top of page

RAAM Crewing Reflections, part 1 : Never Swim Alone

I want to sum up my RAAM crewing experience. But a lot of it is super personal, so it’s coming out a little bit at a time. This post is sort of dipping my toes into the water of telling the tale. My 2021 crew was a tight, well-rounded, diverse/versatile, on-task squad, at least 90 percent of the time, which is about as good a job as a crew can expect to manage. And it was absolutely my privilege and honor to be their crew chief. If you want to get just a glimpse of what a tight, well-rounded, diverse/versatile, on-task squad looks like, watch...wait for it...the Madagascar Penguins. They’ve got it all. Squad swagger. Well defined roles. A team credo. Flawless execution under pressure. And cool uniforms.

I’d love to say that I intentionally modeled my crew after the Penguins - but I didn’t. But after countless times of asking Tim to calculate something for me, I started using the phrase, “Options, Kowalski” every time I needed something from him, and it got stuck in my head. And the more I thought about it, the more it resonated. Let’s break it down:

First, the cast of characters:

  • The Skipper runs the show. No one even questions that. He can get anyone to do pretty much anything.The Skipper is relentless in pursuit of a goal. Maybe a spark of madness - but in a good way. He understands his limitations, and pulls in the rest of the team to provide support. He is a good delegator and a good leader. The rest of the team trusts him without fail, because they know that he’s got their back.

  • Rico provides the brawn. He’s an intuitive problem solver, with a propensity for saving the day by making things go “Ka-Boom” at (mostly) appropriate times.

  • Kowalski provides the brains. “Options, Kowalski” is the Skipper’s rallying cry when he needs something calculated or a logistics problem solved. Kowalski is happy to stay in the background. But when he speaks up, you’d better be listening, because - he’s right.

  • The Private - the smallest and youngest of the penguin crew, he’s also their heart and soul. He is a great listener and observer, and when push comes to shove, he’s extraordinarily brave. He’s not afraid to act when called upon, but he’s not often a decision-maker.

Naturally, each of these characters has a role: leader, doer, thinker, observer/empath. You need all of these skills/roles in a successful RAAM crew. The Skipper fits neatly into the crew chief role. To be a successful crew chief, you need to project enough confidence that your crew will follow you into some pretty heavy, crazy shit to accomplish the mission. But you need to know your own strengths and limits. Apply all your strengths and skills, and be a good delegator to cover your weaknesses. You also need to know your crew’s strengths, skills, and weaknesses to get the most out of the team. The Skipper never says, “Options, Rico?” - because thinking is not necessarily Rico’s strength.

Rico - well, every RAAM wrench can identify here. Rico has a huge array of gadgets available that will prove valuable - tools, battery packs, electrical tape... and obscure knowledge that will allow him/her to use them when you need something fixed, stat. Every once in a while you get a seemingly normal crew member who goes Rico on you - a little wild, a little rogue, but - crazy good skills. Keep these folks busy with tasks or on-course shenanigans (legal ones, like cheering in a dinosaur costume) and they will reward you many times over by applying sheer hard work and creativity to overcome obstacles. Don’t let them get bored or they will find ways to keep themselves busy - some of which may not be exactly what the Skipper envisioned. Ricos love to drive - a car is just a big gadget. They may also be excellent navigators if you can keep them focused. Adding a physical element to navigation may help here: cross off each turn as we get there!

Kowalski - pity the crew that doesn’t have a Kowalski on board! Usually the crew chief has an intimate knowledge of the course - upcoming terrain, how many miles to the next time station, what are the time cutoffs, where are there likely to be gas stations. But typically most of the crew lacks that knowledge base. Without a Kowalski - that fast-study person who can use past data to predict where the next crew exchange is going to be - the crew chief has to do all of the logistics, essentially around the clock. Ideally the crew chief will be able to delegate most of the logistical calculations to the crew Kowalski(s), and rest assured that when she goes to sleep, the race will continue to move forward in a predictable way. Kowalskis can do the nitty gritty work - they’ve got fully functional backs and flippers, after all - but they do need to be recognized for their unique contributions. Sometimes your Kowalski is a remote worker - a “phone-a-friend” who you can call 24/7 to ask questions like, “Where is the best place to get a van tire patched in West Virginia on a Friday night?” Kowalskis are amazing navigators, and may be excellent drivers as well. You won’t have to tell Kowalski to cross off each turn as we get to it - s/he will have figured that one out ahead of you, likely with color-coding.

