What business can learn from sailing

Caressa sailing‘What do you feel you learned from your sabbatical break?’ A colleague asked me this last week, and it got me thinking. There were so many things, from rediscovering my love of the outdoors, to how to bake ginger flapjacks. But one experience stood out – the week I spent learning to sail.

I took a Royal Yachting Association course, Competent Crew, which is designed to take you from rank land-lubber to salty sea-dog in six days. I spent the week living aboard a 36-foot yacht, learning to steer a course, tie knots, hoist and trim sails, wind a winch and other sea-faring tasks. As importantly, I got to know five strangers and took my place in a team which lived cheek-by-jowl, cooking and preparing food together, eating and clearing up,  washing and sleeping in close proximity. Sailing a small boat is a real test of your team spirit.

There were good days and bad, things that went well and times when it all went a bit pear-shaped. As the lowliest junior on board (the others were experienced sailors going for their Yachtmaster qualifications) I felt happiest when I was given a defined role, with a task I’d had clearly demonstrated to me, knowing who was in charge and feeling I could trust them to keep the boat safe. Which is how many of us would like to feel at work, I realised.

So, in true business school style, here’s my top nine lessons from sailing a yacht, for people leading a small team in business:

  1. Know where you’re going and communicate that clearly to the crew. Be specific – ‘Steer best course to windward around 023 degrees for about ten minutes, until you can see a northerly cardinal’ may sound like gibberish, but it’s a lot more useful than ‘Go over there and try not to hit anything’.
  2. Make sure the crew understands your jargon, especially if they’re new. Sailing with experienced sailors, I had to ask questions continually, to make sure I knew what they actually wanted me to do. Check that your crew know that the stern is the blunt end at the back, before you ask them to go there.
  3. Give people specific tasks and watch them do them a couple of times to make sure they’ve got it. ‘That’s not  a clove hitch’ I heard someone mutter, inspecting my precariously tied-on fenders. No, because no-one had checked I knew how to tie one. I do now, having practised until I could do them in my sleep.
  4. It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep a look-out, but the captain’s responsibility to take decisions. Make sure all the crew know to alert you to a whacking great tanker approaching fast, even if they think you’ve probably seen it. Once you’ve been alerted, it’s your responsibility to decide whether to change course.
  5. Make sure people know to tell  you if something is stopping them doing their job properly. Most of the trip we had great weather. One day the North Sea chop got up, and I realised I was going be sick. I needed to tell the captain so he didn’t give me a vital job that I’d be unable to do properly. He could also tell me where to position myself to be the least inconvenience to the rest of the crew.
  6. Getting from the start to the end of the journey is important, but so is keeping your people safe. People being sick overboard is a major cause of drownings, especially at night when there’s no-one around. The skipper told one of the crew to hang onto the strap on my life-jacket while I fed the fishes, to make sure I didn’t fall in. Humiliating, but kind of reassuring too.
  7. Some decisions need to be taken immediately. There’s a saying in sailing that the time to take in a reef (reduce the size of the sail so there’s less wind force on the boat) is as soon as you start thinking about taking in a reef. It’s much harder to do if you leave it until the wind has strengthened further and the boat is heeled over at 30 degrees. Difficult situations tend to get harder to resolve, not easier, with time.
  8. You can adapt your plan to fit the prevailing weather, but you can’t change the weather. Plans without flexibility only need one thing to go wrong for them to fail. There are many, many things that can go wrong. Build in some contingency to deal with them.
  9. Team morale and well-being are incredibly important. A crew that’s slept well, fed well and feels valued will always outperform one that’s knackered, hungry and resentful. Food on a boat is incredibly important. Lucky I got so good at making those flapjacks.
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