Concise & Clear Doublehanded Dinghy Communications

Milliseconds matter…

To better work together, here is a sample list of terms that double handed sailing teams should review and agree on. They are short, direct phrases, and thus work well when things are happening quickly on the race course. I call this a sample list since it’s important for every team to find their own style of communications. The point is to document what works so that there’s no confusion in the heat of battle. In the end it will lead to a calmer boat and better racing experience.

A note for new high school or college skippers:

A major challenge for sailors moving from singlehanded dinghies like Optis and Lasers to double handed dinghies like the FJ, 420, 29er, or Vanguard 15 is the fact that a big part of their success is working through a crew, and not doing everything on their own. It can be frustrating to know what needs to happen, but be unable to make it happen.

A note for experienced dinghy crews:

Most of these terms will come as no surprise. The point of this is to more quickly get to a point of fast communications since, as you know, short course racing is a game of seconds and inches. There might be a few new terms that are new, like say “cross-then-tack”, and knowing these can make the difference between a good race and a bad one.

A note for keelboat teams:

You probably can use a good chunk of this to guide the communications between your driver and mainsheet/tactician.

With all that said, let’s dive into what communications make sense on various parts of a race course. These are roughly in sequence that a crew and skipper are likely to use these terms.

Starting sequence

Crew says:

Counts down the time. While there are many ways to approach this, one simple way is for the crew to remember 30–30:

  • Call time every 30 seconds: 2:30, 2:00, and so on.
  • Call out last 30 seconds: 30, 29, 28, and so on to zero.

Skipper says:

Starting at/near boat/pin/middle — skipper indicates where on the line they plan to start. Of course, plans often change!

Luff — crew luffs jib

Trim — crew trims jib optimally for point of sail. This usually comes after you’ve been luffing for a while. If you’re sailing close-hauled, this means pull jib so it has 2–3 inches of camber in the foot to help accelerate. If you’re sailing on a reach, this means trim the jib to the middle telltale.

Heel — crew heels boat to leeward to prepare for rock, typically just before start.

Flat — crew flattens boat, typically to accelerate at start.

Hike — crew hikes hard to flatten boat.

Louder — repeat what you just said, only louder, since it wasn’t heard.

Upwind

Skipper says:

Hike — crew hikes out. This is often the most common thing a skipper (or at least this author) will say. Don’t be offended if this gets repeated multiple times; it’s a reflection that every millisecond matters in terms of getting the boat up to speed in a puff.

All you got — crew (and hopefully skipper) hikes as hard as they can to make a close cross.

Weight low, weight to leeward, weight in — crew moves to leeward. Typically this is because the boat is heeling to windward. If crew is watching heel, the skipper should never have to ask for this.

Flatten, weight high, weight out — crew moves to windward to flatten boat. Again, if crew is paying attention to heel, skipper doesn’t have to call this.

Weight forward — crew moves forward, so that when facing backwards, their backside is up against the mast. Typically done in light air and flat water. Helps the boat point higher.

Hike forward — crew hikes in straps so that they’re up by the shrouds. Typically done in Vanguard 15s in moderate air and flat water, to point higher.

Weight together — crew moves weight back so they are close to the skipper in the fore-and-aft dimension. Typically done in wavier conditions.

Watch my hip — crew watches the boat on their hip (windward aft corner) and every few seconds calls out, Not clear to tack, clear to tack, etc. (Full list below). The skipper should ideally never have to ask this, since the crew should report this on their own.

Get ready to tack — crew gets their jib sheets all prepared for a tack. But does NOT yet roll into a tacking maneuver until they hear one of the items below.

Tack in 3–2–1 — crew prepares to tack on 1, and keys into skipper’s tiller movement.

Tack now — crew rolls into an immediate tack, again watching tiller.

Almost out of runway — “runway” means good water to sail in. “Out of runway” means that you’re about to hit a wind hole, shallow water, obstruction, or tideline with bad current. Skipper says this when they’re looking for an opportune time to tack, so crew should be ready for a tack, possibly without a countdown.

X lengths of runway — same as above, but more specific about when the skipper wants to tack.

Bouncing off this puff — crew prepares to tack once boat reaches a puff that’s visible on the water, and then the jib luffs.

Leebowing — Indicates that there’s a boat coming on the opposite tack that the skipper wants to tack under. Crew looks at boat on opposite tack to determine when to roll into tack.

Ducking — crew eases jib, if needed, in the duck. And then pull it back in once you cross behind.

Ease a click, an inch, x inches — crew eases jib sheet out by the amount indicated. “Click” = one quarter inch, the distance one pulls to to get one click on a ratchet block.

Ease to course — crew eases jib so that middle telltales are flying properly. Typically means the jib is too far in, such as when you’ve gotten a big shift and your upwind leg is now a reach leg.

Trim to course — crew pulls jib in to optimal setting. If the skipper says this, it means that the jib is too far out, such as after a duck.

Trim a click, an inch, x inches — crew pulls jib sheet in the amount indicated.

