Appendix 2 – Detailed Best Practices

As each Breakout Group developed the Leadership Best Practices presented in the Breakout Group summaries above, they also produced a Description of the Best Practices and provided a Situation to help provide context at and help understand the Best Practice in action.

The complete Descriptions and Situations follow: (click a Breakout Session title to jump to that section below)

A.  Character

1. Employ the traits of high character in offshore Leadership

Description: The critical traits of good character in offshore Leadership include:

Integrity: The quality of a Leader’s honesty and trustworthiness. People who adhere to a strong set of principles and take responsibility for their actions are exhibiting integrity. 

Empathy: “Standing in the shoes” of another person and attempting to see the world from that person’s point of view.

Humility: A modest view of one’s own importance. Humble Leaders possess a willingness to admit mistakes and seek opportunities to assume accountability. Humble Leaders are not arrogant. 

Decisiveness: The ability to make decisions quickly and effectively. Neither good decisions made late, nor poor decisions made early are helpful. Leaders must trust their judgment to make effective decisions efficiently.

Resilience: The capacity to recover from and adjust to adverse situations. It includes the ability to positively adapt to hardships and suffering.

Self-Awareness: The personal insights of the Leader. Not an end in itself, but a process in which individuals understand themselves, including their strengths and weaknesses, and the impact they have on others.

Situation: Leaders who act in opposition to these critical traits have, time and time again, produced ineffective teams and led to failure, if not disaster.

2. Establish a culture of open communication 

Description: Good communication is the foundation upon which a team succeeds and bad communication is often to blame for the start of a series of incidents that leads to failure. Leaders with high character communicate honestly, transparently, and frequently. This builds a more transformational Leader-follower dynamic in which information flows freely. It is the responsibility for those in Leadership positions to establish a culture of open communications so that every person aboard trusts that his/her input will be taken and acted upon appropriately and without fear of retribution. All crew must feel comfortable and free to share concerns to those above them and “say what they see”. It’s what you don’t know that hurts you.

Situation: The key to being a good communicator offshore is preparation. Provide information to the crew beforehand, define the mission and success, review the big picture details as a team, and be prepared for each situation.

Stan Honey describes his frequent reports to crews when he is navigating. This maintains full-crew engagement, and often leads to better information returning to him from up on deck. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of arrogant captains squashing or ignoring such upward information, intentionally or not, that have led to disasters at sea. 

Another example – If a crew member hears something such as an uncommon pump sound and does not diagnose and/or repair whatever may be wrong, it could imperil the ship and all aboard. They must report it to the watch captain or another person in Leadership. Not to do so would be a failure of responsibility; both of the crew members involved and of Leadership aboard for not establishing a culture of open communication.

Open communication can avoid the snowball effect or error chain of events during an emergency. A series of small problems can quickly escalate into a larger issue. Identify problems as they’re happening and stop them. Even inexperienced crew members can do this if you give them the tools and permission to do so. Teach them that a propane leak smells like rotten eggs and an off-watch cook can avert a bigger problem.

3.   Take on every job

Description: Leaders earn the respect of their crew through a willingness to perform any task. Leaders that capitalize on opportunities to show this willingness build a transformative environment in which all step forward and take on any job. However, a Leader must not get lost in a task when dealing with a potentially risky situation.

Situation: When the weather has turned sour offshore, and the crew is struggling to shift gears, it speaks volumes to the crew when a Leader moves out of their safer position to assist in what needs to get done. Most crew members’ willingness to perform jobs beyond their role, if needed, increases upon seeing this. 

4.   Commit to self-awareness 

Description: Leading in alignment with elements of high character demands self-awareness. Leaders must understand their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses. They must leverage that awareness in decision-making. One cannot hope to operate with integrity at a time when needed if one has not practiced such behavior through self-awareness prior. 

