Volvo Ocean Race – Onboard: Sailing crew positions

m26352_positionsOnboard: Sailing crew positions
Description of the different crew positions on each team.

1. Skipper
2. Navigator
3. Watch Leader
4. Driver-Trimmer
5. Pit/Trimmer
6. Boat Captain
7. Trimmer
8. Bowman
9. Onboard Reporter
10. Under 30
11. Onboard medic


The skipper is the widest role with the biggest weight of responsibility: team manager, captain and, sometimes, chief executive all rolled into one big job. On the race course the skipper usually has the final say on strategy and tactics, working in tandem with the navigator.

Skipper backgrounds are varied, but certainly with very high level success, Olympic medals are not unusual but most are very accomplished helms in their own right, thrive under pressure and solid in motivation and man-management and will have been able to shape their boat and team as they see best.

On land they will often have business responsibilities to help delivery for sponsors, fulfil budgets and sometimes personnel line management as well as driving forwards the continuous optimisation of the boat.


Pared back to fundamentals, the navigator’s responsibility is to ensure the consistent best positioning of the boat to take maximum advantage of wind and current, getting it from point to point as fast as possible. The navigator has an increasingly advanced armoury of hardware and software at their fingertips, but the role becomes bigger and more pressurised with each edition of the race. Because there has been no two boat testing allowed one key element this time will be performance data collection, analysis and processing. Every navigator needs to know when their boat is good, relative to the competition, and weak. The race-winning navigator is the one who can spot opportunities well ahead of the routing software. Most are specialist meteorologists who love crunching numbers and defining risk ratios.

The gains are often made on deck, not through the computers; being able to smell out accurately the first signs of a new weather feature which ensures the appropriate sail or course change is made right on cue.

Watch Leader

They come in matched pairs, each one running an equal, symmetrical team.

The watch leaders form the beating heart of the machine, directly responsible for the speed of the boat at all times on the race track. Each watch takes the strategy, forecast and tactical planning information from the ‘brains trust‘ – the navigator and skipper – and makes sure each watch unfolds, minute by minute, hour by hour with the boat sailing at its optimum. So the watch leader will make sure the rotation of the crew roles is the best possible: the right people are doing the right job at the right time. They will ensure sail changes run smoothly at the right time.

Key attributes are knowing how to keep the boat moving fast based on race experience, anticipation, excellent motivation and often at least one other specialist skill.


The best drivers are any team’s prized assets. They are the guys who have that almost innate sixth sense to steer the boat fast in all different conditions for long periods. In fact, at least four or five of the crew and often the skipper, too, will be named drivers of high ability, but the driver trimmer will steer for 70-90% of their watch, locked in for hours at a time.

Often they are from a skiff/high performance dinghy background and their touch is light and subtle. Remember that using the rudder is similar to applying a brake on dry land, so the deft touch to keep the boat tracking fast, in perfect tune with the trimmers is the key to speed. In surfing conditions they will get more from each wave, a few metres here and there, but most importantly when the going gets really tough these are the elite few who have the skills and experience to keep the boat racing fast, the ability to sail on the edge, faster for longer.

And most top drivers are good trimmers.


As with other roles on the boat such as the bow, the pitman will have an opposite number who is an accomplished operator in the pit but that will not be his or her specialist skill.

And, like the bow, with whom he works absolutely in tandem, the pit might see hours of inactivity between sail changes and manoeuvres.

But the top pitman, who controls all the halyards and control lines is the lynchpin at the centre of every operation. He coordinates the drivers and the bow team. The watch captain will call a sail change and the pitman, in the middle of the boat, organises the fine detail of how the manoeuvre will go and then releases and takes up the different halyards or control lines with split second timing through the sequence of the manoeuvre. In essence he choreographs the manoeuvre and leads the timing throughout. Just as the helm and main trimmer need to have a tight relationship, so the pit must know by second nature the personal style and sequences of his primary bowman.

And once again with the life of every sail at an absolute premium on this race, any tiny slip on a dark, difficult night can mean a torn sail, out of action for hours while it is repaired.

