No two skippers are the same and everyone has different leadership styles, but Chris Tibbs believes certain traits will make you into a skipper that crew will want to sail with
We become skippers by a number of different routes; many dinghy sailors will eventually become yacht owners after years of crewing on different yachts. Sea schools are well attended and boats are often keen to take on crew from schools, allowing students to gain experience and miles to help with qualification.
There are also many people who come to sailing later in life; after buying a boat, these people tend to learn from the experience of sailing their own yacht.
I think it is also fair to say that, along with the many ways of getting into sailing and becoming a skipper, good skippers will have different leadership styles – no two are the same. Over the years, having sailed with many different skippers, I have noticed a number of common traits in a good skipper.
By melding together the points I like in a skipper this has hopefully made me a better skipper, both for when I was working commercially running yachts, and now aboard my own.
I find that a skipper who is calm and confident goes a long way to maintaining a nice feel to a boat. Easily said, but it is a fine balance between confidence and arrogance; and being too laidback can give an impression of laziness, extending to preparations and maintenance. Staying calm and in control during a crisis rubs off on the whole crew and the boat becomes much quieter and under control.
There is plenty of time for a please and thank you, along with an explanation of what needs doing and how it should be done. It also gives time to work on a solution to any problems and avoids panicked decisions. This is communication in a way that is effective and also pleasant.
People dislike being shouted at (I certainly do); it inhibits crew doing their job as they are afraid of getting it wrong, so they wait until told to do something. This can be very frustrating for a skipper, particularly when racing and the pressure is on, which in turn leads to more shouting.
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I equate the amount of noise on board to be in inverse proportion to the sum of knowledge. I do find that being on a boat with a skipper who stands behind the wheel shouting at the crew is not much fun and, if asked back, will generally decline the invitation.
There is something great about helming your own boat in a race, but if you are also trying to run all aspects of the boat from behind the helm you can get stressed. Then your helming declines as your concentration jumps from one task to another.
It is much better to have a crew boss or mate who controls the running of the boat, managing manoeuvring instructions and allowing the skipper to concentrate on helming. The alternative is for the skipper to manage the running of the boat and have a different helmsman. Large racing boats will often have separate helmsman, navigator and tactician, with the skipper in overall control.
This is another important lesson: delegation and training. There are many decisions taken on board that really do not need to involve the skipper once a general plan has been made.
For example, does the skipper really need to micromanage all the food that is bought for a transatlantic passage? By delegating a large proportion of the running of the yacht to others it does free up the skipper to focus attention on the more important issues.
5 top tips for a good skipper
- Communicate clearly.
- Stay calm and confident.
- Promote fairness and listen to your crew (treat them with respect).
- Be cheerfully available at all times, whenever called.
- Act decisively.
I skippered a yacht in the BT Global Challenge where everyone on board had an area of responsibility, although things would be discussed. We split things up in a number of ways: for example, one crewmember, who worked in the oil industry, was the safety officer.
It was their responsibility to make sure all our safety equipment was in working order and serviced. They would also give a safety briefing to new crewmembers as to where equipment was stowed and how it should be used.
By giving responsibility to a crewmember, it relieves some of the skipper’s duties, but more importantly it helps crew quickly become part of the team. During the last ARC one of our crew arrived only a couple of days before the start – immediately he set to work on a jobs list and his comment afterwards was that it allowed him to familiarise himself with the boat and made him feel part of the crew.
Part of the skipper’s job is to explain and teach; it is pointless to get angry at a crewmember for doing something wrong if they have never been shown how to do it right.
Although it is often easier to do something yourself than explain how it should be done, it is important for other members of the crew to be able to tackle particular jobs.
Then if something needs doing in a stressful situation they will not be doing it for the first time under pressure, when something is very likely to go wrong.
Some crew may not be very experienced, but all should be willing to learn – with a bit of help and encouragement they will soon become efficient crewmembers, whether for a day’s sail, or an ocean passage. I find it easier to hand over the helm when showing what I would like done rather than trying to do it from a fixed place with divided concentration.
You only have to watch manoeuvres in a marina for a short time to spot a boat getting into difficulties and a significant amount of shouting and swearing starts. The skipper has lost control of the boat and will shortly lose control of the crew, then will spend a long time contemplating the wonders of single-handed sailing.
It is important to get away from the blame culture. If something is done wrong a quiet word will be more effective than balling somebody out; most people are upset when they do something wrong and I see no point in making it worst by public humiliation.
As a skipper it is important always to be available and never to be upset or grumpy at being called, even if it turns out not to be necessary. I recall one dark night in the English Channel when the crew on watch were discussing a ship.
One was quite certain that we were passing behind the ship, the other equally certain we were passing in front. On hearing this I got up to find that there was a ship close by and where one crew was seeing the running lights, the second was seeing lights at the stern and in front of us was a wall of steel! A (very) quick gybe and all was well.