Trim hard — crew pulls jib as tight as they can and hikes hard so skipper can lend a hand. Typically done when up to speed in moderate and heavy wind with flat water.

Double tack — crew rolls into two tacks, one right after the other. Skipper usually calls this to get around the weather mark when shy of layline by more than a few feet, but less than two boat lengths shy. Skipper may sometimes call this when a boat tacks on you in light air, and the skipper wants to do two quick tacks to get your wind while losing a minimum amount of distance to the next puff.

Cross then tack — crew prepares to tack right after crossing a boat. Skipper typically calls this when coming into weather mark on port, and the skipper wants to tack above layline to avoid fouling a starboard tacker that is on the layline. Skipper can also call this when putting a cover on a boat close behind.

Shoot in 3–2–1 — crew prepares to help rock boat on 1, then fully release jib as the boat shoots head to wind. Skipper usually calls this to get around the weather mark when just a few feet shy of layline. Skipper may also call for this when finishing.

Shooting now — same as above, but crew rolls into an immediate shoot head-to-wind.

Copy — skipper acknowledges something the crew has said, such as the items below.

Crew says:

Not clear to tack — indicates that skipper cannot tack without fouling a boat on their hip. Crew should automatically say this, every few seconds after the start, and after every lee bow.

Clear to tack — indicates that skipper CAN tack without immediately fouling a boat

Clear to tack and duck — indicates that skipper can tack without immediately fouling, but needs to duck after tack.

Clear to tack and cross — indicates that skipper can tack, but it better be a good one since it’ll be a close cross.

Crossing — indicates that the crew sees that you’re gaining trees on a starboard tacker.

Not crossing — indicates that the crew sees that have you have neutral trees, or are losing trees, on a starboard tacker.

(Never say, “Do you see that starboard tacker?” That distracts the skipper from making the boat go fast, and might just mess up a close crossing. Crew needs to add more information to their communications, i.e., “crossing” or “not crossing”.)

Layline in X — crew gives skipper a sense of where the layline is, where X is a number of boat lengths. Super helpful since the skipper can factor in other tactical considerations, and better determine where to tack, while still making the boat go fast.

On layline — helps keep skipper from sailing extra distance by going past the layline.

Mark angle x degrees — tells the skipper the angle to the mark. Don’t say this if the mark is more-or-less straight ahead. Only say when the mark is out of the skipper’s normal field of view. So, angles of 45 degrees or more are what we should hear. A typical layline is 80–90 degrees.

(No need to call out things that are straight ahead, like “big waves” or “header coming”. Those are in the skipper’s field of view, they should see them, and they clutter up communications channels for things that matter.)

Downwind

Skipper says:

Jib reach — crew trims jib on leeward side of the boat. If you’re wing-on-wing in light or moderate wind, crew heels boat to help it turn to windward and get in a legal rock.

Wing — crew works with skipper to wing out jib.

Blow outhaul — crew eases outhaul all the way out to the stopper knot.

Blow cunningham/downhaul — crew eases the cunningham, also called downhaul, all the way out to the stopper knot.

Ease vang — Indicates that the vang is too tight. Crew eases boom vang anywhere from one to several inches, while looking up at the top batten of the mainsail. When the top batten is parallel to the boom, crew cleats off vang.

Trim vang — Indicates that the vang is too tight. Crew pulls on vang while watching the top batten of the mainsail. When the top batten is parallel to the boom, cleat off vang.

Take it back — the skipper is heading up from wing-on-wing to a jib reach, and the crew should “take back” the jib sheet. Again, crew heels boat to leeward in light and moderate breeze.

Take it back through lead/fairlead/ratchet — same as above, but skipper is doing a big turn to a close reach.

Jibe in 3–2–1 — crew puts board down to prepare to jibe on 1, and keys into skipper’s tiller movement.

Jibe now — crew rolls into an immediate jibe, again watching skipper’s tiller.

Hike — crew hikes out quickly. Typically only required on a windy reach or offset leg. If crew doesn’t move fast, boat can capsize. Often followed by…

Weight back — crew moves back. If in a heavy air puff, crew moves weight back fast to keep bow from digging, which can lead to a capsize.

Weight weight to leeward, weight in — crew moves to leeward. Typically this is because the boat is heeling to windward. If crew is watching heel, the skipper should never have to ask for this.

Flatten, weight to windward — crew moves to windward to flatten boat. On a reach, crew keys into helm, and moves just enough that tiller is in centerline. When winging, crew heels enough to keep jib leaning to leeward.

Weight forward — crew moves forward. Typically done in light air and flat water.

Use lead, use fairlead, use ratchet — skipper is going to head up, and the crew needs to trim jib sheet through the jib fairlead (on Vanguard 15s and 420s) or ratchet block (on FJs).

Ease to course — crew eases jib so that middle telltales are flying properly. Typically means the jib is too far in, such as when you’re on an offset leg or trying to jib reach as low as possible.

Trim to course — crew pulls jib in to optimal setting. If the skipper says this, it means that the jib is too far out, such as when you’ve gotten a header when on an offset leg or reach. It’s common for V15s to accelerate quickly on offset legs, pulling the apparent wind forward and requiring the jib sheet to come in a foot or so.

