Positions on a Racing Sailboat

Positions on a Racing Sailboat | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Gabriel Hannon

August 30, 2022

The success of a racing sailboat depends entirely on the ability of each person on the boat to know and execute their role in high-pressure situations.

While boat-dependent, all positions are some combination of the responsibilities of driver, bow, tactician, trimmer, and pit. The driver makes the final decisions and steers, while the other crew members play various roles providing information, trimming sails, and keeping the boat moving fast.

The fundamental responsibilities of sailboat racing do not change, regardless of the number of people aboard. Someone in a one-person dinghy has to be able to keep track of the course, make tactical decisions, trim sails, steer, watch for new breeze and other boats, and ensure that they are set up for the next leg. On a larger boat, with more sails, more controls, and more required coordination, these jobs still exist and are distributed amongst various crew members. We will go through the basic crew setups of various one-design racing boats from one through four crew members to develop how the increase in crew and complexity begins to distribute the responsibilities of making the boat go fast across the team. Then, we will make some general claims about bigger boats, but as everything gets more confusing in the larger crews, we will not specify too much.

Over years of racing boats of all sizes, I’ve seen these crew roles respond to personal skills, different boat setups, strange habits, and teamwork to the point where everyone can respond to different events seamlessly. Sometimes these roles are perfectly well-defined, but sometimes a quick-thinking crew will switch positions on a dime to make up for a mistake in an entirely unorthodox way that is somehow perfect. On smaller boats, people have different priorities and different ways to work through all their responsibilities, but on all the best boats it is the people who know how to excel in their role, and how to make life easier for all their teammates by knowing exactly what they need, who make a sailboat go. Let’s get into it!


Table of contents

The One-Person Dinghy: It’s All on You

You could argue that sailing, at its most basic, boils down to one sailor, a handful of lines, and a tiller against the breeze and water. Perhaps it would be a ridiculous argument, as sailing has always relied on people working together, but there is something to seeing who can go out there and be the one to make it work the best. When all the responsibilities for every inch of the boat fall on one person, it is interesting to see who has everything in sync the best. There is no specific title for this position, but I suppose you could call them

The Single-Handed Sailor

There are fundamentally three aspects to sailboat racing: boat speed, boat handling, and tactics. The single-handed sailor has to excel in each dimension. The best case study for a single-handed boat is the ILCA Dingy, once known as the Laser, but other notable racers include the Opti, Finn, RS Aero, Moth, and Wazsp classes.  

Boat Speed

Boat speed comes down to trimming the sails properly for the angle to the wind. This means adjusting not only how far in and out the sail is, but also tuning specific control lines to give the sail the ideal shape for wind strength and direction. Making micro-adjustments to sail trim while dealing with all the other aspects of the race may not seem like much, but they can make the difference between winning and falling behind. While on larger boats there are entire positions dedicated to this, the single-handed sailor has to deal with this the whole time.

Other factors in boat speed concern steering through the wind shifts and wave sequences properly and keeping the boat flat by hiking out. This often includes being able to shift weight in precise ways to keep the boat optimally balanced and cutting through the waves.

Boat Handling

While boat speed forms the basis of all sailing, it is also crucial to know how to maneuver the boat through course changes. Windows in sailing races are small, and being able to get a boat into a lane is often a fraught affair. Having the confidence to trim the sails properly and maneuver sharply while still maintaining speed is a huge boost to a racer. Turning points at marks or directional switches while tacking and gybing are where many of the gains in a race come, and a clean tack coming into the top mark on port can mean the difference between leading the fleet and having to duck behind a parade of 30 boats. Being able to put on the brakes and accelerate quickly is key in tight spaces along the start line, and is a weapon for the best sailors.

Singlehanded racers have total control over their boat handling. Changes in direction come down to perfect synchronization of sail trim, steering, and body weight, and the single-handed sailor has to account for how every single adjustment affects these maneuvers. Some of the best boat handlers grow up racing single-handed boats; the feel developed sailing solo is hard to beat but requires years of fine-tuning and muscle memory.


All the speed and maneuverability in the world does not do much if you don’t know where to put the boat. Like any sport, the fundamentals are simple, but becoming a master takes a lifetime. The single-handed sailor must hold the entire course, the regularity of the wind shifts, the tendencies of the current, the positions of the other sailors, and their own plans in the front of their minds while pushing the boat as hard as possible.

While this is no place to discuss the intricacies of upwind tactics or the fastest lines on a downwind in different boats, the singlehanded sailor has to be able to think and make decisions tactically then execute those decisions themselves. This is such a large task that bigger boats will often have someone whose entire job is just to call breeze and tactics.