Situation: When deciding whether or not to start a race, delivery, or cruise with heavy conditions forecast, the Skipper (or Owner) is responsible for taking all factors into consideration, including the capabilities of himself/herself and the crew, and the fitness of the boat to safely take part. The primary goal must be a safe voyage, not meeting a schedule. A Leader who is informed about his/her own strengths and weaknesses can build a team to compensate, and work on amending their own behavior and improving themselves; both to compensate for the weakness. For example: if shortness of temper is a weakness, pick experienced watch captains who don’t get easily offended and instruct them to talk to you quietly one on one if they think you are out of line.

5.   Character – Things to Avoid

  • Arrogance.
  • Ignoring or shutting out information.
  • Failing to take command when Leadership is needed.

B.  Responsibility & Accountability

1.   Ensure responsibility & accountability are understood by the crew 

Description: Awareness is critical. Lead and take responsibility by making those under you in the chain of command broadly aware as to what is expected.

  • Responsibility – Having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for other persons, a task, or a mission as part of one’s role.
  • Accountability – “Being accountable not only means being responsible for something but also ultimately being answerable for actions.” – ADM Hyman Rickover.
  • Leadership – the art and/or skill of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.

Situation: The absence of understanding and full acceptance of Leadership Responsibility and Accountability can lead to risky behavior and loss of life and vessel. 

Ancillary: It is important for crew (and students) to digest the difference between responsibility and accountability. Here is one suggestion for describing the difference: Responsibility can be shared; accountability cannot. Being accountable not only means being responsible for something but also ultimately being answerable for actions. Admiral Hyman Rickover said this: “If there is not one, and only one person accountable, then there is no accountability.”

2.   Clearly establish the chain of command and delegated responsibilities 

Description: Responsibility and authority can be delegated, but accountability may never be. If certain roles are delegated by the Owner/Skipper, that responsibility must be clearly defined. Everyone on board should be aware of who substitutes and takes charge of a task should a crew member become incapacitated. Everyone must have clear roles, responsibility and accountability in the event of a catastrophic situation (e.g., fire, flood, dismasting, grounding, etc.).

Situation: If a paid Skipper is brought on, it is up to the Owner to thoroughly vet that the Skipper has the right qualifications, and then it must be clear who is ultimately responsible and accountable for decision-making with regard to every task on a boat from navigation to cooking. Ultimate accountability resides with the Owner as the individual who enlists someone else as Skipper (See the Farallones Race incident in 2012 https://cdn.ussailing.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Farallones-Report-FINAL.pdf).

3.   Establish that Owner/Skipper’s responsibility is to the crew, the boat, and the voyage (in that order) 

Description: The Owner/Skipper is responsible for: First, bringing all souls home safe; second to bring the boat home safe, and third, in a race, to compete. The crew should be able, in a race, to focus on winning, keeping in mind that good seamanship makes winning more likely. The crew must have the appropriate level of understanding of the responsibility for all onboard to maintain a culture of safety (see the excellent CCA Culture of Safety). The Owner/Skipper should also ensure that the crew all know their respective responsibilities. 

Situation: Example – The watch captains, having been given responsibility by the Skipper to competitively and safely race the boat during their watch, must make timely decisions to reduce sail at the right time.

4.   Be enthusiastic and positive

Description: It is the responsibility of those in Leadership positions to be enthusiastic and positive in trying situations to maintain crew morale.

Situation: When in heavy weather with a relatively inexperienced crew, a positive watch captain sets a positive tone, ensures that safe practices are being employed and raises the performance level of those on board.

5.   Be ready and willing to admit fault

Description: The accountable person should be ready and willing to admit fault and take the blame when things go wrong, then reorganize as needed to safely prepare to move on. The Leader needs to set the right expectations for their crew and establish an open culture.

Situation: When mistakes occur either in training or in offshore situations, it is the responsibility of the Leader to debrief with the crew to understand what went wrong and take positive corrective action for the future. 

