Updated: Jul 30, 2022
Leadership lessons can arise in many different areas of life and even in nature itself if you know how to listen. If you want to be an effective leader you have to be open to learning and insight and this years family holiday to the Whitsunday with Charter Yacht Australia provided a rich experience in leadership development. My role on the yacht was first mate and cook and my partner who had more training and experience sailing was a skipper, along with all our children and one of their friends being crew members. I did so a three week beginner sailing course and had some knowledge of ropes, working the sails and helming. Over the years I have had the fortunate experience to sail on friends boats from time to time but this trip taught me so much more about the wonderful experience of chartering your own yacht. Here's what I learned about leadership from our 8-day adventure sailing Vela Perfecta in the Whitsundays.
We arrived in the Whitsunday in mid January in the middle of wet season. I remember the bus driver doing our airport transfer say "Welcome to the Wetsunday." The weather and seas were hard to predict during our time away and although the middle of trip we had perfect weather conditions the start and end of the voyage was "hairy" to say the least. Sure we could follow the BOM reports but the weather and seas were a challenge we weren't expecting. The first two days it rained constantly and heavily, the humidity was 100%, the wind was 20-30 knots and the seas were rough and choppy. The last day a cyclone was predicted to reach land fall south of us in the morning and by evening north of us. It took good leadership to adapt to these initial conditions, press on despite the low visibility, being absolutely water logged to the point my skin began to wrinkle and needing greater reliance on the skippers ability to read the instruments.
With the unpredictable weather, winds and waves to navigate your stress levels go up because you need to be on high alert; especially during sailing and more so in the initial stages of getting used to the conditions and the expensive yacht your responsible for. Now I am a mindfulness teachers and have a few skills up my sleeve for managing stress but this kind of stress is essential for survival and if not managed well it can spiral out of control. Even when we anchored on the first few nights my body struggled to relax and sleep because of the new environment and the amount of unknowns I was exposed to. Primal mother instinct kicked in as I was compelled to check and re-check our position to the other boats, the anchor and the shoreline again and again over the course of the night. I recall feeling like an animal pacing the decks after midnight looking for a sign of danger. Eventually I used some of the stress management tools I teach, like mindfulness practice and looking for evidence of safety to regulate my nervous system and trust the process enough to get some much needed sleep! In the morning we were in the same place and I slowly began to adapt to my "sea legs."
When you start sailing you're effectively managing risks the whole time, it pays to be agile and flexible because the sea is never calm for long. There are many hazards you need to be constantly aware of including the weather unpredictability, the sea conditions, other yachts sailing around you, the powerful equipment that can crush you, falling overboard, sharks, bombies (coral reef build up) and human error. It's not uncommon to double and triple check everything you do and it helps if your crew is on board with some of these processes too so you're working closely together and your cohesion is strong. You also need to be able to think on your feet and make quick decisions when a hazard arises. Having a good instinct is really helpful but including your crew on important decisions if you can is also wise if you have time.
There are several different ways to get the maximum potential out of crew but our skipper modelled quiet and enabling leadership when there was disagreement or confusion he was also assertive enough to give direction quickly while under pressure. Working well in the team also requires really good trust, listening and communication as well as understanding your crew's ability. Each crew member needs to work collaboratively and this often involved letting the other person know through language or body signals what stage you were up to. For example I used my arm to indicate the direction of the anchor to the skipper who needed to steer the boat or when they were focussed on hoisting the sails I kept the boat steered away from the reef.
The safety of the crew is a number one priority for any skipper or first mate and should be in the organisational setting too. When the going got rough at sea our crew members began to feel seasick and some of them needed to rest. Luckily seasickness tablets helped ease the seasickness and no one actually threw up but a large portion of the crew was out of action during the rough stretches of our sail. We noticed they didn't all perform the same in challenging conditions and soon learned who we could rely on for help. I also learned quickly the best spot for me was seated next to the skipper at the helm unless needed downstairs to help the crew. As leaders my skipper and I had to reassure our crew members that they would get through the difficult periods and also let them know ahead of time so they would know what to expect. Our crew soon learned when we were sailing through the channels they could expect some rough seas and high winds and the maximum winds we had were 35 knot gusts which is not ideal for a catamaran. If the team feels like they are safe they are more likely to behave in a way that respects the safety of others so being mindful of safety will bring out the best in your people.
Getting to know what your crew likes doing and giving them responsibility helps unlock their potential in much the same way leadership coaching does. If you can enable your crew to work effectively together you then have more hands on deck, more minds focussed on the common goals and more eyes on safety and this instills confidence in your crew. The best way to do this is through building those relationships with compassion and patience, helping them learn what they need to, inspiring them to believe they can do it and showing how important their role is in the work that you all do together. Things like hoisting the sails while you're out at sea, tacking or gybing, anchoring or mooring or even lowering the dinghy take a crew to work together so it works best when everyone feels empowered to play their part in making the voyage successful.
"Throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Lastly I wanted to share with you a short video of the trip through the eyes of the youngest crew member who put this together with all our photo's film footage. All our crew members loved this trip and it was up there with my al time favourite experiences, not because it was always easy and relaxing but because I felt so alive. Enjoy!