I will never ask anyone to do something that I would not be prepared to do myself; whether changing a sail on the foredeck at night in a gale, or climbing the mast. While younger, fitter crewmembers might be better suited to the task, is it safe or right for them to do it? I look at the task and ask myself would I do it? If the answer is yes I do it myself or, if the volunteer will do it better, then I may be persuaded.
If however the answer is no, then we must find another solution. As I get older I may have to change my thinking as it gets more difficult to do the tougher physical activities.
Safety first – Angus Fuller
- Safety, safety, safety – make this a priority, not just on deck, but below: in the galley, moving in the interior, even in the heads.
- Wear lifejackets at night. Always.
- Respect the environment, particularly with a view to pollution.
- Remember you can’t do everything so delegate/rely on crew wherever possible.
- Carry out drills before departure, ensure all crew understand their roles during any scenario. At halfway, have a chat, table top drill or even a full drill in order to keep the crew refreshed.
- Pay attention to detail. This applies to pretty much everything, from maintenance of systems to presentation of the yacht to monitoring the weather.
- Communicate the plan to the crew: a daily briefing on weather (lunch time is ideal), route, any change in this owing to weather and why. At sunset, issue night orders for changes in wind speed and direction.
- Ensure clear parameters are set with the crew so they know when to wake the skipper in the event of changes in weather, shipping, landfall, etc.
- Never be afraid to brief the crew before a manoeuvre – and a debrief after a manoeuvre can be a very useful process for both the skipper and crew.
- Reef when you first think about it – invariably performance doesn’t suffer that much (and is often improved) if it’s a marginal decision.
- Aim to have the yacht arrive in the same condition, or preferably better, than when you departed. By definition this means you will be looking after the yacht properly during the passage.
- Know the cruising area or stretch of water being transited. If you don’t, then heavily research it.
- Exercise seamanship to the very best of your ability at all times and instil this in your watch leaders from the outset.
- Assemble a crew who aren’t just good sailors, but compatible personalities too.
Fairness is all
You also need to be fair, whether this means splitting the watch times so all the crew are happy, or balancing meals and meal preparation. Fairness is important and it is easy to fall into routines where one person feels unfairly treated.
At the start of a long ocean passage on my boat one crewmember, who did not suffer from seasickness, ended up making drinks and snacks for everyone; this became the norm and after a few days they became unhappy because they were doing more than their fair share of galley duties.
Small things like that can quickly become big on a boat at sea. Another time I had a habit of always running the generator and watermaker at the same time of day; this became annoying for the off-watch as it made sleep more difficult, something I was not aware of at first as it did not affect me. Having a time where everyone comes together, maybe meal times, can be a good time to address small issues before they get bigger.
Part of a skipper’s responsibility to the crew is safety and this is not only their direct personal safety, but also the maintenance of the boat and equipment.
I find it useful to have plenty of discussions about what could go wrong and the equipment we have on board and how it can be used.
Man overboard practices and fire drills should be done as a matter of course, but it not always that easy, particularly on short voyages. However, a safety briefing should be done for all new crewmembers even if they are only on board for a daysail.
What is perhaps not so comfortable for skippers is having to resolve interpersonal problems. This may just involve switching the watch system around, or may mean you have to ask someone to leave: not a nice job for anyone to have to do, but a happy boat tends to be a safer boat – and faster if racing.
One problem that can become an issue on races and rallies is how hard the boat will be pushed. What might be pushing hard for a racing person will be different for a cruiser and it is easy for people to become apprehensive (or plain scared) when out of their comfort zone.
Then there is the issue of money on cost sharing or paying your way boats. It is important before committing to sail together to have a firm agreement on what is expected on both sides.
It should also be clear who is paying travel costs as, although a boat may be legally responsible for repatriating crew, most non-commercial yachts expect crewmembers to be responsible for their own travel.
Who’s the leader?
There can be times when a crewmember may be as experienced (or maybe more so) than the skipper. This can cause tension and insecurity in the skipper’s position.
For a day or so it should not be a problem, but on a longer passage a feeling of being undermined can set in. As a skipper it is useful to be open to ideas, they may be better than yours as everyone’s experiences are different, but at the end of the day the yacht is your responsibility.
Trying to get a balance between listening to, but being able to reject ideas may not be easy and can be a difficulty when taking on crew that you may not have sailed with in the past.
I have seen this a number of times in the ARC where a boat has taken on an experienced crewmember, but it has blurred the lines as to who is the skipper and caused tension.
I do find choosing a crew difficult; it does partly depend on what I am intending to do. For a long passage an enthusiastic, positive person will make up for any shortcomings in experience.
We all have to live together so getting on is important, along with a willingness to share all tasks. As we are sharing our boat, which is our pride and joy, respecting and looking after it should be a priority.