 6.   Responsibility & Accountability – Things to Avoid

  • “Shooting the messenger”: When a crew provides information, the Leader must hear it willingly and act appropriately to create a culture of openness. Remember: What you don’t know is what hurts you.
  • Overconfidence: Thinking too highly of one’s own abilities, not understanding your crew’s abilities, or overconfidence in the qualities of the boat are irresponsible, arrogant and can lead to negative outcomes.
  • Failure to establish a clear chain of command: Everyone must know their job so that communication can stay focused. If and when commands are required, it must be clear as to where the commands are coming from, and to whom they are going. In a crisis, all this becomes crucial.

C.  Team Leadership Roles and Followership

1.   Establish a culture of incident analysis

Description: A good Leader admits a mistake and looks to make the team and themselves stronger and better from the experience. Ego and embarrassment hide this. This needs to be a part of the culture to improve safety – “Culture will eat policy for lunch”. (Economist Peter Drucker). The sport lacks sufficient timely incident and near-miss reports that are openly shared. 

Situation: A group member recounted a personal experience where a crew member went overboard during a high-speed gybe under what would normally be considered moderate sailing conditions. A series of seemingly small errors contributed to a near-catastrophic outcome where the COB was almost lost. While the incident was critiqued within the confines of the crew, an opportunity was missed when a choosing to not openly share critical lessons learned about the circumstances with the larger sailing community.

 2.   Define team success in terms of the mission and situation

Description: As a team, define success with common, measurable and achievable goals and expectations.

Situation: A good Leader should communicate the objective – defining what success looks like – as they are building the team. It is then important that each drill, training session, delivery and race be accompanied by a goal describing what success looks like. Examples include: “This is a delivery – our objective is to arrive safely with no breakdowns,” or “We’ve only been sailing together for a short time, our goal for this event is top half.” 

3.   Identify and recognize the right Leader for different situations

Description: In offshore sailing, there must be good Leadership. Owners/Skippers must be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and the strengths and weaknesses of their crew and the yacht. Owners/Skippers should delegate specific responsibilities to each member of the crew to take full advantage of individual strengths, and to promote engagement.

Situation: An Application for Entry may require details on the Owners/Skippers, navigator and watch captains to make sure the right experience is on board. This does not ensure that the Leadership will be well organized with appropriately and clearly assigned responsibilities. Unfortunately, not all Owners/Skippers are good Leaders or delegators. Utilizing tools such as templates and bills for watch standing, abandoning ship (e.g., fighting fire and flooding), and damage control is a way to improve this. 

4.   Delegate and communicate specific responsibilities throughout the crew. 

Description: With an understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses, delegate roles and specific responsibilities for preparation, routine operations and emergency situations. Primary and back-up responsibility must be considered and specified for each foreseeable situation, role, and crew member. This leverages the whole crew’s talents, is a proven method of team building, distributes the Leadership responsibilities, and develops a team of Leaders in specific areas. 

D.  Communication

1.   Know your audience

Description: The Leader must understand how best to communicate to the crew and to individual crew members. What kind of vibe permeates the vessel? Are we a “happy ship” or is there work to do? How can I best reach “Individual A”? Humorous Criticism? Praise/Support? Everybody has had that Skipper who is a “yeller”, and understands this is a generally ineffective communication style.

2.   Establish trust 

Description: Have no agenda but the mission. Be a good listener. Encourage input and accept well-intentioned criticism. Act on same. When the time comes for a potentially controversial decision, the crew will react as one.

3.   Employ deliberate and skillful delivery and execution

Description: Know and practice the technical elements of effective communication.

  • Be clear: Speak slowly and clearly; agree on, and use, common nomenclature.
  • Be succinct: Avoid filler words, redundancy.
  • Be specific: “Come up three degrees” is better than “come up a little.”
  • Be conscious of tone and listen actively.
  • Be direct: Start any “order” with the recipient’s name (or position).
  • Encourage simple “repeat backs” to ensure ‘orders’ have been understood.
  • Think about what the recipient needs to know, wants to know, and how they need the information packaged.

