good fortune. She was relaunched at RCYC in October 2003.

Lesson learned: Be prepared to postpone the launch, over the eagerness of putting an ill prepared boat in the water.

3. Crew selection

At RCYC during club racing events, one can choose to race in the Spinnaker fleet or the Cruising fleet. I decided from the beginning to always race in the Spinnaker fleet, even if we came last. It was one sure way of establishing just how bad we really were.

Finding crew is always a problem for any keelboat owner. Most of them end up with a mix of volunteers and whoever they can find on race day. The bigger the boat, the bigger the problem. It is an ongoing problem which yacht clubs fail to address and one of the prime reasons why our sport experiences low growth rates. Clubs need to make membership much more affordable for crews. I am digressing…that story is for another time and place.

The J27 needs 500 kgs of meat on the rail (well, in Cape Town it does!). That equates to six average sized people. My crew preparation had not been quite as slick as my boat preparation and as these things inevitably turn out, my friends and family were my initial crew. I need to be diplomatic here and just say things did not go very well on the race course in 2003/2004. We were consistently finishing in the bottom quarter of the fleet. I was not accustomed to this and I soon realized that on a keelboat, the skipper is far less important than on a dinghy. On a keelboat a good crew is everything. I had to make some tough decisions.

Did I want to win races or did I just want to plod around the back of the fleet with friends and family. I am hopelessly too competitive to settle for the latter, so I started a new project – selective crew recruitment. As callous as it may sound, it is just one of those things you have to do if you want to win. Again I wrote down my requirements:

*current or ex dinghy sailors only
*committment to our project
*willing to join the yacht club as members
*no emotional people (low reactors)
*high IQ

Lesson learned: Race winning skippers find it very easy to attract good crew. The converse applies as well. Where does one start finding good crew?

Marketing is one of my better developed skills and I set about finding the right crew. I networked amongst the dinghy clubs and one by one replaced existing crew with the ones I wanted on board. Not all my decisions were the right ones. I made several mistakes, but how else do you learn without going through that process? Not all of them could handle the standards or the discipline on board. Over the years some were asked to leave and others left of their own accord, but I stuck to my own rules and by 2006 I had assembled a really good team of guys. I liked to think of them as the “No Fear” team. The greater the challenges they were presented with, the more their enthusiasm showed. The crew stabilized and we started winning races on a regular basis.

Our first attempt at winning Table Bay Week involved a sort of “Kamp Staaldraad” training programme. One of those included a night sail around Robben Island in a 30 knot south easter. We were the only yacht out on the bay and planed at 13 knots+ all the way from the breakwater to the far end of the island with a spinnaker up on a very dark night. It was frightening and exhilarating all in one, but we came out of it stronger and better. The guys still talk about “THAT NIGHT!” It was all part of the team building idea I had. A week later we had one of our infamous Jaegermeister parties.

Lesson learned: Do things that build team – on and off the water.

Above: Nic and Simon getting into the ‘spirit’ of things

Later that year, we had two ‘man overboard’ incidents, but thanks to a good boat and excellent crew, both crewmembers were recovered none the worse for wear. That instigated our permanent lifejacket rule, which no-one ever complained about – they knew exactly why I insisted on it. It was all part of the Smackwater Jack team culture – “Success with responsibility.” We also had a “no booze” rule on the boat but more than made up for it once we were back on shore.

We came nowhere near winning Table Bay Week in 2004, but we resolved to compete again the following year. On the website, I analyzed our mistakes and publicly shared our disappointments and joys. With each race, our knowledge improved. Little by little, bit by bit. Not once in five years did we alter our rig tensions. We started focusing on percentage sailing. In other words, doing most of the things right, most of the time. We tried rotating our crew around the boat, but it didn’t really work. We were fastest when we had the same people consistently being expert at their tasks.

Lesson learned: Don’t make unnecessary changes, but also learn to handle the disappointment of a failed experiment.

Our strategy was to sail fast and to focus our energy on our upwind speed. By experimenting with sail settings we improved our speed from 5.7 to 6.2 knots in almost any breeze or sea condition. We had upwind speed targets which we resolutely hunted. We were always willing to sacrifice height in favour of speed. Despite our low angles of point, we would find ourselves first at the weather mark. Our formula was working. With each successful maneuver, we would note it down, and try to repeat it during the next race, steadily building our ability to rapidly duplicate good moves. We did the same with mistakes. We noted them and made sure we didn’t repeat them. If we had a persistent problem, we would go out sailing after racing and practice till we got it right. We also raced more than our opposition.

