Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Tale of Stearn's All-Women Crew on J/88 Hokey Smokes!

J/88 Hokey Smokes women Crew and Richie!(Chicago, IL)- Here is the tale of Rich Stearns, his all-women crew, and how they learned to “Put the Dawg on It”!

Richie sailed the J/88 HOKEY SMOKE in this year’s J/88 class at the Chicago NOOD on Lake Michigan.  His crew was comprised of the following women:
  • Denise Anhurst - first NOODs
  • Annie Baumann- crew chief
  • Kristin Camarda- first NOODs
  • Marcella Grunert
  • Freya Olsen
  • Ann Zeiler
  • Joy Wilson
Following is Richie’s story of sailing with these seven (7!!) women on a J/88:

Chicago, the home of many competitive fleets and active sailing, recently hosted the 30th annual Helly Hansen NOODs, June 8th-10th. A popular and successful event, which many Chicago racers hibernate throughout the arctic winter to rally to enjoy their first sip of summer, the Chicago NOODs is always looked forward to as a hallmark of the beginning of racing season. True to Chicago’s knack for unpredictable weather, this year’s NOODs had its fair spread of conditions including: storms, light and moderate air, rain, and the unusual, but always surprising, fog.

The fog was not the only surprise. This year, J/88 HOKEY SMOKE owner Rich Stearns made the decision to build his program off the strength and fitness of “girl-power”. Bringing various levels of experience together was going to be a challenge, his all-women crew ranged from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. Racing with an all-women crew is not common in the male-dominated sport of sailing.

J/88 Hokey Smokes and women's crewThe J/88 fleet in Chicago continues to grow, and eight teams came out for the Chicago NOODs.  The class in Chicago is competitive and will be hosting the J/88 North Americans come August, with over 20 boats expected on the line. During the NOODs, a few other boats carried one or two women crew, but none were fully crewed with women as HOKEY SMOKE was. With postponements held all three mornings, it made the thirst for competition even stronger, as there would be limited races to test/ train the team. Making efforts more difficult, with only two races a day, HOKEY SMOKE’s newly-assembled crew was under pressure to rapidly improve versus the seasoned J/88 crews on the starting line.

Stearns’ green crew, started at the bottom of the pack, and worked their way together as a team to finish the final race of the regatta with a third in fleet!

But, as with any good result, improvement takes time and focus.

On Day 1, the weather, crew work and maneuvers proved to be challenging and offered lots of opportunity for improvement. The AP was signaled at 08:45 and not dropped until 12:00. As HOKEY SMOKE went out to course, they went through the responsibilities of positions, but with limited time before the first sequence to practice tacks, trim and sets. With the first practice set, and a shakeout of some cobwebs, the chute finally came down. It looked like a cat on a leash. It just did not look right.

Annie, trimmer, commented to her pitman, Freya, and fellow trimmer, Joy, that it just did not fall well. “That’s gonna be a not good for me,” Annie stated in low, stern voice.

Freya quickly replied, “That’s gonna be a no for me, too, dawg!”

And, so the expectation of real crew improvement was born. The team quickly debriefed and checked the kite. With little time before the start sequence, a little more banter was exchanged and the crew agreed there would be no more cats on the leash.

“We gotta put a dawg on it ladies!” the crew chief kept coaching. As the first race would sound off, the HOKEY SMOKE team would see where stood against the rest of the pack.

Placing last in the first race, the boat was moving slow.  But, the crew attitude and spirit was eager to improve their performance. Small communications and adjustments were made. And, trust was being built.

“The secret sauce to competitive sailing is crew mates trusting each other,” commented Denise, first time NOODs competitor. “What is unique to HOKEY SMOKE is Rich and his crew’s commitment to establishing a learning environment whereby each crew member can improve their skills.”

Rich debriefed after each race and encouraged crew participation, both to learn and figure out the key boat mechanics and sail trim that were contributing to our lagging performance.

