This article was first published on SailNet in August of 1999.
Not too long ago, a fellow asked me which of my writing challenges I found most satisfying. He must have expected me to say something about one of my history books because he looked surprised when I told him that I had derived the greatest pleasure from describing how to tack a sailboat.
Lord knows I have spent enough years attempting to do this often-difficult skill. (A young sailor who crewed for me in a 420 series said about my sailing ability, "His starts are OK, his tactics are OK, but he's got to work on his roll-tacking." That was a tactful understatement.) But doing it is not as hard as writing about it. That means teaching myself all over again, recalling years of embarrassing flubs while struggling to find a simple narrative thread that will lead readers around the flurry of flying sheets and flapping sails and tell them how to come about.
How-to instruction is riding high these days. In the areas of business and personal relations, dozens of glib guys in $1,500-suits promise to tell you how to achieve something they call "excellence," to produce results they describe as "quality," or to be terrific at something they call "leadership." All you have to do is master a few simple 1-2-3 steps. There is no complexity, no ambiguity, and no mention of the obvious fact that most if not all of these skills are little more than rewordings of the good advice our parents gave us when they dropped us off for our first day of kindergarten: "Look people in the eye when you talk to them!" "Be attentive to detail!" "Be patient!"
What these gurus do not say is that technique is just an initial step. Except on the most basic level, a skill is worthless unless it has a context. To make a sale, you must provide plenty of thoughtful personal attention as well as a strong sales pitch. To tack a sailboat properly, you must understand the boat well enough to predict how she will behave in the prevailing sea and wind conditions, which you must also understand well enough to identify patterns. You surely do not want to tack into the face of a breaking wave.
As another example, take "leadership." My dictionary defines it as "to lead" as "to go before or with to show the way." This can be good or bad depending on the context. Shakespeare invented the phrase "lead on" to mean "we'll follow you into that inevitable disaster." The psychological context of that kind of bad leadership is foolish, self-defeating fatalism, while the context of true good leadership is flexible and reasonable expectation of success, based on lessons learned from prior experience and on some rules of thumb.
There must be a leader, for somebody has to be in charge. The crew may vote on what to sail to, what to eat for dinner, or when to get under way in the morning, but there must be a commander. Good skippers should be able to steer, manage the engine and sails, and competently accomplish all the other big and little chores that are required to get the boat and her crew safely through the day. The best of them are also well organized "detail people." Good skippers don't leave the charts in the car. Neither are they incompetent at delegating authority. Neither do they neglect the crucial state of mind that the Navy calls "forehandedness," the cautious anticipation of possible problems. Good leaders look ahead.
|"On a yacht, a skipper must care for his or her vessel while commanding with the attitude of being first among equals rather than God Almighty."|
Good leadership is a test anywhere, but it is especially challenging on a pleasure boat, which (unlike an Army platoon or a division of a corporation) is a voluntary organization. People go sailing for fun, and many will get off the boat if they're not having any. To choose an analogy, Captain William Bligh of the Bounty was a superb seaman and an extraordinary leader in emergencies, but the mere mention of his name evokes images of a petty, cruel autocrat more interested in his ship than in his men. Such a priority may be called for at times in a naval or military context, but on a yacht a skipper must care for her or his vessel while commanding with the attitude of being first among equals rather than God Almighty. At the same time, the skipper must be able to recognize those limited situations where a Bligh-type presence is called for in heavy weather, for example, or when the boat and crew are at serious risk.
As tactfully as possible, the skipper should from the beginning of the day's sail or the week's cruise establish a clear routine and a sense of organization. His or her first job is to be sure that the crew knows how to use vital equipment such as the toilet and bilge pumps. Here the skipper may have less trouble instructing landlubbers than changing the habits of experienced sailors familiar with other systems on different boats. Next the skipper should point out the location of the fire extinguishers, life jackets and safety harnesses. Then he or she should lead a calm discussion about emergency procedures. That way, the skipper teaches by an example an attitude of forehandedness.
Next comes the necessary delegation of authority. For trips longer than a half-day, the skipper should appoint a second-in-command. This should be somebody whom the skipper trusts both as a sailor and as a leader. On many boats, these two people, the owner and the best friend, do all the work. A ship with only a couple of performers is an unhappy one. When new crewmembers come aboard for their first sail, at first they are as awkward as they are hopeful that they'll master some sailing skills. The skipper should respect their eagerness and try to tolerate their clumsiness by giving them jobs to do. Obviously the job should not be a vital one, like steering through a crowded anchorage in a hard blow, or anchoring at night. A novice may bristle when relieved at the helm at such a moment unless the crewmember sees the situation from the captain's point of view. But casting off the mooring or dock lines, hoisting and dousing sails, trimming sheets and dropping anchor are chores that in normal weather are simple and easily learned. Anybody doing them, whether a six-year-old child or a 60-year-old grandmother, will be satisfied that she is making a contribution. Later on, in open water, allow anybody a chance to steer.
There are correct and other ways to accomplish just about every important task on a boat, but often there are several acceptable ways among which each skipper has a personal favorite. (I think that shackles should be screwed in from right to left, that a line should be cleated with a half-hitch, and that the buntline hitch and fisherman's bend are superior to a bowline except when tying sheets into a jib clew and, believe me, I can talk forever about them.) Among the key tasks where a mistake could lead to disaster are cleating a halyard incorrectly, taking a bearing carelessly, steering by the wrong lubber's line on the compass, and going on deck in rough weather without a safety harness. Somebody on board might be used to different equipment. If so, on board leaders should explain why the use the procedures and they should be open to suggestions for better ways.
A poor crew responds to established procedures by stubbornly ignoring them and going her or his own way, but such passive-aggressive behavior eventually leads to more and greater hassles. A good crew can take the edge off his frustration by asking (at the appropriate moment), "Why do you do it this way, skipper?" A Bligh will answer such a reasonable question with a cold, withering stare or even a snarl. But a skipper with a sense of fair play will answer the question politely and thoroughly.
And a good leader will also remember to: "Look people in the eye when you talk to them!" "Be attentive to detail!" And "Be patient!"
The Value of Leadership Offshore by John Rousmaniere
Safety Essentials by John Rousmaniere
Let us Now Praise Famous Men by Dan Dickison
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