Sound Advice for Building a Long Island Race Crew

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Chris Ercole and his wife purchased Sweet Caroline in February 2013. The 35-foot J/109, with beam 11.5 feet, carbon fiber retractable bowsprit, asymmetric spinnaker system and 7-foot keel, can easily move the boat during relaxed journeys with just four crew; six or seven are required for racing round the buoys.

When it came time to staff up for the first season of racing, Chris made a determination that he’d rather train and develop a more novice set of individuals--as opposed to lure away experienced talent. Sweet Caroline talent depth and breadth would be recruited outside the usual sailing channels: via referrals and invitations.

A Good Crew is Developed
He feels that a good crew is not found; it is developed. “I can teach skills, but I cannot teach a person to be cool. Personality fit is a must,” notes Chris, who examined the disposition of each candidate before inviting aboard. The crew’s average age is 35, and each person holds down a full time job. Professional diversity reigns: supply chain engineers, a podiatrist and a recent university graduate to name a few.

Recruiting outside of routine sailing circles has given him a more reliable program, and a higher psychic pay-off.

“I know that taking someone under your wing may be risky, but I am willing to invest. I’ve been able to attract some great crew members. Recruiting outside of routine sailing circles has given me a more reliable program, and a higher psychic pay-off.”

The boat can carry 70 gallons of fresh water, which makes for comfortable two-week cruises. She's outfitted with pressure hot water and 12-volt refrigeration. Eight opening ports and two opening hatches allow plenty of ventilation.

One referral was a young man who had not before been on a boat. “In just a single season Brian has developed to become our go-to spinnaker trimmer. Another rising star is Minna, who grew up sailing Laser boats. While there’s a difference between sailing a Laser and a larger keel boat, I don’t think her previous big boat crew was maximizing her talents. I gave her latitude on Sweet Caroline and this paid off. She now serves as our mainsail trimmer and tactician.”

Another crew member is Ayme Sinclair, who has 2.5 years sail cred under her belt plus an ASA certificate. Prior to Sweet Caroline, her sailpertise came from time onboard Sonars. “Sailing on a Sonar is a very analog experience, and because of that I was starting to get a little discouraged. When a coworker offered an invitation to join during one of his crew’s evening races, I jumped.” Turns out Sweet Caroline was on the water that night, so a fortuitous post-race introduction to skipper Chris was all it took for Ayme to step up to larger boat racing.

Owner/skipper Chris Ercole and his wife purchased the boat with the intent to race as well as cruise the J/109 boat.

In 2015 the Long Island Sound based "Sweet Caroline" crew sailed the 143 NM Seaflower Reef course of the Vineyard Race and earned a first.

The Sweet Training and Development Life
Having gathered together an ambitious crew, developing as a team unit was next. “During year one I opted to run practice sessions on Wednesday nights—instead of competing in local races.” Working with this somewhat novice group proved a positive, yet sometimes, challenging practice. As the most sail-educated person onboard, Chris realized that it was not easy to steer the boat and observe/train. The solution: enlist a peer to helm.

Whereas some skippers opt to rotate individuals through all roles on a boat, Chris finds it beneficial to build depth by keeping individuals in place for the time being.

One of Chris’s development strategies has been to keep a person in one spot for a while. Says Ayme, “At the start I had a single simple role. I focused on that, but soon began to understand that more time on a boat would help me bring an A-game to race nights. Heeding Chris’s suggestion, I started sailing additional nights--racing with another crew on a smaller boat at different club. This helped me improve my understanding for how to operate the sails so as to speed up a boat based on wind direction. This other skipper used a video camera to capture our time on the water, so watching the footage definitely helped me correct some of my mistakes.”

What Ayme likes about Chris is his decisiveness plus ability to share the game plan. “He asks for feedback post-race, and takes everything very seriously. He listens to the crew and, when needed, makes necessary adjustments for future times on the water. We can’t move the boat if the seven of us aren’t in sync; it takes an incredible amount of communication and camaraderie to keep winning races. I’m very impressed with how clear he is in his calls and directions.”

For 2016, Chris registered to compete on Wednesday nights—letting the course serve as playgrounds for practice. “Each race offered a chance to tune, learn and seek ways to improve. We’d also head out early and run some drills to dial-in (both weekends and evenings). And one of the most fruitful training tasks was to invite a local sail maker onboard to observe and offer critique,” adds Chris, asserting that post-race discussions were a must too.

Additional training and development carried over to knot a lot—especially the bowline. Says Ayme, “Early on I was given a 10 knot test, and I still know how to pretty much do all of them—a learned survival skills that may save a life if ever get in a pinch.”  

Going Dinghy Off Season
With winter in full force on the LI Sound at the moment (January), boats are on the hard and wrapped up tight. Chris uses this time for personal training. “Dinghy racing offers an unbelievable way to sharpen skills. There is no better way to improve upon boat handling, and increase knowledge of sail dynamics, than manning a small boat solo or aside just one other person.”

Continuing, “The J/109 is an easy boat to sail fast, and it performs well in this area under the PHRF handicap. However, the local one-design fleet is very competitive and the crew is still getting up to speed. We are always training and looking to improve, and I am always tweaking the rig for improvements. I normally adjust the rig before every race, pending conditions. Two seasons ago I started keeping a journal with different rig tunes and how the boat performed.”

For Long Island Sound (NY) sailors, the season runs late April to early October. That equates to local Wednesday night beer can and Friday evening action within Glen Cove harbor for Sweet sailors. In spring 2017, the crew will kick off with the opener hosted by the American Yacht Club in Rye, New York. Up for consideration re: weekend regattas are the 143 NM Vineyard Race (in 2015 the crew sailed the Seaflower Reef course and took a first), the Block Island Race Week, J/109 Nationals, plus various regional one-design match-ups where 10 to 15 J/Boats are usually on the line.

He’s Sweet on Caroline
It’s true that the boat sees ample race action, but Chris is quick to remind that Sweet Caroline also underpins much of the family’s summer social life. “She’s a great racer as well as coastal cruiser—fast with an easy motion in the short steep chop that we can encounter on the Sound.”

For that end, Chris has added a dodger, pressure hot water and 12-volt refrigeration. The boat can carry 70 gallons of fresh water, which makes for comfortable two-week cruises. Eight opening ports and two opening hatches allow plenty of ventilation. He calls attention to an LP oven and stove top on a gimbal, plus the large head with shower. There is also a shower on the swim platform.

Adds Chris, “Some of the things that make her a great racer also help with cruising.  The cockpit is easy to maneuver in but also allows for bracing yourself when the weather picks up. I also like that the Yanmar diesel is quiet and smooth. Sweet will easily cruise at 7 knots.”