The single-handed sailor is without a doubt a jack-of-all-trades. We will discuss various terms for different crew-members on bigger boats, and while you could use the terms ‘skipper’ or ‘driver’ for the single-handed sailor, this does not quite say it all, so we save these positions for the bigger boats. We will not explicitly break the other boats down by who is in charge of boat speed, boat handling, and tactics, but roles can generally sort into various levels of responsibility for these categories.  

The Two-Person Racer: The Best (or worst) Way to Get to Know Another Person

On a two-person boat, of which common examples include the various 420 classes, the Olympic Classes (470, 49er, Nacra 17) among many others, responsibilities are slightly split, but this distribution comes with the tradeoff of greatly increased complexity and coordination requirements. Double-handed boats tend to have at least two, and often three, sails, require more involved tuning, move much faster, and occasionally require single or double trapezing. The very best doublehanded pairings move as one, but this type of coordination requires both sailors to have an intimate knowledge of their role and the dynamic balance of the boat. Without further ado, the common positions:

The Skipper (Driver)

The skipper of the boat steers the boat. On different types of boats, they have different trimming and setting responsibilities, most often including the mainsheet--though the 49er is a notable exception. You can call them either a skipper or a driver, but you rarely say that ‘you skipper;’ instead, you would say that ‘you drive,’ so the latter term has begun to stick as the position as well.

As they are the person driving the boat, the driver tends to make the final tactical decision. They do this in collaboration with the crew, who is often going to be feeding information about the course and competitors to the driver, but the final decision comes down to the person holding the stick (forgive the vernacular, if you may).

Different double-handed teams often have different dynamics. In some, the driver will primarily be focused on tactics, while the crew has to keep their head in the boat making it go fast, while in others the skipper lets the crew make such calls while focusing on the breeze right in front of them, it all depends. Boat handling requires nigh on perfect coordination, and skippers must keep their crews alerted to any upcoming maneuvers.  

The Crew

The unsung heroes of many a double-handed pairing, a good driver can sail well with an ok crew, but a crack crew can take a skipper with some potential to the top of the fleet.

Responsible for trimming the headsail and setting and managing the spinnaker on boats that carry them, the crew’s primary roles is to keep the boat going fast. They often can make the small sail trim and control adjustments that the driver cannot. Especially upwind, the crew scans the course for new breeze, other boats, lay lines, and any information that the skipper could need to make the best decisions possible.

A good way to consider some, but not all, skipper-crew relationships is that the crew can get all the micro-considerations out of the way so that the skipper can focus on the big picture. The small picture adjustments in terms of sail control and angle of heel keep the boat moving and the skipper zippered into the feel of the course. In turn, this allows the skipper to plan ahead and keep the crew involved in decision making, making sure that they don’t screw their crew with a crash tack or sudden gybe.

Still, on some teams, the crew makes all of the outside the boat decisions while the driver just drives the boat as fast as they can. This often works with spacier skippers, of which there are many, and highlights the value of a strong-willed crew. Crews are often on-the-water coaches for high-strung skippers and are key to the success of a team. On more athletic boats, a crew can crucially contribute to boat speed and handling through trimming, ooching, and body-weight adjustments.

All of this is to say that a crew, both as a single person on a double-handed boat and as an ensemble on larger boats, is never to be considered an accessory to the skipper, but are crucial parts of a competitive racing team.

The Three or Four Person Boat: I Thought That Was Your Job!

Having outlined the general dynamics of a skipper-crew pairing, it is not particularly helpful to discuss exact boat setups and interactions. From here, we will provide terms and positions with general roles. These are all subject to change, but once you reach boats of three or more people, roles become highly specialized, as boats of this size begin to get complex enough that you cannot do everything on your own. Let’s run through the general roles that must be filled on boats of up to four, with the knowledge that these can be switched around and combined depending on skill, boat setup, and breeze.


Things change yet they stay ever the same. The bigger the boat, the more boat the driver has to deal with, but the role does not fundamentally change. The driver still has their hand on the stick, and, despite the best attempts of various crewmembers, still is the final decision maker on the boat. Sometimes they will trim the mainsheet as well, but other times they will leave this to a member of the crew

The bigger the boat, the less running around the skipper does and the more focused they are on sailing the perfect line through the fleet. Even their ability to scan the course and make tactical evaluations wanes on the bigger boats, as they must put more trust in their crews to make the right reads. They are still ultimately responsible for putting the boat in the right spot, but they are ultimately unable to control everything that is happening on the boat.