4.   Be aware of and employ non-verbal communication

Description: Be aware of these three elements: Body language, countenance, and actions. “Keep it light” or be the first to sponge the bilge – it lays a substrate for trust, which is essential for good communication.

5.   Communication – Things to Avoid

Committing Sender Errors. A response of “What do you mean?” is a good indicator that the receiver has missed the sender’s message. There are a variety of reasons why this occurs. The most frequently encountered problems are:

  • Not establishing a frame of reference. If the receiver is not on the same page as you, miscommunication occurs.
  • Omission of information. The sender leaves out pertinent details that affect a receiver’s ability to comprehend what is being said. “Pull that line” leaves quite a few unanswered questions. “Stand by on the staysail sheet and trim it when the sail is hoisted,” gives the receiver more direction and mission definition.
  • Providing biased or weighted information. Inserting the sender’s opinion when providing information. 
  • Assuming messages only depend on words. The sender underestimates the power and importance of tone and body language. 
  • Not willing to repeat information. We normally talk at about 125 words/minute and think at 500 -1,000 words/minute. Senders who only say something once run a very high risk of failure.

Committing Receiver Errors. A receiver can also make mistakes that interrupt the communication chain (remember, to err is human). Receiver errors generally fall into six categories.

  • Listening with a preconceived notion. The receiver already has his/her mind made up before the sender can formulate a thought.
  • Poor preparation. Receiving messages is more than just allowing the words to pass through your ears. Receiving a message is a conscious process.
  • Thinking ahead of the sender. Extrapolating the sender’s thoughts, putting words into someone’s mouth, finishing sentences for a sender, formulating a response before the sender finishes (the trigger phrase here is “Hear me out,” from the sender) are all examples of thinking ahead of the sender.
  • Missing the non-verbal signals. Overlooking body language and facial expressions can be crippling when it comes to interpreting communications.
  • Not asking for clarification. Failing to employ the old standby, “So what you are saying is,” can be the death of good communication.
  • Disrespectful communication. Want to slam the door shut on a message? Respond with an insult, demeaning/ degrading remark.

E.  Preparation & Anticipation

Developing “the sense of insecurity which is so invaluable in a seaman.” Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea

1.   The Owner/Skipper is ultimately responsible for preparation and organization.

Description: Responsibility and accountability begin long before a vessel leaves port. It includes preparation of the boat and crew, ensuring the right safety equipment and protocols are in place, and posting clearly written and drawn bills.

Situation: The Owner/Skipper (the ultimate person accountable) must ensure that his/her vessel and all crew have appropriate equipment, including those required for all safety contingencies. This may include providing personal safety equipment for every crew member: PFD, harness, tether, AIS/PLB beacon, whistle, and more. The Owner must ensure that everyone knows how to operate their own equipment and the boat’s systems safely, as demonstrated and executed in safety briefings and practices prior to the start of a race, passage, or cruise. Finally, it is the responsibility of the Owner to ensure the boat is in good working order prior to crew arrival. The Owner cannot absolve himself or herself of the ultimate accountability for the safety of the crew and the boat; the buck stops with the Owner.

 2.   Preparation is the most effective path to maintaining confidence in an emergency

Description: Put 110% effort into preparing every aspect of the venture, including the boat, equipment, supplies, crew, and voyage plan. 

Situation: Lessons from Tristan Jones: Proactive Efforts, Persevere, Be At Peace (from Peter Becker). Tristan Jones was a Welsh adventurer, author and mariner who spent most of his time at sea single-handed sailing small boats. Here’s what Tristan says about fear during a 1989 NPR Interview – “If we know what we are dealing with we are not afraid.” “Fear will prevent you from thinking clearly about what you should be doing. The best thing to do is to figure out if what you should have done is done, and once that has been figured out; that all those things have been done, then you can say I’m in the hands of God” “then you are at peace”. Jones’s simple themes: 

  • The only time to prepare is before departure. Jones would diligently use all of his resources to proactively prepare to the fullest of his ability in advance of going to sea. 
  • Persevere; put 110% into every and all actions to better your situation. 
  • After you have consumed all of your efforts and resources and know you have spared nothing to improve your situation, then, and only then, all you can do is enjoy and be at peace. 

