The Psychology Of Sailing Oceans

By Dick Beaumont

The open sea is the greatest leveller. Tough guys on land can be reduced to simpering babies and the shy and timid can mature overnight into capable, gritty crew members that step forward when the going gets tough.

In extreme circumstances, failures in the crew’s ability to socialise has lead to murder and a captain’s refusal to manage firmly or fairly has led to mutiny.

Whilst accounts of mutiny and murder in larger vessels, particularly Navy vessels, are well documented, those occurring on small vessels or yachts are less well known, but they certainly happen.

This article is written not to dramatise the issues created when a small number of individuals are locked together in a restricted space and deprived of comfort or sleep, but to make the skipper aware of his responsibility in recognising the psychological changes that may occur and to head them off before they
become critical.

If one looks at some basic traits that exist within individuals it becomes clearer to identify problems.

Good morale among the crew is 90% of the battle.

Radiators or Drains

In my experience, people fit into one or other of these two groups.

Radiators are people that exude warmth and good feeling. They are gregarious and generous in their attitude. They have a ‘never say die’ attitude and their cups are always at least half-full.

Drains are cold, selfish individuals who suck the life out of those around them. Their cups are leaky let alone half-empty.

A skipper must honestly appraise each member of his intended crew to eliminate the ‘drains’. On a long ocean voyage, their presence will be lethal to crew harmony and their negative attitude will certainly cause problems. These people are identified as not being ‘team players’ on land, but at sea, their negative attitude can have a much worse effect. On land you can walk away, or, in an on-land employment sense, dismiss them, at sea only a MOB ( man over board ) would bring back equilibrium! 

Ashore, where individuals are not forced to live and work together in a small space, the ‘drains’ may not be so obvious.

What a skipper must do, is be clear about the responsibilities and the expectations he has of his crew before leaving harbour. This will help to establish the all-important ground rules.

It’s a good idea to explain, in a warm and friendly manner, that onboard, democracy does not exist and that the skipper makes the final call.

It’s nonetheless important that the skipper reaches out to the crew to gain their input, none the less avoiding a lengthy debate. What the crew should be able to rely on, is that their skipper has the experience and knowledge to make and take the decisions necessary to deliver the yacht and the crew to safe harbour. It’s a two way street.

The skipper has to be right most of the time in order to be respected, but of course, the atmosphere you generate will be determined by how you are able to interact with your crew and it is very important to keep spirits high and positive.

I once saw an advert for crew for a passage from Bali to Darwin. It read: ‘Two crew required to join Captain Bob on a 6-week voyage to Darwin. Experience unnecessary but when Captain Bob says jump your only response can be how high’!

Perhaps his intention was to establish his authority, as is required, or maybe he was a descendant of Bligh the contentious captain of HMS Bounty, but I don’t think it’s helpful to start out with such an authoritarian attitude, although it is true that a well-disciplined ship provides the security, safety and therefore reassurance for crew morale. Better well-ordered fun, than anarchic frivolity.


This is the biggest issue and one that starts very easily if you are not aware. Look for it in the crew’s attitude to one another. 

If your crew is made up from long-standing friends, you have a head start, but even then you may be in for a few surprises, people’s social habits can be very different afloat. The longer resentment is left to fester the more other crew members will be affected and the greater the issues will become. You cannot avoid addressing these situations, or bottle them up as that will cause stress to all parties including you, so a ‘cards on the table’ approach is the way to go, be diplomatic but also make sure the message is clear.

The issues below will all create resentment amongst the crew:


There’s a difference between fastidiousness and the untidiness that leads to a shared cabin being a mess, with smelly clothes left on the floor and dirty cups left on the shelves.

If you leave it to the occupants of a cabin to sort it out between themselves it won’t work, as resentment will potentially develop when the untidy one of the crew doesn’t respond. Just tell them all, that any mess creates bad seamanship and must cease. The guilty party will no doubt know who the discussion is aimed at and the offended party knows you’re on it.

Make sure the washing up duties are evenly shared out, same with cleaning the heads (toilets).

Late on watch

This one factor is a massive source of disharmony if it is allowed to develop.

There is nothing worse than being very tired at the end of a watch and wondering if your crew-mate has woken up and is going to take over the watch on time.

Start by defining when a crew is due
on watch.

Unless it’s made clear by the skipper some crew will wake up 02:55 for a 03:00 watch, then go to the heads, then make themselves a cup of tea and arrive in the cockpit at 03:15 hours or so. It can’t and won’t work. It must mean that at 03:00 the crew coming on watch takes over the helm at 03:00 precisely.

The best way to avoid any late on watch issues caused by excuses such as ‘oh sorry my alarm didn’t go off’, is for it to be the on watch crew’s duty to go and physically wake the next watch up 15 mins before their watch starts. It creates peace of mind for the going off watch crew when they know their replacement is awake and getting sorted in time. If a crew member is still late, even by a couple of minutes, next time wake them 5 mins earlier until they are on time. 