Lesson learned: There is no substitute for time on the water.

I started practicing delegation of responsibilities – at best a difficult task when you are used to making all the decisions yourself (dinghy style), but I tried it, and it worked. Each crew member, including the bowman was given specific responsibilities. They handled lay-lines, when to tack, calling gybing angles, kelp watch, approaching gusts, when to strike, checking our strategy versus the opposition and deciding on sail selection. It is quite amazing how well it worked. It allowed me to concentrate 100% on steering. The ability to have 20% more attention on speed made a big difference. I learned to trust my team mates to make the right calls.

Our sail changes were flawless and 99% of the decisions taken were the right ones, because we had several people involved in the decision making process. We had perfected percentage sailing. In addition we had a lot of self belief in our team and moreover we all knew that if someone made a mistake, they would never have done it intentionally. We knew we had the speed and boat handling skills to overtake from behind.

During 2008 in a winter gale we set up our personal best peak speed of 17.6 knots. In the same year we broke through the 16 knot barrier several times.

Lesson learned: Empower your crew. Be humble, show them respect but remain the skipper.

5. Rock Star or Team?

Managing people is a very tall order. Especially people who are volunteers, adult and are sailing with you for their pleasure. How do you instill things like discipline? How do you deal with a crew member that is consistently late? Or one that lets you down at the last minute? There is no manual to help with these things, but do be patient and analytical. Rather deal one on one with issues long after racing and preferably a day later when emotions have calmed down. I avoid conflict like the plague, but I have learned that one simply has to deal with these things, otherwise you are seen as a weak leader.

6. Communicate!

I started a website for Smackwater Jack in 2003 primarily as a blog page for my crew. It grew and became an excellent tool to develop team spirit and to foster a sense of pride and belonging. Three days before each race, each team member gets an SMS with some basic details as a confirmation as well as a detailed email showing the forecasted weather and any additional details I would want them to be aware of. If one adds all the small things up and the skipper can show genuine respect for his crew, you have the makings of a fine team.

Besides my core crew, I had two all rounder type back up crew who were happy to sail only occasionally. So when one of my team needed a day off, I always had access to a good person as a ‘locum’. I encouraged good communication and got it. The crew knew I needed enough time to organize things.

We also had the wonderful advantage of having a generous sponsor who ensured we always had good sails. The website played a major role in securing that sponsorship and ensuring its renewal each year.

Lesson learned: To earn respect you must first give it.

I had one or two brilliant sailors on the team during the past five years, but inevitably their egos got in the way and they would become petulant or angry if things went pear shaped during a race. You want people on board that can pick themselves up and recover emotionally from a bad broach or a poor tactical decision. You don’t want rock stars that throw their toys out the cot. I filtered them out one by one, being far happier to sail with less talented, but more dedicated people. People that can laugh.

It took four attempts before we finally won the IRC Nationals, but that is how it is done. It is a slow process of refinement, practice and preparation. By 2007 shouting had become non existent during races, with each crew member trusting the other without question and a strong sense of team existed. We won almost every event we entered in the final season, culminating in becoming IRC National Champions and the entire crew being awarded Western Province colours.

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned these past five years is that winning on a keelboat is not just about the skipper. It is about every person on board. No-one’s job is any less responsible than than the next. When you reach this pleasant state of affairs, you somehow know you have got the formula right. By 2007 I insisted that my crew keep the trophies. We had enough for them all to take some home.

Lesson learned: Managing a racing boat involves putting more effort into the people factor than the boat itself. Understand the difference and get those priorities right.

Smackwater Jack had gone full circle - from zero to hero. By late 2008, I instinctively knew it was time to move on to the next project and put the boat on the market. I also know that the team is more important than the boat. The next project (whatever that might be) will no doubt see us tail end Charlies again, but that, is what it’s all about. What is a challenge without the thrill of conquering it?

Smackwater Jack is on her way to Tanzania where she will no doubt be winning races in the tropical waters off Zanzibar. Au revoir fair lady……….

Above: Dec 2008 – the long journey to Tanzania begins.

My salutations to my team:

Above: The team. L – R: Simon Penso, Charles Crosby, Trygve Roberts, Nic Baigrie, Phillip Rentschler, Greg Harrowsmith