All sailors are likely to be in charge of a yacht at some time or another, whether they are owner/skippers or simply in charge of a watch. But that does not make them the skipper, there can be only one skipper, and to quote a very regularly used phrase, ‘it isn’t a democracy’.
Command skills may have been developed from a ‘zero to hero’ sailing course, or by sailing with those more experienced. Some are born to lead and some to follow. Sea time is what counts, whether you are in charge of your family on a charter holiday or aiming for a commercial career in the marine industry.
During this article we will look at what it takes to be an effective skipper.
When I started commercially flying as a junior first officer over 20 years ago I was told right away to ‘think like a captain.’ This means that in situations that require leadership and decision making, think how you would solve a problem and compare it to the solution that the skipper suggests. At the start of your career your solutions may possibly be quite different but as you gain experience they should align. Don’t think ‘what do they want me to do,’ think ‘what would I do as the skipper.’
The core competencies shown in the bubbles above describe the intellectual skills required to safely operate a yacht, commercial ship or aircraft for that matter. For example task and workload management are important during routine operations such as docking, tacking or gybing, whilst problem solving and decision making will become essential when facing non-normal and emergency situations such as dealing with technical failures to fire on board. I’ll cover each one briefly but you may want to study each topic further since each topic is worthy of an article in itself.
Leadership & Teamwork
Leadership is one of the most essential skills to have as a skipper and that is why it sits at the top of the diagram. (See my June 2021 Article on Leadership) Simply speaking you can’t be a skipper without it. Leadership is the trait that binds a crew together and gets everyone pulling in the right direction. Leadership is a way of being. It doesn’t begin when you leave the dock, it begins days or weeks before when planning for a voyage, analysing weather, vittling, making sure your crew are prepared and making sure the vessel is seaworthy. Leadership is an art that can be learnt and honed, practiced and improved.
There are many leadership styles and I’ll touch on three obvious ones:
This is an autocratic, direct and dominant style. The skipper likes to maintain control, makes decisions independently and he/she likes to exercise authority rather than leadership. Most followers (certainly trained professionals) resent this type of leadership in normal circumstances.
Focus on: Leader
This is a democratic, shared leadership style where the leader allows his subordinates to become involved, making the most of the team’s strengths and minimising their weaknesses. However the leader maintains the final decision making authority.
Focus on: Team
In this style the leader allows his subordinates free reign on their tasks and allows them to make their own decisions. This could be because the team has the required skills and information to complete the tasks (good) or because the leader abrogates his responsibility due to laziness, incompetence or lack of confidence in his own skills (bad).
Focus on: Followers
There is no one style for all situations and you may need to adapt your style depending on your crew or situation. A time critical emergency situation requires a more authoritarian style for example. Be respectful, professional, calm, confident and approachable. Try to be authentic, be yourself. Do not pretend to be anyone else. Use your unique skills.
Communication occurs 100% of the time and is verbal and non-verbal. Use the 3 C’s checklist when communicating with your crew! When passing your message make sure you are clear, concise & courteous.
Communication is a two-way street. You must be an active listener too. Listen more and talk less. You will gather more ideas and information this way and have a far better idea of the situation.
Problem Solving & Decision Making
The decision making process is a circular method where you initially try to define the problem and gather as much information as possible. From this information you and your crew can generate ideas for solutions. A solution will be chosen and implemented. Then, and most importantly, you go back to the beginning and review the outcomes of your decision.
Are we achieving our desired outcome?
“Remember it’s better to make an even poor decision, that can be perhaps refined, than to make no decision at all.”
In aviation we use the CLEAR model it applies equally at sea:
CLARIFY the problem
LOOK for ideas and share information
EVALUATE different solutions
ACT on your decision
Task & Workload Management
As a skipper you must ensure you and your crews’ workload is managed to ensure things get done safely and efficiently by evenly distributing and delegating activities. At the core of workload management are the concepts of prioritisation and delegation.
During periods of high workload, prioritisation is extremely important to ensure essential and fundamental tasks are accomplished first. To effectively accomplish your prioritised tasks you must assign duties and responsibilities to your crew to share the workload. Delegation is an essential part of leadership. You do not have to do everything yourself! Work smarter, not harder.
As the skipper, make sure you manage your own personal workload so you don’t lose mental capacity and become overloaded. Don’t get distracted, stick to robust work routines.
SA as it’s known, is a person’s continuous perception of self and vessel in relation to the dynamic environment of sailing, threats, and mission, and the ability to forecast, then execute tasks based on that perception.
SA is interwoven with Leadership, Workload management, Communication, Risk management and ultimately affects judgement and decision making.
“Situational Awareness is when perception matches reality and you are able to act upon it in a timely and rational manner. Good SA allows you to maximise opportunities to avoid undesirable situations.”
Never let the boat take you where your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.
An important part of situational awareness is actively monitoring and cross checking. Don’t assume tasks have been completed by your crew. Monitor them and check things have been completed.
Perceive and recognise what is going on and react to it.
Understand what is happening. A holistic view of events.
Take ‘notice’ and ‘understand’ and be proactive using both.