Talk pressure — a request for the crew to call out, every few seconds, the pressure they feel on the jib sheet when a reach, especially when trying to reach low and avoid going wing-on-wing. Crew responses should be good pressure or low pressure. The skipper should ideally never have to ask this, since the crew should report this on their own.

Crossing behind — skipper is going to sail behind a boat on the opposite jibe. So if it’s a big turn, the crew should be prepared to go from wing to jib reach, or to trim jib in from ratchet.

Crossing ahead — skipper is going to cross just ahead ahead a boat on the opposite jibe. But if the other boat is on starboard, the crew should be ready for a last second jibe without warning.

Outhaul on — crew pulls the outhaul on. Typically this will be the same setting as on previous upwind leg. Ideally, crew takes care of this without skipper input.

Cunningham/downhaul on— crew pulls the cunningham a.k.a. downhaul on, typically to the same setting as on previous upwind leg. Ideally, crew takes care of this without skipper input.

Vang on — in preparation for the upwind leg, the crew pulls the vang tighter. Default is to go to the same setting as on the previous upwind leg. Ideally, crew takes care of this without skipper input.

Button up — crew pulls on all the above controls (outhaul, cunningham, vang) to the same setting as on the previous upwind leg. Sequence should be first, outhaul; second, cunningham, and third, vang. Ideally, crew takes care of this without skipper input.

Double jibe — crew rolls into two jibes, one right after the other. Keep the board down between jibes. Typically this happens when approaching the right hand gate initially on port tack, to shake off a boat that would otherwise round inside.

Right gate — skipper plans to go to the right gate, facing downwind.

Left gate — skipper plans to go the left gate, facing downwind.

Hand me jib — this is when the boat is on a jib reach and the crew hands jibsheet to skipper, so crew has both hands free to do sail adjustments before heading upwind. Ideally the crew automatically hands then jib sheet to the skipper, without the skipper having to ask.

Crew says:

Good pressure — the crew feels plenty of pressure on the jib sheet when reaching. Skipper can reach lower if tactical situation allows.

Low pressure — the crew feels the jib sheet go slack. Skipper will typically turn the boat to windward (and heel to leeward in light/moderate wind) to re-enage pressure on the jib.

Mark at 12 o’clock [or some other reference to a clock face] — tells the skipper the bearing of the mark relative to the boat.

Left gate/Right gate at 12 o’clock [or some other reference to a clock face] — this is left or right gate facing downwind.

Late gate/Right gate further to windward — this indicates that one gate or the other is further to windward and thus, all else equal, is the better one to round. (All else is rarely equal, however!)

Late gate/Right gate favored — again, calling out which gate is to windward.

(Never say: Do you see the mark? Skipper needs to be looking back for puffs and lanes, and having them look forward is a huge disruption to their concentration.)

Crossing — crew indicates that you’re gaining trees on a starboard boat sailing downwind.

Not crossing — crew indicates that they are seeing neutral trees, or losing trees, on a starboard boat sailing downwind.

(Again, don’t say, “Do you see that boat?” That takes skipper’s attention away from lanes and puffs, which might be just the thing to barely cross ahead.)

On layline — If you’re sailing predominantly wing-on-wing, this is the wing layline. If you’re sailing mostly jib reach, this is the jib reach layline.

(I know some crews call out puffs and lanes downwind. Maybe it’s the Laser sailor in me, but I like to sit backwards to see puffs and lanes. It’s hard to express these subtleties in words.)

Finish

All the upwind communications apply, plus the following.

Skipper says:

Watch [boat name/number] — A request for crew to watch a boat you’re closely covering and want to beat to the finish. Shouldn’t be necessary to call out if a crew regularly reports this.

Going for the pin/boat/left end/right end — skipper indicates their plan on where they plan to finish. As with the start, plans change!

Crew says:

[Boat name/number] tacked — indicates that a boat you’re closely covering has tacked, in case the skipper wants to keep the close cover. Often there is little room for passing on the last upwind leg, and the last leg is all about maintaining one’s position. Crew should only report on the 1–2 boats you’re immediately covering; skipper should be looking around for the broader fleet movement.

Pin/boat/left end/right end favored — this indicates which end the crew believes is favored.

Line is even — crew doesn’t see any advantage to either end of the finish line.

Final thoughts

A great example of the type of concise, clear crew communications is in this video. It shows how Terry Hutchinson (tactician) provides guidance to Bora Gulari (skipper) on what to do. Lots of terse comments from Terry like, “No lower” and “No higher”, indicating his guidance to Bora. Both sailors are multi-world champions, so it’s worth listening closely.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ioa96m2QbLs

A lot of the phrases above try to cut out as many words and syllables as possible, in order to communicate — and thus decide and act — in as short as time as possible. Sailing is a game of seconds, and by continually trying to shave time everywhere you can, you can accumulate large gains. This is especially true when reacting to changes on the racecourse: if you can tack for a wind shift or clear lane before someone else, it can yield a few boat lengths — and sometimes many.