Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

Top Tips For the Bowman From UK Sailmakers Ireland

28th February 2020
A bowman at work on a Jelik RP 76 A bowman at work on a Jelik RP 76

Barry Hayes from UK Sailmakers Ireland gives his top tips on how to be the best bowman 

Any bowman worth his salt is fast on his feet, strong as an ox, and agile enough to climb the mast. The bowman is also the first to arrive at the boat and last to leave. Consider this about the bowman's role: there are very few changes or evolutions that happen during a race aft of the mast; they all happen forward in "bowman territory." The bowman must be prepared to deal with any call that's made from the afterguard and prepared to cope with any mishap that happens. Here are some top tips for a bowman spending the season on the pointy end.

Photo 2The bowman must be prepared to deal with any call that's made from the afterguard
1. Wear the right clothes

If you don't go out suited and booted then you're coming home wet. A smock/spray top with closures at the collar, wrists, and waist-worn over layers is the best option to you stay dry. It's light and you can fit into any area without wearing a big offshore jacket. Non-adjustable trousers are a must as are shoes that stick to the deck. (Never consider going barefoot!). Test the shoes well before buying. A soft rubber sole is best, and boots with gaiters are the best option for offshore. Most of all, have dry socks if you're wearing shoes or boots.

spinlock harnessSpinlock harness

2. Must-have gear

The best harness in the business is a rock-climbing harness. Which you can get from Spinlock.  These are light and simple to use. And excellent on the backs of your legs as they are wide. It's also vital to have hanging from your harness:

  • A Leatherman skeletool
  • An aluminium fid for spiking snap shackles
  • soft shackles (different sizes)
  • A roll of rigging tape

Going offshore, I prefer to wear a drysuit rather than traditional foul weather gear. I unzip it when I am below, and I'm always dry on deck. It's quick and straightforward and you can be on deck in seconds. A good quality suit means you can get out on the bow and now worry at all about being wet in any shape or form. They fit well with the latest life jackets.

3. Prep your boat 

A good bowman will be first on the boat and last off, so he's ready for the next day's sailing. It's a bowman's job to check that all your luff tapes are stacked correctly and that the spinnakers are packed and prepared to go. Clean any furlers, check running rigging, and get it all prepped and ready before the rest of the crew arrives to a clear boat.

Photo 3It's a bowman's job to check that all your luff tapes are stacked correctly and that the spinnakers are packed and prepared to go
4. Before the start

Have a thorough conversation with the tactician and helm well before the guns start firing. Review your starting sequence hand signals. Discuss the course, work out what sails will be needed, when and why. Getting angles for these sails will also help in terms of stacking sails below and pre-setting leads on the deck. If you're going upwind then changing to a code zero and later on to an Asym it will dictate a particular bow choreography. And those steps are up to you to take as the bowman. Perhaps you have the code zero plugged into starboard, and the kite plugged into port before the race has even started; you've already discussed this with the afterguard. I always try and hoist my code zero to windward and get it set ready to go before the start drop it back down, available for the first mark.

5. The start

Your job is to work with the helm and tactician to get the boat into the best position possible (and not over the line) when the gun goes off. Getting a good start is 90% of the race. Having clear communication with the helm is critical. With clear eye contact (tell the crew on the rail to hike out), hand signals are crucial if you don't have a headset on which are very common on big boats these days. Finger pointing up for come up, pointing down for down, fist for hold, hand opening for ease, hand closing for tighten. You need to know your boat lengths; practice a few approaches and get your lay lines and line sights before the start.

Photo 4The least amount of time spent on a bow the better; keep your eyes open and focus on your job

6. Plan ahead

Before you rush to deal with something that comes up unexpectedly, think ahead about what needs to be done and be prepared. The least amount of time spent on a bow the better; keep your eyes open and focus on your job. Most pro bowmen spend less than 1.40 seconds on the bow in any windward-leeward race; aim for this target. Plan ahead, do quickly what needs to be done and get off the bow.

7. Always hold on

Nothing in this job is worth your life. It's great fun, but being clipped on with a good life jacket is worth everything. I use a carabiner with a short strop to my harness when I am working in heavy weather. I can quickly clip on and not worry about being washed away by a big wave.

8. Always look up

Whichever boat you're on, masthead or fractional, fast or classic, take time to learn which halyards are going where, make sure they are free to run. Make a drawing and determine which halyards do what with which sail like a 2:1 code zero halyard. If you cross a halyard in a change, then don't waste time uncrossing it; instead plan your next sail change so you can uncross it. I always leave the spinnakers halyards on a 2 ft strop higher up off the deck then the genoa halyards whereby they never get mixed up at night when you go to get one.

Photo 5Working with people without shouting is the objective
9. Communication is key to your job

Working with people without shouting is the objective. I always call the name of the person you want to address before you tell him or her what to do. If you say, Bob, (pause till he's looking at you) ease the tackline," is much more effective communication. Plus (theoretically) only Bob will leave the rail to ease the tackline and not half of the crew!

10. Understand how vital the pit person is to a bowman's success

There is a secret kept between the bow and the pit: they run the boat. The afterguard may point the boat in one direction or the other, but the manoeuvres don't work unless the bow and pit are working in concert. Having a very tight bond with your pit person is key to your role.

Remember, be prepared, anticipate, have your gear ready, stay in control of "your bow," and communicate effectively, no race is won without a bowman.

Photo 6Manoeuvres don't work unless the bow and pit are working in concert

UK Sails Summer

About the Loft

UK Sailmakers Ireland brings modern professional sailmaking to Irish Sailing.​ Formerly known as McWilliam Sailmakers; the company was started 50 years ago to bring the latest technology to Irish sailors - we continue this mission today.

Under new leadership in 2018; our loft is dedicated to fulfilling the needs of all Irish sailors. ​As sailmakers, we do not just design sails for boats. We design and build sails for your boat. Our extensive and versatile product line allows us to produce sails to suit your requirements and expectations.   

​As a core loft within the UK Sailmakers Group, we are uniquely placed to draw from a worldwide pool of knowledge and experience - these ties have been recently strengthened with the return of Barry Hayes and Claire Morgan from Hong Kong. ​Barry held a key role in our primary production facility on Hong Kong Island for the past fifteen years. With their return comes a renewed focus on technology R&D on Irish waters.  

​With a wide variety of sailing conditions and an impressive pool of talent, the Irish cruiser racing fleet is the ideal testbed for new technologies.​ 

​As with all things in sailing; the secrets will be closely guarded - but for the first time in decades Irish sailors will be at the forefront of sail technology development.​

Although much has changed; some constants remain. The same great sail and customer service we have provided in the past will continue, as does our commitment and passion for growing the sport of sailing all over the country. 

Barry Hayes [email protected]

Contact Information:

UK Sailmakers Ireland

Kilnagary Business Park


County Cork

P43 YR22

Republic of Ireland

Tel: +353 21 4831505

Production: +353 (86) 198 0199

Email: [email protected]

Barry Hayes

About The Author

Barry Hayes

Email The Author

Barry Hayes, Director of UK Sails Ireland, managed the main UK Production facility for UK Sails in Hong Kong until last October and has been a sail designer with UK sails for over 15 years.

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