A nice touch we always utilise is that the crew going off watch make a cup of tea for the new watch. It also saves to eliminate another delay to the on watch crews arrival at the helm.


It always surprises me, but I have had to remind crew on many occasions that if they make a cup of tea or a sandwich for themselves they must offer one to whoever is up as well, and over the years I have also had crew that have brought their own stash of chocolate or other snacks that they have hidden under their pillow, or in their bag, to furtively consume alone. 

I’ve even had crew eating their private snack in front of others that they are sitting with. ‘One for all, and all for one’ is the only way it can work. No private stashes.

Mixed Sex Crews

In was only in 1990 that the British Navy allowed women to be aboard at sea and although it is politically unthinkable today to continue a male-only rule, be aware of the dynamics that can occur between mixed-sex crews who are confined in a small area for long periods of time together. As I mentioned earlier, a ship or yacht cannot operate as a democracy, but even an autocracy can find gender issues, or affairs of the heart, difficult to address. Just be aware of the potential and switch on your personal radar, bet you’ll see a few blips!

The Midnight Watch Confessional

Steven Stills wrote the words ‘On the midnight watch I realised why twice you ran away’ in the iconic Crosby, Stills and Nash sailing song ‘The Southern Cross.’ Almost all crew are emotionally affected by the pure magic of sailing an ocean under a million stars and the words Stills wrote clearly tell me he had sat alone at the helm of his yacht MUSIC looking up at the universe.

Most are simply awestruck by the magnitude of the vista revealed to them as the entire firmament stretches across the horizon in every direction, but for some, it plunges them deep into introspection about what they are doing with their lives, or what they have done. I have often felt like a priest taking confession as their heartfelt and, perhaps long kept inner secrets, grudges or disappointments, are paraded like skeletons from the cupboards of the mind. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to break the confidences I have since kept, but be prepared for some jaw-dropping revelations. In my view, it is wisest to keep silent at the time, but also to make light of whatever was said at the next opportunity alleviating any embarrassment.  

Some great philosophical discussions will be had: ‘Is there a God?’, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’, ‘Is there life after death?’, ‘What is the meaning of time?’ to name just some of the topics that regularly arise.


Rather than try to give advice on this subject, I’ll simply warn you that there is no surer way of having an accident with, or on, your yacht than allowing unfettered consumption of alcohol. The sailors shanty ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’ is all very humorous, but please beware there is nothing funny about discovering, as you come on watch,  that the watch hasn’t been watching, he’s been drinking, and you are on an imminent collision course with a ship. 

On White Dragon just 18 months ago, after crossing the Indian Ocean, when we were just 200 miles from Rodrigues Island, I came up to take the watch and saw a tanker bearing down on us, no more than 400-500 metres away. We were under sail doing nine knots and I had to perform a fast gybe to bear away and avoid collision. The crew on watch had been drinking and he was asleep at the helm. He left the yacht in Rodrigues.

Many skippers I know run an entirely dry ship and don’t allow any alcohol to be consumed at sea and I certainly wouldn’t criticise them for that. However, many yachtsmen consider a sundowner to be a very agreeable part of the sailing day, weather permitting, and I concur, but unless you have very clear rules about how much and when, it’s a slippery slope.

The first point is that, once again, you must be prepared to accept that your previously held assumptions, in this case, about a person’s alcohol consumption may be badly skewed and trying to correct a problem after it has occurred may very well lead to resentment and disharmony, so, whatever alcohol policy you decide to follow, put it in place clearly and with conviction before you leave port and don’t allow anyone to break it. If they do, rather than single anyone out, adopt a total no alcohol policy for all. 

My alcohol policy is a maximum of two normal size drinks at any time other than within three hours of being on watch, or on watch when the limit is zero.


I never allow smoking on board simply because of the risk of damage to the yacht. Even though I have never had a crew decline a trip due to my no smoking policy, beware! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told ‘great that’s no problem at all’, only to find they are climbing the walls on the third day and getting very short-tempered with everyone. This is worse on a trip that is seven days or less when they still haven’t got passed the nicotine craving phase.

The Two Little Men

I realised long ago that when you go to sea there are two little men sitting on your shoulders, one on each side. I believe all sailors have these little men, but not everyone recognises them. Their names are ‘Now’ and ‘Later’.

When the wind starts to get up when you’re tired at the end of your watch Later whispers quietly in your ear ‘don’t worry, leave it, the wind will probably drop again soon’ but Now is jumping up and down shouting ‘get up, put a reef in NOW, NOW, NOW’. After you have paid the price of listening to Later a few times you will realise, however much you want to listen to Later at sea, you must only ever listen
to Now.

Choose your crew from sailors that only ever listen to Now. If you think it may be time to reef, it is. Investigate that new noise up on the foredeck, Zeus may have undone the anchor lashing, and find the door that might be banging somewhere below before all your freezer stock gets defrosted.

As a skipper at sea, you must always be ahead of the game.

“Zeus, my God of screw ups at sea.”

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