Threat & Error Management (TEM)
You are only human and as such prone to making mistakes especially when under the conditions of stress, fatigue or being overloaded. Mistakes are part of our daily life so it’s important we manage them.
Try to identify possible threats and what we can do to mitigate them or avoid them. Let’s say we are anchoring and there is a forecast of thunderstorms. I would suggest we use an extra 10m of anchor chain due to the threat of high winds and dragging.
Threats could include weather, a system malfunction, shallow water or areas of piracy. They have the potential to increase risk and decrease safety.
Known or expected you can prepare or manage the expected threat. Do I want to leave a safe haven with a poor weather forecast?
No forewarning is available. Once the Unexpected threat has been recognised you must apply your skills and knowledge to counter the threat. Your engine has failed close to a lee shore. Can you continue to sail or anchor?
On the triangle diagram if errors do slip through due to your actions or inactions you must try to trap and resist and resolve the error, recovering to a safe state. Resist is a “hard” safeguard and comes from system defences (AIS, shallow water alarm, anchor drag alarm etc) or formal procedures. For a MOB, man overboard, use your training and MOB checklist.
Even with the best designed equipment “hard” safeguards may not be enough to ensure all errors are trapped. Therefore it may be necessary for Resolve. These are “soft” safeguards and come from crew technical and non-technical skills, knowledge, preparation and the core competencies being discussed (SA, decision making, communication, workload management and leadership etc) seamanship, experience and training.
Error management is always recovering from things that have already happened and as such you are forced to be proactive. If you fail to recognise the error or mismanage that error then an undesired outcome will occur.
“YOU and the decisions YOU make are often the final layer of defence.”
Recovery from the Unplanned
As mentioned above you are human and will make mistakes. What is important is how you learn from those mistakes and ensure that the same mistake doesn’t happen again. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
Successive Approximation. Many of the skills required of a sailor are repetitive. As you do and redo these skills you become more proficient at them. This is why as human beings, training is so important. When was the last time you practiced your MOB procedures or spent a couple of hours docking under different conditions? You can practice actively doing Successive Approximation long before you are a skipper!
Normal and Non-Normal procedures, Publications and Documentation. In the May 2021 edition of Ocean Sailor I showed you how to create a Green Normal checklist covering the normal preparation and operation of your vessel and a RED non-normal checklist. By knowing the contents of these checklists, equipment operation manuals and regional port requirements for example, you will be guided towards making the right decisions and make fewer mistakes. You don’t have to know the document by heart, just know where the information lies so you can easily reference it.
Time Out. If faced with a challenging situation I always say, ‘sit back, make a cup of tea and think about it.’ Take time to pause, and then think the situation through. Making ‘off the cuff’ decisions when pressed for time is a sure way to introduce errors. Stay calm, if you start to panic or look worried this will surely spook your crew.
Other People. Utilise your crew and the expertise of other people around you.
Command is not a solo enterprise; you are the leader of a team.
Other people may recognise the problem or have seen it before you, especially if you’ve been off watch. They may have developed a solution but want your agreement to carry it through, or need your assistance in doing. It’s not a failure of command to ask for the crew’s help. When you make a mistake, take ownership of it. As a skipper, if the crew makes a mistake, it is your responsibility and ultimately your mistake. Resolve it, learn from it and then move on. The mistake happened in the past; make sure you continue to operate in the present to produce satisfactory outcomes in the future.
Recovery from the Unplanned
In conclusion, the skills required to be an effective skipper are like the pieces of a jigsaw. It requires many different pieces that are not separate, but interrelated. It’s your job to arrange all the pieces into a whole so your command is effective. Be authentic and do it your way.
To start with, you may be missing some pieces or they may be partially formed. However with experience, perseverance, a positive attitude, TEM, SA, communication, leadership, communication, workload management, problem solving and decision making will all come together. Every piece is linked and relies on the others. Nothing in Command happens in isolation.
The jigsaw is hard and complex but with time and experience it becomes a way of ‘being,’ and will become comfortable, effortless, straightforward and highly gratifying.
How you choose to solve the puzzle is up to you as an individual. However, as skipper, you must run the show YOUR way.
Know your vessel
Note By Dick Beaumont
There is no substitute for a complete, or at least very extensive, knowledge of the vessel and its capabilities, the spares it carries, and the tools necessary to attempt to fix the hundreds of problems that can occur.
You must know where the manuals are and that they are complete and legible.
Everyone knows a skipper is responsible for their crew, but that responsibility begins on shore with the skipper’s evaluation of the vessel’s suitability for the voyage and the conditions you and your crew will experience. Don’t let anyone talk you into leaving until you are confident that you’re ready to go, flight dates and times, promises to spouses, birthdays, weddings and bar mitzvahs must be ignored.
Choose a place or a time but never a place and a time.
This excellent and extensive article, and the responsibilities it outlines, may seem daunting to the uninitiated, but if you chose to lead a crew it’s a two way street, the crew must understand their role is to support and assist the skippers and the decisions he takes, but the crew equally should expect their skipper, to be able, competent and fully informed about the yacht,the crew and the voyage he is undertaking with them.
The buck stops here.