The Private - awwwwww. The feeder/nutritionist/massage person, or the really, really good friend who is super tuned in to what the racer is doing/feeling. This person would do literally anything to support the mission. They’ll take one for the team, over and over, to make sure that the racer is taken care of. The racer needs another avocado bender? Here - take mine. You need someone to unplug the RV sewer line? I’m going in….Make it a point to get feedback from The Private on a regular basis - they may be your best set of eyes/ears to what is really going on with your racer. And when you’ve digested that feedback, empower them with information: “OK, if he’s only eaten three sardines in the past 8 hours, you’re right - that’s not enough. The goal is 250 calories an hour, so he’s about 1500 calories behind. Try to get a Boost (nutritional shake) into him every hour for the next three hours…” “But Skipper, he GROWLED at me the last time I tried to give him a Boost!”. “Do it anyway, Private - it’s your duty. And his. Tell him I said so.” You can walk away from this conversation confident that The Private will deliver.

Who knows the Penguin Credo? Hint: it is NOT “Never Bathe in Hot Oil and Bisquick” - that’s the walrus credo! The Penguin Credo is: “Never Swim Alone”. This is a great credo for RAAM crews. RAAM is one of those times when two heads are definitely better than one, four arms/legs are better than two, etc. As the race grinds on, the ways in which you could make a really weird, tragic mistake seem to multiply. Having another person along to hit the brakes on something that’s ill-advised is smart crewing, even if it seems like it’s a fairly routine trip to the laundromat. Every crew should have a credo. In 2021, one of our HopeCam kids supplied the one I used routinely: “We can do hard things”. The Red Pearl Racing credo is, of course, “We’re the luckiest people in the world”. Good credos are short, memorable, and heart-felt. Every team can have one. Probably every team should.

Flawless execution under pressure: that’s what RAAM crewing is all about. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it feels pretty magical. A complicated crew change done without the racer even noticing? BAM! Everyone is jazzed. When I talk about flawless execution , I like to point people to a great youtube video. It’s Earl Scruggs and Friends performing Foggy Mountain Breakdown - live - on Letterman. Earl Scruggs and Friends is a literal who’s who of luminaries - the very best of the best at each bluegrass instrument, plus Steve Martin, who’s maybe not quite second best (to Earl Scruggs), but pretty danged good. These dudes stand in a circle and just freaking GO FOR IT, tossing the melody to each other one at a time. It’s beautiful, barely-controlled chaos from end to end. After I make folks watch it I always ask: “OK, who in that group NEVER made a mistake?” The honest answer is that everyone likely made a mistake at some point, but they covered for each other, so it’s really hard to tell. But the real stars - the ones who can’t get off-track, ever - are in the background: the bass player and the percussionist. You can hardly see them in the video, but they’re rock steady. Same 64 beats, over and over. Essentially perfect. That’s great crewing.

The Penguins have execution down, too: synchronized swimming, complicated logistics, well-timed maneuvers, and great timing to swoop in and cover for each other if a monkey wrench gets thrown into the works. It takes a lot of practice and time together for a crew to learn how to work in concert, and the Penguins have had a lifetime together to get on the same page. That’s why the first two days of RAAM are often tough on crews who haven’t had the opportunity to work together before: the RAAM learning curve is steep, and brutal. Ideally, your crew will have time together before RAAM to figure out some of the ballet: how to pass off a water bottle, where to find the eyeglass cleaner in the back of the van, how you are going to change a flat tire in a moving vehicle in the middle of the night, how long everyone’s bladder is good for...You should be able to handle all of that - and much more - without becoming a distraction to the racer.

When it comes to cool uniforms, how could you possibly be cooler - or more recognizable as a squad - than a group of penguins? OK, I know - every crew can get by without crew uniforms. That’s why it’s last on the list, to be honest. But if you can, it really helps to deliver on the experience of being a team. It makes you look more “official” to the hundreds of people your crew will interact with along the RAAM route - and if that makes people just a little more helpful to your crew, that’s a win. In the worst case, Rico ignores the Penguin Credo and wanders off, and Kowalski starts asking strangers if they’ve seen anyone wearing his shirt lately…. If you go the crew uniform route, custom shirts should be comfortable (read: breathable!) and distinctive. If you’re honoring sponsors or a charity on the shirts, make sure that they’re something that might get worn after RAAM - that way your sponsors get more bang for their buck.

The Penguins have amazing adventures together - as do a RAAM crew. And when everyone is working together, being themselves at their very best - it’s the stuff that makes stories that last a lifetime. That’s one of the main attractions of crewing for me - the ability to get together with a bunch of very motivated folks and do hard things while growing together in a way that you just can’t explain to your friends who haven’t been there. We’re incredibly lucky that we can CHOOSE epic adventure - that it’s not thrust on us by war, famine, or some other circumstance. As a matter of fact - we’re the luckiest people in the world.

That’s not EVERYTHING I know about crewing RAAM by a long stretch, but it’s a heck of a lot more than I knew when I crewed it for the first time, back in 2009. Watch this blog for more thoughts on crewing RAAM. In the meantime: never swim alone.


bottom of page