Strategy and Tactics


I have copied below excerpts from an interview I did on Strategy and Tactics with Australian sailing legend Rob Brown. Rob was a crew member on Australia 2 when they won the Americas Cup in 1983, breaking the longest winning streak in sporting history.

Rob was also multiple 18 foot skiff world champion amongst the impressive sailing back catalogue achievements. He has excelled in one-design and offshore events so understands strategy and tactics better than most.

Brett – With regard to strategy and tactics, what do you and your crew do in terms of on water tactics? Do you call all the tactics or do you get feedback from your crew? What are the roles of the people?

Rob: Okay. I think, assuming I am the tactician, obviously I’d be calling the tactics and receiving input from various sources throughout the boat.

If I was steering a boat, I would be principally concentrating on steering the boat as fast as I possibly can and relying on the eyes and ears of my crew to call the tactics.

If there’s indecision, to be able to feed information back to me and involve me in the process of making the decision.

Brett – Often tactics involve a bit of discussion and you don’t want to start having an argument or a philosophical discussion with your crew, you want to get some pretty good feedback.

Rob: If you’re steering the boat, your principal job is to steer the boat as fast as possible. If you’re going in the wrong direction, that’s not really your problem.

You rely on your wind callers and your strategists who are giving you feedback, like where you are on the course relative to your opposition.
I remember when I was sailing Etchells, and a lot of this goes on when I was steering. He would say we’ve got 15% of the fleet below us and we’ve got 85% of the fleet above us or on our right or on our left. That gave me a mental picture where we were.

So while I’m steering the boat, I’m saying are we hedging our bets a little bit too far to the left or should we consider any opportunity to get back in touch with the rest of the fleet on our right.

Brett – Would you say to the tactician, is there any obvious advantage to stay out here or should we be getting back to the fleet?

Rob: If everything is going fine and you’re happy, I wouldn’t say anything. But if there was any hesitation or the boat was starting to go quiet, that alarm bell would ring in my head, hang on, things aren’t looking as good as what they thought earlier. 

Brett –  In that situation, who does what and what are their key activities?

Rob: It really comes down to the skill set of the personnel you’ve got on board. The main sail crewman who’s looking in the boat is part of the speed team and he’s interacting with you to make the boat go fast.

It’s a lot easier for the main sheet trimmer to look at and view the compass and he basically calls five up five down, ten up ten down, whatever. So that gave us an input on where we were heading. 
Then the forward hand would give you the wind calls. The gusts coming onto the boat. Gust in four three two one on you now. Then he would also be the swivel neck looking around, analyzing where the boats were, opportunities to cross people.

So he is more involved in the tactics on the boat. But it really comes down to the skill sets of the people you’ve got onboard. 

Brett – I heard a very successful skipper say that they felt their crew was 75% of the reason that they ended up where they did, what do you think of that statement?

Most definitely. I think having roles and responsibilities on your boat and having confidence and backing the decisions that are made in front of you.

I think where a lot of people come unstuck is where there’s indecision. It’s better to make a decision than no decision at all. If it doesn’t work out, let’s face it, we’re dealing in a pretty interesting environment where we’re dealing with something we can’t see. We’re just looking at indicators, compass, gusts on the water, or waves.

And we’re dealing with nature. So everyone who’s had any good results would know you make mistakes and it’s really how you recover after making mistakes.

I think that the important thing is to back the judgment of the people on board and live by it. Don’t question it.

Brett – What’s the one strategy a sailor who wants to improve should concentrate on above all else?

Rob: I tend to think if you’re not 100% sure on your strategy of whether the right or the left is going to pay, I generally look at where the main opposition are setting up on the start line.

If your top three or four competitors are pushing towards the boat end, in the last couple of minutes, you know that they want to start at the right end of the line and probably go right. So you use that as a bit of input.

You don’t want to go out there to just follow people, but if you’re not sure, hedge your bets and go with the good guys.