Debatably the easiest analog to the crew on a double-handed boat, the bow is, if nothing else, the most likely person on the boat to get soaking wet. Sitting the farthest forward, they are occasionally responsible for trimming the jib--particularly on three-person boats--but primarily have to deal with setting the spinnaker and dealing with front-of-boat controls.

They can play a role calling tactics, breeze, and other boats, but because they are so often busy with the chaos of boat handling in crucial spots and are often far away from the skipper, they mostly need to focus on their role setting the chute and managing the complications near the front of the boat.


Often sitting at the hip of the skipper, different boats have different assignments for their trimmers, which can range from main-trimming across the whole course to only touching the spinnaker off the breeze to controlling the jib instead of the bow. Regardless of the particulars, they need to make the adjustments that keep the boat moving fast, and need to be continually in sync with how the skipper wants to sail.

The person in this position is often responsible for communicating details about the course and from the rest of the crew to the driver. Their role gives them more time to look around and make fine adjustments, rather than having a continuous responsibility, so they are in the perfect position to survey the information at hand and collaborate with the skipper on decision making.

On three-person boats, this is generally one person playing both roles in active collaboration with a driver. On certain four-person boats, this can lead to two trimmers who alternate between calling tactics and trimming different sails depending on the leg. Other times, this role is fully bifurcated, with one person trimming and another entirely responsible for looking around and making calls, with only a menial role controlling the sails, but this looks different on every team.


While Nascar has its pit crews, beginning at four-person boats, sailing just has its pit person. As boats get bigger, sails and various lines are more prone to twists, knots, and the generalized snarls that give sailors across the world excuses to flex their famous propensity for swearing.

The pit is responsible for eliminating, or at least minimizing, these disasters via preventative prep. They do not have a conventional job trimming sails, per se, but they are the ones who make sure that everyone else can the sails set cleanly. They prefeed sheets, ‘run the tapes’ on off-the-breeze sails to make sure they aren’t twisted and are notorious neat freaks. They often are responsible for raising and lowering sails around mark roundings; these events are almost always chaotic and never go according to plan, so it is the pit who has to coordinate the chaos as much as possible and clean up the mess in time for the next explosion. Unheralded, often stuck below decks, the pit can be the difference between a boat running smoothly and a stream of curses over a huge gash in a thousand dollar spinnaker.

Now This Is Getting Ridiculous: The Road to Specialization

As of this point, we have covered the key roles on just about any sized boat. As you get to bigger and more specialized boats, the situations will call for more and more crew members doing increasingly focused work. While having talented sailors on a larger boat is no less important than having them on a smaller dinghy, there are simply not that many parts that have to be moving all the time to fully occupy more than a few people at a time.

Still, when they are needed, during gybes, mark roundings, sets, and douses, these extra crew members are crucial. On certain boats, there is an entire position dedicated to trimming the twings during gybes; the position is only slightly more serious than the sound of the ropes. Still, the other crew members are so busy during the gybes that they need the extra pair of hands. Furthermore, having a sharp sailor in a position like that ensures another pair of eyes and hands to spot problems and step in if needed. Knowledge and quick action are unlikely to go unappreciated on any boat, even if it is only in a very specific setting.

There is, however, one more term for extra crew members on boats of this size, and it is distinctly unspecialized: meet the ‘rail meat.’ On sufficiently big boats, where heeling is slow but a fact of life, every now and then you just need a big ole guy to sit on the edge and hang out to windward. A flat boat is a fast boat, and sometimes you just need someone hanging out over the rail, skilled and mobile or not.

Finally, on high-performance boats, like America’s Cup boats or the new-fangled SailGP league, rail meat is replaced by ‘grinders,’ who specialize in turning hydraulic cranks like they’re in a CrossFit gym. Sometimes drawn from other sports, famously including rugby players on New Zealand’s America’s Cup team, grinders may not have the tactical acumen to step into a single-handed boat and win the day, but they are key pieces to winning teams and are no less a sailor than anyone else.

Hopefully, next time you go down to the water and someone tells you they need someone to run their bow, this has done enough for you to know exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into! Happy sailing!

Positions on a Racing Sailboat
Gabriel Hannon

Gabriel Hannon

I have been sailing since I was 7 years old. Since then I've been a US sailing certified instructor for over 8 years, raced at every level of one-design and college sailing in fleet, team, and match racing, and love sharing my knowledge of sailing with others!

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