Life and leadership lessons from the sea
About two years ago I decided to get a Day Skipper license, so I could sail a boat and enjoy island hopping in the Mediterranean. I had this picture of myself at the helm of a sailing boat, enjoying the sunshine with a beer on deck and diving in crystal blue waters, while the boat was safely anchored just outside a quaint port: nothing had prepared me for the beautifully harsh reality of sailing.
See, before the training, I had only sailed in the Med, with no tidal heights to worry about, and with relatively good weather. I knew the basics of sailing and I always enjoyed the sea, having grown up on an island in Italy. I set about the Comptetent Crew and the Day Skipper courses with loads of confidence, only to realise, while at the helm of a boat in force 7 waves, what it really meant to be a leader at sea.
Below are some life and work lessons I learned from sailing and skippering.
Respect the sea.
“The sea gives, and the sea takes.”
This is one of the first lessons I have ever learned while growing up on an island. The sea is a source of food, protection, commercial opportunity and fun, but it’s also dangerous and unpredictable. Only by showing respect to the sea you can ever think to sail safely, and safely you must sail if you want yourself and the crew to survive and thrive. Knowing weather conditions and charts is fundamental to stay safe and enjoy the sea. Your crew puts their fate in your hands as a leader, and being prepared and respectful of the dangers of the sea is the minimum you can do.
Be first up.
In my skippering course I had to be the first up on deck every day. No matter how tired I was or how late I went to sleep the night before, my first thought of the day was to put on my boots and waterproofs and be up to make sure we had all charts and courses set, that the weather forecast had been checked, and the crew awake. This shows that the only way to lead is by example. If the skipper doesn’t take his role seriously, why should the crew?
Keep a tight ship.
Following the concept of being prepared, the ship is your main tool: it’s the difference between sinking and sailing, between life and death. The ship should be clean and functional, latches secured before getting out of port, gas checked, engine checked etc. When push comes to shove, you will be glad you did those checks, that your ship has all equipment necessary and is at its top shape. This is true for any job you do: make sure your tools are appropriate and that you maintain them as they deserve.
Assign people, not tasks.
Milliseconds can make the difference in a life or death situation and uncertainty in command can only waste precious time. On a boat, the skipper doesn’t ask “Can someone put in a reef?”, he asks “Joe, put in a reef”. As the person responsible for the success of your trip, not to mention the safety of your crew, you cannot afford to lose time. In the first case there would be uncertainty onto who has the best skills to do the job quickly and well, there could be conflicts; the second demand is not vague and produces an immediate effect. I find this is true also in the workplace, I avoid asking “Can someone do this?” over email or in person, as it just leaves a void of decision, with the recipients not feeling they need to step up and do anything.
Prepare your crew for what’s to come.
As a skipper one of your duties is to brief the crew before the journey. The crew needs to know the ship, the course to follow, the key buoys to encounter during the journey. You want the crew to do most of the work for you, while you step in, only when the crew cannot handle the situation on their own. This means trusting your team to carry out the job without you holding their hands, it’s about managing and letting them develop their own skills and confidence, while you keep focused on the main goal: get your crew safely to port.
Look confident, even when you aren’t.
Panic is no good in any situation and the last person that can allow himself to panic is the skipper. When you suddenly realise a chart was not up to date and you have been forced to work with partial information, it is important to exude confidence while keeping your cool. Get the crew to work together confidently, while you take responsibility for restoring optimal conditions for your trip.
There is much more to learn at sea, you just need to board and set your course.