When people talk about the biggest obstacles to the growth of sailing, I’d suggest one word for starters: shouting
A few years ago I took part in a memorable regatta among the crew of a yacht whose owner and skipper was an extremely plummy and well-connected member of the legal profession – a business that of necessity is very particular about words. He was the epitome of charm and had the most impeccable manners.
Until the ten-minute gun.
As the gun fired, his demeanour and language underwent an instantaneous transformation. Now that matters were tinged with urgency, directives were peppered with profanities and hurled at the crew at top volume. Amidst the barrage of disparagements were volleys of more surgical character assassination. The ears of the pitiful crew rang with insults for over two hours, until we ran back across the finish line.
Sails were handed and stowed, the kettle was put on and hostilities ceased. The skipper was immediately restored to calm and resumed pleasantries as if nothing had happened.
Another year I raced with a crew of ladies who had dumbfounded me ashore by repeatedly exclaiming “Goody-goody-gumdrops!” (this is the verbal equivalent of a wearing a monocle) yet were turned to fishwives by the sound of the ten-minute gun and chain-smoked their way round a Cowes Week course yelling and commentating earthily on all their competitors.
I remember the skipper who verbally abused his kids every time he got stressed. And the businessman who invited clients and novice sailors for corporate racing only to berate them for their lack of skill on the race course.
Of course, racing isn’t always like that. But quite a lot of it is. Enough to put off new sailors, and perhaps your family.
When people talk about the biggest obstacles to the growth of sailing, I’d suggest one word for starters: shouting. This one of the nastier habits of many sailors, a guilty secret that is rarely spoken about.
I’m not saying I have never done it myself. I have, to my shame, and at one stage in my early racing days I genuinely thought it was the norm. But I hope I’ve been trained out of it, partly by cruising with experienced friends and by observing many professional crews who likewise pride themselves in communicating firmly but quietly.
So what should you do when you’re being shouted at? If you ask me, get off at the end of the race and don’t come back. As the old saw goes: what you put up with, you get more of.
Vote with your feet. It’s hard to find crew these days. It’s a volunteer’s market.
And if you are, as I once was, a bit of a shouter, remember, nothing speaks louder about your competence. The best sailors don’t need to raise their voices, except if there’s a real emergency. If you want to look like you really know what you’re doing, leave your inner martinet ashore.
But remember, too, that it’s a natural human instinct that most people struggle with and have to overcome. It takes a conscious effort.
Stuart Quarrie once talked to me about this. Quarrie, the race director at Cowes Week, and before that a full-time racing coach and professional navigator, had a revelation back in the 1980s when he was racing on the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s three-quarter tonner Griffin.
The experience changed him, and his outlook.
He had been running a training session out of Lymington, ahead of an offshore race.
“There were some pretty senior guys in the crew and I had been abusing them all week. I was a really nasty shouter and I’d try to motivate people by being unpleasant. I’d told them what idiots they were. Every manoeuvre was another shout. “Get that bloody headsail up faster, you plonkers!
“We got into Lymington early for the evening race and had a couple of hours off. Lymington is full of keen horse riders and at the warning signal for the evening race, the crew presented me with a beautiful lunge whip. It came with the instructions: ‘Now you can whip us while you’re shouting at us.’
“I felt pretty small. I said thanks very much and I taped the whip to the backstay for the rest of the week, supposedly ready for immediate use. I haven’t shouted since.
“From that moment onwards I changed the way I coached and the way I skippered. I hadn’t thought about the impact of it before. That day was life-changing for me and my job.
“Nowadays I cringe when I hear skippers either on the race course or even just cruising with their families screaming at their crews. Often it’s a lack of certainty in their own position, but even if you’re not sure, even if you don’t know if what you’re doing is the right thing or not, even if you don’t know how it’s going to go, shouting isn’t going to make it any better.”
I think we can all second that, those of us who have shouted or been shouted at. Enjoy the racing, but let’s have fun and leave the whip behind.