Damage will occur and owners/skippers need to be prepared for this, but a carelessly dropped saucepan on the newly varnished cabin sole is avoidable and immensely irritating.
My ultimate test is: would I be happy working on the foredeck in bad conditions with this person? A definite no-no for me is laziness, particularly crew not willing to muck in with the bad bits as well as the good.
Speak to your crew – Tom Cunliffe
- Communication is key. No ‘mushroom management‘.
- Listen/watch, crew and boat.
- Remain cheerful, or at least positive, even when woken during your watch below.
- Above all, make sure all hands are running on the same ‘motivation fuel tank‘. If they all want the same thing, you are three-quarters of the way to a happy ship.
- By all means communicate legitimate concerns, but never irrational anxieties.
- Sit down before you start, agree ship’s articles and all sign them. Everyone must know their duties. If money is involved, details of this must also be inscribed, as well as a probable route with contingencies. Then, when things turn to the bad and aggro starts, you get out the articles and read them together. End of problem (given to me by one crew of Sandefjord, which sailed in the 1950s from South Africa).
Choosing a skipper also has its pitfalls. Experience and competence is difficult to judge on first meeting and going for a sail together is important. Personally I would avoid a shouter at all costs.
Competence levels are more difficult to measure, but a well-run, tidy boat is a good indicator while one with a long jobs list could indicate that things have slipped.
A quick look in the bilges and at the engine can give a clue as to maintenance and a check on lifejackets will show thoughts on safety. I recently did a safety check on a yacht for an event to find that the owners had brand new top of the range lifejackets for themselves while the crew ones were old, without lights or sprayhoods. I am not sure I would have enjoyed sailing on that boat!
Skippering a yacht well is not an easy task, there are so many aspects to the job. It becomes easier with experience and there is no substitute for miles sailed. Good sailors are not necessarily great skippers, but good skippers must also be good sailors.
I have a great deal of respect for the late Sir Peter Blake and, although I never had the privilege to sail with him, I sailed against him on two Whitbread Round the World races. He always found time to have a friendly word and generated great crew loyalty on board his boats.
Be the best leader you can – Jim Thom
- It’s becoming progressively easier to access sophisticated weather information. A good skipper will prepare the yacht for the actual weather, not the forecast he/she’d like.
- Monitor the yacht’s position and the conditions, high and low-tech, from radar/chart plotter to barometer. Even though electronics are increasingly failsafe, a good skipper keeps a record on paper, in the log and on a chart – even the most advanced yachts can be struck by lightning, or suffer power failure. A good skipper will also listen to their senses, and to their sixth sense. They’ll ask themselves where that low swell is coming from or why the seas have become steeper. Shallow reefs may tint the underside of clouds green or blue, and the sound of breakers will hopefully never come as a surprise. Rain has a distinctive smell at sea, as does land and your nose will tell you when ice is near.
- A good skipper will look for the ‘horseshoe nail’ – lost from the messenger’s horse, it triggered the chain of events that lost a kingdom. Regular checks of the yacht, including sails and rig, deck fittings, bilges, steering, engine and machinery, will help the skipper and crew stay ahead of the law of entropy, and out of the incident pit.
- Create a flexible structure without being overly prescriptive. Agree standard practice with the crew: how lines should be made off on a cleat; how to use and make fast on a winch, how to shake out a reef, how to make engine checks, etc. Establishing basic procedures avoids surprises and allows crew to develop skills and think further. A good skipper will prevent boredom and apathy by agreeing daily routine maintenance tasks and helping to develop projects that improve the yacht and teach useful skills on board.
- A good skipper’s best attributes are not related to technical expertise, but to self management, leadership and communication skills. If you develop a set of team and personal goals then a common understanding will prevent many hot spots from forming.
- A good skipper will try to manage their own emotions, knowing the effect they can have on morale. They’ll keep an eye on each member of crew and on the mood of the team, finding reasons to celebrate together – crossing the line, halfway point, a birthday, a good day’s run, or just a great day at sea.
About the authors
Chris Tibbs is a meteorology and weather router, as well as a professional sailor and navigator, forecasting for Olympic teams and the ARC rally.
Angus Fuller is a professional skipper, MCA Chief Mate 3000GT (yachts), who has made 29 transatlantic crossings, 21 as skipper, and one transpacific crossing as skipper, plus one circumnavigation upwind and sailed over 300,000 miles.
Jim Thom has been skipper of a Robert Clarke sail training yacht, a Baltic trader, a Clipper Round the World Race yacht and for four years was captain of the Fife design Kentra. From 2003-2012 he was captain of the 125ft Fife 19 Metre Mariquita with his wife, Lucy, as mate.
Tom Cunliffe is a Yachtmaster Instructor Examiner, author of numerous books on seamanship and is a contributor to Yachting World, responsible for our ‘Great Seamanship’ features.