Few crew positions on any boat are as difficult as the forward crew on a Lightning. This position requires agility, strength, balance, feel and smarts. Far too often skippers overlook the contribution of the forward crew, merely finding a warm body, who weighs enough for the specific conditions, who can pull in the jib and who can gybe the pole.
I hope I can help forward crew to perfect their techniques and, in turn, help their team to succeed by sharing information in this article and several articles through the winter. The forward crew can, and should, make a strong contribution by acting and reacting independently of the other crew and the skipper. This article focuses on prestart and upwind activities. Next, I'll talk about tacking and jib trim.
Many crew neglect taking advantage of the few minutes prior to the warning gun to warm up. Everyone should make it a habit of sailing upwind on both tacks, collecting data on the breeze, the shifts and the wave conditions. After you've arrived at the race course and checked in, do a wind shot to get a wind direction and write it down. Generally, the forward crew keeps track of the compass headings. Then, you should sail upwind for several minutes.
On our boat, we sail like we are racing, reading the compass and creating a high, a low and a median compass heading for each tack. Before we head back to the line we check the wind direction again to compare with our previous compass readings.
A tuning partner can help check speed and settings upwind. You can split tacks and sail on opposite tacks for about three minutes and then tack. When you converge, any benefit to one side or the other should be evident and you can discuss the trends in the shifts and velocity.
During this warm up, the forward crew must get in tune with the waves, wind and the jib.
As we're sailing upwind in the warm-up, I watch three things, the compass, the lower third of the jib, and the waves and wind a few boatlengths to weather. When I see a bad set of waves approaching, I make a quick decision. Do I slide in off the rail, heel the boat up on one chine and knife through the waves? Or do I ease the sheet a bit, gain power, hike hard and flatten the boat as it powers through the waves? More than likely, I will choose a combination of these techniques. Almost everyone, your skipper in particular will agree that the best time to figure this out is BEFORE the first beat!