Communication Leadership


(Published March 2012)

The forecasts suggested that the hurricane may be closing with our projected track in the next four or five days. But already we were facing the effects of an extra-tropical low-pressure system, and the sustained winds from that less daunting system were projected to get up to 45 or 50 knots. Winds were 30 to 35 knots with gusts to the low 40s. It seemed that now might be a good time to put up the storm trysail.

As we sat in the cockpit, we calmly discussed how we would make sure the trysail was properly bundled together before going forward. Tasks were assigned, safety issues discussed, people clipped onto the jacklines running forward. Before climbing out of the cockpit, someone told a little joke. The laughter took the edge off, and the task began in earnest, with everyone working together and looking out for each other.

Even serious situations can take place in a positive environment—one in which people are quite focused on properly completing the task at hand while working together in harmony. Aboard Lolita, a Swan 56 on which I raced for more than 10 years, harmony was virtually a requirement. Frank Savage, the owner of the boat, led with positive reinforcement, extolling the virtues of the crew and often voicing his appreciation for their consistent hard work. The positive vibe coming from leadership inspired the crew to achieve goals others might have thought impossible.

Unfortunately, positive expressions from leadership are not always the case. Last summer, while approaching a dock in Nova Scotia, I witnessed a situation that serves as an example of how not to attempt a maneuver. As the vessel approached the dock in light to moderate conditions, the skipper behind the wheel began ranting and raving at one of the crew handling docklines and fenders up forward. The yelling from the helm became so offensive and overwhelming that the crewmember virtually froze. People on the quay showed their dismay at the verbal abuse. As the yelling reached a crescendo, the skipper actually left the wheel while the vessel was still creeping forward so he could scream at the crewman face-to-face. The performance was truly astounding.

Upon reflection, it seemed to me that yelling is often a manifestation of fear. A skipper like the above-mentioned often creates drama surrounding docking maneuvers. The screamer doesn’t know how best to handle the situation—or his emotions—and thus creates more fear in those around him. Crewmembers eventually freeze in their actions, perhaps because they don’t want to further antagonize the screamer or they’re not sure how to satisfy or quiet the raving. But the net result is almost always the opposite of what is desired. The person being yelled at is very unlikely to accomplish the task in a calm, efficient manner, and in the end, anger and rage surround the entire situation.

Recently, another less-than-desirable situation developed while preparing to reef the mainsail at night. Of course, during offshore boat deliveries, these maneuvers should be expected, and people should understand their roles. But it is always a good idea, I believe, to discuss the maneuver before actually undertaking it. Everyone can be assigned their tasks and procedures, and safety measures can be reviewed. That night, while going through the reefing procedure, everyone was on the same page. At the end of the review, the helmsman quietly requested that people try to refrain from shining their lights in his eyes. It was a polite request, borne out of a desire to maintain control of the vessel, therefore maintaining safety for all concerned. One of the crew angrily yelled at the helmsman that of course no one would shine a light in his eyes! It was a total overreaction to a simple request meant to increase safety and awareness. It strikes me that often the screamer is attempting to assert his ego or “position” within the group. He sets up a situation that is bound to fail and perhaps leads to the belief he is the only one who knows how to do something.

Clarity and positive reinforcement go further toward achieving goals and enlisting the support of others. Clear and open discussion before a maneuver is undertaken result in fewer misconceptions and errors. Post-mortems help to improve overall, longer-term performance and reinforce the concept that everyone is part of a team, trying their best to improve as individuals and team members.

While holding the group post-mortem, discuss the facts rather than the people. The goal is to achieve improvement. You’re not trying to find the guilty party. Rather, you’re trying to help everyone achieve better results in a guilt-free environment. The goal is not to prove someone’s superiority, but rather to orchestrate smoother maneuvers, add to the group’s performance, reduce anxiety and increase the enjoyment that is meant to surround sailing.

In another recent docking experience, we encountered a number of problems: docklines that hadn’t been firmly attached to the boat were tossed to the dock attendant, locking hitches were taken around horn cleats, which prevented easing the line under load, and a few other issues. Following a brief crew discussion in which it was clearly explained that I was interested in the facts of what happened rather than who caused it, we went from the fuel dock to our slip. The second docking maneuver was as different as night and day. The sun shone, and instant improvements were obvious. A sense of a job well done permeated the crew.

Regardless of whether you’re racing or cruising, spending a few hours or a few weeks at sea together, the entire experience can be more efficient as well as more enjoyable when leadership at the top create a positive environment. People generally want to do things properly. If they don’t, they probably don’t belong at sea. And that is a decision that doesn’t require yelling.

Bill Biewenga is a navigator, delivery skipper and weather router. His websites are and He can be contacted at

Author: Bill Biewenga