Boat Captain

The boat captain’s ultimate responsibility is to make sure the boat is in optimum condition throughout the race. On the race course that means making sure the routine maintenance and repairs of all types are completed effectively and efficiently to keep the boat at 100%. It is a demanding job which, by necessity, has to be worked along with the sailing role in your watch. This requires a lot of time in the boat, making sure everything is working and not going to break. The skill set is wide and varied, but usually built from engineering and/or boatbuilding background.

The Boat Captain will usually have been involved with the build of the boat, certainly from fit-out stage and needs to know every last detail of the boat, making sure that every kind of possible repair is prepared for in terms of materials, spares and who has the skills to make it it. He works very closely with the Shore Manager who manages the shore crew.


The trimmers – main, jibs and gennaker/spinnaker sails – are the engine of the boat, they are directly responsible for boat speed. It’s relatively easy to make a Volvo Ocean 65 go fast, it is harder to find that very small final percentage of advantage which means the difference between winning and second. Like other key roles on the boat, the differences between the top class trimmer and the very good trimmer are really marginal.

It is a combination of an eye and feel for keeping a fast sail shape, working and communicating in harmony with the ‘speed loop‘ members – helm, and the other trimmer – so the that boat is reaching or exceeding the goals set by the navigator and skipper all the time.

Often one or more of the primary trimmers are a sailmaker who have been involved in the sail design and development process.

Inshore the trimmers‘ roles are more defined to jib, spinnaker and main, but offshore all the trimming team will rotate constantly, although as usual the key trimmers will be in place when maximum performance is needed in critical, competitive or transitional situations.


At the sharp end of the all the action, the key attributes of the top bowman are total rock solid reliability, speed and dexterity, a cool head and a measure of strength and agility. An added streak of masochism does not go amiss. In many respects they are a breed apart not least because during sail changes and manoeuvres so much depends on their individual skills when the pressure is absolutely on, and they work mainly solo at the wettest, coldest and most exposed and dangerous end of the boat.

The bowman controls getting a new headsail or spinnaker loaded on the deck with new sheets/guys on and ensure that the leading edge of the sail hoists smoothly, and times and manages the retrieval of the old sail.

Their job is delivering the mechanics of the sail change or manoeuvre smoothly, requiring excellent communication with the pit especially, but being able to second guess and adapt quickly to sudden changes.

Onboard Reporter

The role of the onboard reporter (formerly known as the Media Crew Member or MCM) was introduced in 2008-09 as a dedicated position onboard for the first time. After an even more successful campaign in 2011-12, this is the third race in succession with an embedded reporter on each racing yacht.

The OBR’s main duty is to capture and deliver the stories and action onboard while at sea. He is not allowed under any circumstance to take any part in sailing of the boat although they are allowed to help with cooking and cleaning. For the sponsors at least, this is an absolutely key role on board since they are 100% responsible for all the media content which ensures a team maximises its investment. For the Race HQ comms team, these reporters are the eyes and ears of the event while at sea and will be responsible for much of the video, picture and text content you will see. They are also needed for hooking up outside media to the sailors while offshore, enabling live interviews beamed to millions of fans

Among the sailing crew and excluding the OBR, some of the sailors on each team will also be:

Under 30

Every team has at least two Crew Members, not including the OBR, who shall be born on or after October 1, 1984.

The rule was introduced in the 2008-09 race with the aim to make it possible for more young sailors to be involved in the race. Unlike other sports, Volvo Ocean Race sailors do not only rely on physical strength and ability to compete; experience and sailing knowledge are the critical qualities. The Under 30 rule helps the race and the sport of sailing renew itself every edition with new sailors.

Onboard medic

A minimum of two Crew Members will act as the medics for their team while at sea. The nominated medics have to demonstrate the following skills: competently manage an air-way, apply simple strapping and plaster casts, undertake skin suturing, insert intravenous cannula and give intravenous fluids, give both intra-muscular and intravenous injections, and apply a temporary dental filling.

Volvo Ocean Race

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