What makes a good skipper?
“Skipper, the winds up to 50 knots, the parrot is shouting kill the captain and the rest of the crew abandoned ship yesterday. Shall we take some sail in?”
“I don’t know, it’s a lot of work, what do you think?”
It hardly instils confidence in the skipper, does it?
So, what makes a good skipper? I will be the first to admit that after numerous thousands of sea miles and living aboard for the last six or seven years I am not the best skipper in the world and still have so much to learn.
When I look back at my time sailing around the south coast of England I was inexperienced but had the confidence of youth. I felt I knew what I was doing and that self-assurance rubbed off on those around me. It is only now many years later that I realise I was the turkey at the top of the tree. Let me explain it like this.
A turkey was chatting with a bull.
‘I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree’ sighed the turkey, ‘but I haven’t got the energy.’
‘Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?’ replied the bull. ‘They’re packed with nutrients.’
The turkey pecked at a lump of dung, and found it gave him enough strength to reach the lowest branch of the tree.
The next day, after eating some more dung, he reached the second branch.
Finally, after a fourth night, the turkey was proudly perched at the top of the tree.
He was promptly spotted by a farmer, who shot him out of the tree.
Moral of the story:
Bull Shit might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.
Be calm and professional.
When it comes to sailing, especially further from home and over longer distances you don’t want to be that turkey. You need to have had carnal knowledge of the boat you are sailing in and be able to clearly tell your crew what you want them to do in a calm and professional way. When you are caught out in bad weather those years of bullshit and bravado are not going to count for anything. Calmness for a skipper is a great attribute. Things will go wrong from time to time but panicking is not going to help you or the crew. Inside you may be screaming but outside you have got to exude an air of calmness as if the problem happens every day. Panicking is not only contagious, it is dangerous and often leads to further mistakes.
We all make mistakes – even the Skipper
A skipper should have an air of authority but that does not mean being snide and looking down your nose at less experience members of the crew. We are all learning and make mistakes. I remember my wife finding a new quick way to tie fenders on. It was only when I looked behind a few minutes later and saw a line of five fenders bobbing about in the water that I thought her new way might not be the best. I personally still have problems tying bowlines. My rabbit might come out the hole and round the tree but after that it scampers off somewhere never to be seen again. This is all part of being a good skipper. It’s not just getting to know the crew’s limitations but your own as well.
Listen to what you are being told.
You don’t need to bark orders at the crew. You are a team. Just tell them what you would like them to do well before it is needed and if they look like they don’t understand be patient and explain. Not everyone understands or interprets what you are saying correctly. It is like the man who just before making love to his wife would be put off by her continually complaining about the crack in the ceiling. When he asked her about it she said he had misheard her because what she actually said was “Do you want me on my back or kneeling!”
A good skipper should always be aware of everything that is happening around them. They should not only be listening to and watching the crew but listening to what the boat, the wind and the sea is telling them. They are all whispering something and on occasions they will howl louder than a woman who realises she missed a shoe sale. There are also times when it is better not to say anything. A wise skipper knows when to encourage someone and when to just let them get on with it. When you get to this stage you can smile knowing they are anticipating your thoughts.
Know when to delegate.
Now I must say that my own biggest problem is delegation. It is important for the skipper to understand there may be others better suited to a task but they should also never ask a crew member to do something they would not do themselves. I find myself doing too much as it far easier and quicker for me to do it. It is my problem, I know it is but getting over it means tying myself to the mast. See what I mean, I cannot even delegate someone to tie me up unless it is later in the skipper’s berth.
As a skipper, you must be open to your crew’s ideas as they may be better than yours, but at the end of the day the yacht and the safety of the crew is the skipper’s sole responsibility. Yes, listen attentively but act decisively and with confidence. If you show confidence without arrogance your crew will respect you and your decisions.
Don’t be miserable
Don’t be miserable as the skipper. It may be hard at times but smiling and laughing puts everyone at ease. No one likes to be woken up in the middle of the night but if a member of your crew woke you up it is for a reason. Try to be understanding instead of a grumpy old bugger. It may be something that saves your lives and the boat from catastrophe.
Remember, no two skippers are alike. Everyone will be better at something’s than others but when you are crewing always look at what you like about your skipper and what you don’t. In sailing we are always learning and when it is your time to be in charge it may help.
So, what would you never hear a good skipper say? Here are ten examples.
- Let that tap run for as long as you want
- Put anything you want down the heads
- That bikini is too revealing
- We only need a couple of meters of anchor chain out
- The weather forecast is always right
- I think your marina charges are a bit on the low side
- I love it when a big motorboat comes close to us
- This anchorage was so boring until those jet skis turned up
- The chandlers is really good value.
- I wish they would anchor a bit closer to us
So, that is my take on what makes a good skipper but what have I missed and can you think of any more words you would never hear a skipper saying?