Yacht Racing

How to run the pit like a Volvo Ocean Race sailor

Andy Rice asks Justin Slattery for five tips that’ll make you faster and safer when running the pit

While running the pit is all about establishing repeatable systems and processes that run like clockwork, Justin Slattery prides himself on being open to all possibilities. “The more organised I am in the pit, the better everything will run. But I don’t like to restrict what the back of the boat wants to do. The biggest thing for me is to remain open about everything, and always to encourage conversations about how you can make it better all the time,” he explains.

For Slattery, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it’ is the phrase that stands in the way of progress. With new technology coming on stream all the time, he believes it’s vital to keep your mind open to new ideas and new ways of trying things. “I remember the first time putting a tracer line on a 140-footer to hoist the Code Zero and people saying ‘that will never work.’ Now more than half of the Grand Prix fleet are using tracers.”

1. Clear communication

In the pit it’s your job to establish clear communication between the afterguard and the bow team. Having a background on the bow I have a strong idea about what the bowman needs and when. Create a playbook for each type of yacht, because this becomes your base plan for all manoeuvres. This should include timings for which crewmember does what and when during tacks, gybes, hoists, drops, peels – and of course a plan for a screw-up!

Make sure you’re armed with solid knowledge of the course for round the cans racing. The pitman often briefs the bow team and creates the plan for:

  • Port or starboard hoists
  • Weather or leeward drops
  • Code sail or A-sail prep and hoists
  • Outboard sheet and staysails

This plan should always be adaptable if tactics dictate, or something goes wrong, so it’s important to anticipate the tactician’s options at marks or developing situations. Talk openly about the plan – secrets can be bad. As a general rule of thumb, I’d rather be slightly early and have a clean drop than late and be sailing past the mark.

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2. Tidy means safe

We tend to rely a lot on clutches, especially on 30 to 50-footers, and then halyard locks on 40 to 100-footers. I’m as guilty as anyone of over-reliance on the hardware but I’m also really strict about clearing halyards and tacklines away from the working cockpit.

Even on a 30ft yacht a halyard slipping in a clutch can cause a serious injury. The larger and more loaded the yacht, the more dangerous this can be. Use any available winch to secure loaded sails even if they are on clutches or locks. Throw the halyard below, well away from the crew’s working area, until you’ve had time to flake it away and tidy it. I always have a single-blade knife on me in case I need to cut anything in an emergency.

3. Check and mark

I like to have reference marks on everything:

  • Max hoist marks on halyards
  • Max ‘down’ marks on tacklines
  • Pre-set marks on tacklines (or hydraulic ram extension positions on larger yachts) for Code sail hoists

Very often on larger yachts, especially ones with hydraulic winches, the pit has lock sensors with light and/or sound indicators for max hoist of halyards. If using locks, it’s important to know how they work and the tolerances you’re working with. Same with hydraulic rams – it’s easy to overload the gear.

4. Wear gloves

Line diameters are often just 4-6mm on 30 to 52-footers these days. So no matter how tough your hands are, you will need gloves. I just use the cheap but very grippy disposable gloves that you can buy from a builders’ merchant.

On a 40ft yacht with a string drop system you can drop a gennaker in 4-5 seconds. A 52-footer has a similar time, and if you’re not wearing gloves there won’t be much of your hand left after four or five drops! Drop systems on a typical 100-footer can achieve times of 10-15 seconds which involve up to 46m of line smoking through your glove in that time. There will literally be smoke coming from your glove, winch and halyard organiser!

5. Crew choreography

These days race boats are treated like dinghies in terms of crew movement, and it all looks pretty slick when done properly. Being positioned in the middle of the yacht the pit role lends itself to running the crew weight, making sure everyone moves in unison for manoeuvres. Be organised and prepared so that you’re minimising time off the rail.

The afterguard will want to see sails going up and down without the distraction of anyone ever moving off the rail – impossible to achieve, but try to keep them happy at the back!

running-the-pit-sailing-tips-justin-slattery-bw-headshot-600px-square-credit-ian-roman-volvo-ocean-raceAbout the expert

Justin Slattery is one of the best pitmen in the business. The Irish pro has competed in five Volvo Ocean Races (winning two). He broke the round the world record in 2004 on Cheyenne and holds course records for the Rolex Fastnet, Round Britain and Ireland, Transpac and Chicago to Mackinac races.

First published in the April 2020 edition of Yachting World.

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