He communicated in layman's term clearly. Cool as a cucumber, never once did he stress his decibels during a foul or slow maneuver. Ever so patient, he carefully identified and provided insight to teach and support his crew. To which his team responded well and followed suit, each of the teammates respectfully teaching another, never squishing toes.

The biggest challenge for the boat would be the roundings. The leading boats BANTER and EXILE were a guide as we saw their spinnakers wonderfully fill and launch right at the mark. It was clear the HOKEY SMOKE chute was not getting that pop-out like the other boats, and was a failure to launch. The halyard was either too quick on the hoist, filling the chute halfway, or too delayed, the clew catching on the lifeline. The starboard jib sheet was another factor. So was a graceful and clean douse.

The timing of hoisting a spinnaker happens very quickly, and when it is done just right, it’s “Goldie Locks”.

During the first two days, we had switched the positions at the mast; which changed up the tempo and groove. The command to hoist was getting confused with nearby boats hoisting, as well as “get ready to hoist”. The women crew, as great communicators, quickly established key words and lexicon to clarify the timing and the execution of the maneuver. Ironing out any confusion, the term “bang it” was defined as the proper announcement of when to hoist. By the last race of the day, we were in a groove and were able to dance around the weather mark with a good chute set.

Another flaw that we witnessed was that the starboard jib sheet was loaded on the winch at the roundings, not being released when we were furling the jib. The sheet stalled the process, causing some confusion and, more importantly, shadowing the spinnaker from filling and letting the boat take-off. We figured out that the sheet was being loaded from former port lay line tack approaching the rounding. But on a starboard lay line, it had been left on, when there was no need for it.  As a crew, a good team is constantly figuring out the “go fast” tricks, or slips that might be dragging you down, keeping the sheet free while approaching the mark was the solution.

The take down of the chute always requires careful coordination. Although it’s a step-by-step process, part of racing is that not everything goes as planned. Another source of excitement was “just in time” communications from back of the boat regarding the style of douse. From leeward to Mexican, it was important that the front of the boat be ready on the correct side, and that if a last second decision was made, the crew in front was synchronized with the back of the boat. The bowman on the first day, out of sync, began to bring the chute down by the clew and the leech. During a debrief, a crew-mate went up to explain that, collapsing the foot first on the chute during the leeward roundings is the quickest way to decrease the sail area of a spinnaker, making it ineffective as a sail. Making a triangle with her hands, she collapsed her the thumbs (foot), and showed how the head of the sail theoretically collapses easily down.

Although elementary to a veteran racer, there were many small, yet significant maneuvers that were crucial to boat speed and performance against the competition.  The numerous examples of women teaching and trusting each other to create solutions were a wonderful affirmation that sex doesn’t determine skill. To achieve skill is the opportunity to experience, to be given the chance, to improve and become a good racer. A good racer, is eager, willing to learn, and passionate. Over the weekend, there was no lack of passion, good humor, and competitive desire on HOKEY SMOKE. It can be said that some ladies are like cats, but this crew was determined to play with the boys, and “put a dawg on it.”

Over the series, the HOKEY SMOKE crew concluded that whenever beginning something new it is much like, a cat on the leash. But, the effort and motivation to succeed, to do better, to work together, and to have fun while doing it, is what racing is about in any team and sport for that matter. To, “put a dawg on it”, is not only about having a positive humor to improve, but also to do it with a little sass and style, and willingness to identify things that are not working on the boat, and to overcome the obstacles. The phrase became a mantra for the ladies and Stearns, and was a tool that reinforced the new crew skills and communication.

After a few lumps, bumps and a cat’s meow or two, let the record show that HOKEY SMOKE showed up to play, took that cat off the leash, and “put the dawg on it.” They look forward to all the catcalls and barks throughout the season. Congratulations to teams BANTER, EXILE and WINDSONG for their standing on the podium. Thank you to Chicago Yacht Club and Helly Hansen NOODs for running a wonderful, competitive, fun regatta. And greatest thanks to Rich Stearns, for improving and growing the presence of women in sailboat racing.   Watch a fun, amusing video of the HOKEY SMOKE team on Facebook here