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Start Keelboat Racing

3: Who are the crew?

Who sails these boats? Anyone — a wide variety of people of all ages, from under 10 to those well into their 80s. Many classes are much less physically demanding than dinghies, making them ideal for those who are less active or who have disabilities.

At first sight it might be easy to assume that sailing a bigger boat is more expensive than dinghy sailing. This certainly can be true, if you want to do well in an ultra-competitive class such as the Etchells 22, then a new boat will all the trimmings will set you back over £50,000. On the other hand, you can enjoy very competitive racing in the Squib fleet for an outlay of as little as £3,000.

However, most people who race keelboats and Sportsboats don’t own the boat — they sail other people’s! With many designs needing crews of three (or four or more for many Sportsboats) there are always owners on the lookout for reliable crew. This is therefore one of the most cost-effective routes into sailing, needing little more than club membership, a good set of foulweather gear and some training to get you started, and with a typically very modest annual expenditure commitment after that.

So what makes a reliable crewmember? Knowledge and skills are important, but they’re not always the most valuable attributes. The most crucial aspects are the basics of being switched on and observant, not backing out of events you’ve agreed to sail at the last minute, helping fix damage after racing so the boat’s ready to go next time, and attending training/tuning sessions.

Communication, including listening skills, is also important — you need to understand your role in the team, identify areas in which you need to improve to be effective in your role and make sure you learn from your mistakes. Most skippers are tolerant of a new crewmember who makes the occasional slip, but they won’t be impressed if you continuously get the same thing wrong. It’s therefore important to have the confidence to ask when you’re unsure about anything. It’s much better to say, ‘I’m unclear exactly what I need to do in this manoeuvre,’ when there’s time to explain it.

All this may sound obvious on paper, but it’s surprising how many competent and experienced people fail to make that degree of effort. This means that even as a newcomer to sailing you can quickly become a valued crewmember just by approaching it with the right attitude. Two-person keelboats have a very similar division of roles to dinghies, although if sailing on the sea courses may be longer — you won’t always be able to see the next mark, so navigation requires more attention. This is particularly true when sailing in an area such as the Solent that experiences very strong tides.

If you’re relatively new to sailing and are crewing a two-person keelboat, navigation will probably be shared between you both. However, as you gain more experience you will almost certainly take on more of this role, leaving the helm to concentrate on maximising boatspeed. With three-person keelboats the middle person usually relieves the helmsman of trimming the mainsail, which allows a greater focus on both of these vital tasks.

What about the training that’s needed to make you a useful novice crew? Even though you’ll only be handling one aspect of the vessel, it’s important to have an understanding of the way in which that role relates to those of your fellow crewmembers.

As with dinghy and multihull sailing, the keelboat branch of the RYA’s National Sailing Scheme Level 1 and 2 weekend courses will give a basic grounding and provide opportunities to both helm and tackle the key tasks of crew. In addition, almost all keelboats, and certainly all sportsboats, have spinnakers, so even as a novice race crew you’ll need to know the basics of how to use one, so the Sailing with Spinnakers course is important. The Start Racing weekend will give you a grounding on what to expect when you’re on the racecourse, as well as helping to build on your core skills.

Previous page:2 Different to dinghies

The heavy keel means that neither keelboats nor Sportsboats will capsize in the conventional sense

Next page:4 Getting a sail

Owners are often looking for crew members

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