The Value of Leadership Offshore - SailNet Community
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The Value of Leadership Offshore

Under Murphy's Law, even pleasant daysails can come apart at the seams.
Sailing, like all of life, is ruled by Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong eventually will go wrong. The true test of good seamanship is not that we make no mistakes—that is impossible—but whether we catch our inevitable mistakes and minimize them. How easy it is to read a "6" as an "8" on a GPS, miscalculate a reciprocal bearing, or go forward with your safety harness tether hooked onto the jib sheet instead of the jackline. The trick is to find it out before the error evolves into a disaster.

Because we are all naturally prone to making mistakes, many people try to place their trust wholly in technology. They spend a lot of time speculating about the "perfect" piece of gear. Perfection is a pipe dream at best, so reasonable effectiveness is a far better rule—a conservative failsafe standard that anticipates problems by keeping gear and operations simple and straightforward.

All this cannot happen without effective leadership. A properly led crew can get Captain Murphy off the helm. Good leaders—skippers, first mates, watch captains, and navigators—lead by command and by example. By attending to every detail, they show the crew what's expected of them. They inspect everything, they take their turn doing dirty work like washing dishes, they eat properely and get their rest, and they put on sun lotion, PFDs, and safety harnesses early. The crew will get the point.

Experienced skippers know that a healthy dose of acute skepticism will stand them in good stead offshore.
Good leaders are imbued with forehandedness—an attitude that is a close relative of acute skepticism. For example, during every watch, in any weather, someone must take a tour of the boat to look for frayed sheets, loose shackles, torn sails, poorly cleated or coiled halyards, loose set screws in stanchion bases, and other signs of trouble. A few years ago, during a midwatch expedition to the foredeck in black squalls in the Gulf Stream, what should appear in the beam of my flashlight, down in the lee waterway, but two glints of metal. They turned out to be the set screws for the roller-furling drum, which, of course, was useless without them. We screwed them back in with some Loc-Tite and wrapped it all up with tape.

A forehanded state of mind leads to other anti-Murphy resolutions:

No boat is exactly where the navigator wants her to be. An overly optimistic navigator is like a hormone-drunk 15-year-old prowling the shopping mall for a date, prepared to fall in love with the first blonde who comes along. The wrong blonde may cause only disillusionment, but a mistaken position or aid to navigation may cause a wreck. Think of a fix as not where you are precisely, but where you are probably. Not even the charts are as accurate as the GPS display promises. And if you're looking for an aid to navigation, be prepared to be wrong.

Fit the knot to the task. A double half-hitch may be reliable when tying the dinghy painter to a float, but it's a terrible knot for securing it to the boat when underway. It's sure to untie itself under the constant jerking as the dinghy sluices around in the wake. Likewise, the bowline is a great loop knot if the loop has to be untied frequently, but when tying a reefing line to the boom or a halyard to a shackle, use the buntline hitch, which locks itself tight.

"Good leaders know the boat and they also know people. "
Use preventers and safety harnesses. Keep booms and sailors steady so they don't fly all over the boat. It's not hard: a preventer can be a single nylon line from the boom to the side deck, and harnesses can be worn whenever it's bouncy and clipped to jacklines laid along the decks.

Good leaders know the boat and they also know people. Murphy is as likely to undermine a crew's morale as he is to untie a bowline or unscrew the anchor shackle. Good leaders spot trouble brooding in a crew and step in to bring order. While they are fountains of optimism, leaders know the dangers of boisterous rushes of adrenaline. An excellent example of an accident about to pounce is a fast spinnaker run with wild surfs. The crew is shouting, "11 knots! 12 knots! 12.1! 12.2!!" The excited steerer remains on the helm a bit too long and tries to sail too deep, while spinnaker trimmers square the pole back a bit too far and keep the chute on edge, instead of over-trimming and stabilizing it. The bursts of speed, with the accompanying whooping and hollering, distract everybody from the rising wind and building seas. One small steering error, one irregular wave—whack! The boat broaches.

One small steering error is all you need to bring on a broach, so leave the chest beating to everyone else.
Under calm, purposeful leadership, many crews have avoided not only dangerous flamboyance, but dangerous passivity and denial—Murphy's favorite tools for destroying morale and effectiveness in uncomfortable conditions. The crew must be convinced that survival is likely if they stay alert and in the moment. A good leader will encourage the crew to seek meaning in the experience itself by strengthening their relationships with shipmates, by reaching into their own spiritual resources, or by pausing as they go about the ship's business to note the awesome display of nature's power.

The crew's resolve will be enhanced by the conviction that something better is awaiting them at the other side of the storm. Thoughts of family and friends ashore often provide sufficient motivation to keep people sailing the boat actively in testing conditions rather than giving in. Consider how one distressed boat got through one of the worst storms of the late twentieth century, the 1994 Queen's Birthday Storm in the South Pacific. This remarkable story is told by Tony Farrington in his book Rescue in the Pacific.

Having a strong sense of purpose will enable most crews to endure even appalling conditions and enable them to overcome Murphy's influence.
Darryl and Diviana Wheeler and their family crew of inexperienced sailors were sailing north of New Zealand in their cruising catamaran, Heart Light, when they were hit by the tremendous blow. They made it through appalling conditions because they shared a belief that most of us would think bizarre: they were mystically convinced by an inner voice that they were sailing into a vortex where they would reconnoiter with aliens whose bright green space ship would gather them up and take them to a higher realm. The Wheelers' faith in this imminent rapture was motivation enough for the owner to steer actively for almost a day in Force 12 winds and 50-100 foot breaking waves that would easily have flipped the boat had the crew given up and laid ahull. The boat and crew survived appalling conditions long enough to be rescued by a fishing vessel (against their will, I should add).

As strange as this story may seem, it illustrates the value of strong purposefulness in conditions when passivity would mean catastrophe. Murphy doesn't want us to know it, but good seamanship is far more than equipment, and far more than technique.

Suggested Reading:

The Art and Science of Standing Watch by John Rousaniere

The Make of a Good Onboard Leader  by John Rousmaniere

At Odds with the Weather Gods by John Kretschmer

Buying Guide: Life Rafts

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