Jones is said to have found nirvana when in extremity, knowing he had done everything, and his fate was now in God’s hands. (OSLS Chair Rich du Moulin’s note: My interpretation is that even though it may be in God’s Hands, God expects you to apply all your experience, training, and Leadership skills to overcome the obstacles and bring your boat and crew home safely!)

3.   Pre-departure. Pay careful attention to crew selection 

Description: It is the responsibility of the Owner/Skipper to select a crew capable of keeping themselves and everyone aboard safe. This does not mean having only the most competitive racing sailors, but rather the right mix of experience, skill, and seamanship which complement one another, and importantly, those who know the boat and each other’s capabilities. It is also the responsibility of the Owner/Skipper and watch captains to have a clear understanding of the capabilities of each crew and their mental and physical condition throughout the voyage. 

Situation: If someone is not a skilled downwind heavy air helmsman, the Skipper or watch captain is responsible to rotate the best crew onto the helm in those conditions. For that matter, an example of “followership” would be a crew asking to be relieved from the helm if they feel they are not adequate to the changing conditions. In a good crew, all this could be accomplished without any resentment.

4.   Pre-departure. Assess concerns for that particular race or passage.

Description: Benefit: Develop a practical understanding of specific parameters and risks. Transition from general boat and crew preparation to focused needs or concerns related to the actual course or passage. 

Situation: Be sure to evaluate navigation hazards, weather, marine traffic, etc.

5.   Pre-departure. Assign and communicate specific preparation/functional responsibilities to crew members

Description: Delegation and distribution of boat and crew responsibilities (e.g. safety gear, provisions, rig, engine, electronics, navigation) inclusively leverages the whole crew’s talents and distributes critical work. Assigning back-ups ensures redundancy in emergencies and prevents single points of failure. Publishing the assignments to the crew (see “Station Bill” below) ensures clarity of roles. Preparation responsibilities continue during the voyage as the crew has established subject matter expertise and Leadership areas. 

Situation: The end result is making sure gear and equipment is aboard; catching the need for last minute maintenance, repair or replacement; and depth of expertise underway. Make sure you “put eyes on it” so you know it’s there.

6.   Pre-departure. Create and post a “Station Bill” to establish and communicate the chain of command (line of authority) and specific responsibilities.

Description: As mentioned previously, it is critically important that the whole crew understands who is in charge of the vessel at all times, to include Owner/Skipper, watch captains, and succession plans. It is also critical that each member of the crew understands their roles and responsibilities for both routine operations and emergency situations. Primary and back-up responsibility must be specified for each foreseeable situation, role, and crew member. A Station Bill (or “Watch Quarter and Station Bill”) is an official list of the duties and posts assigned to all members of a ship’s crew, from Skipper to Navigator to Cook to “Able Seaman” and which ensures clarity of roles. This encompasses the normal underway watch bill and bills for defined emergencies (flooding, fire, abandon ship). A Station Bill should be a mandatory document. 

Situation: Developing a Station Bill supports delegating responsibilities. It also ensures that when an emergency is encountered, all crew know their responsibilities. It is critical that such bills reflect actual practice sessions held during pre-voyage preparations. This ties in to “Train the way you sail; sail the way you train.” 

7.   Pre-departure. Confirm the boat and crew are ready

Description: Use checklists and briefings to confirm all is as it should be. 

Situation: Conduct a crew meeting with pointed questions/reports from crew responsible for preparation of specific areas. It is best to have this meeting the day before departure so there is adequate time and focus. Departure days tend to be hectic, and there will not be time to remedy problems. 

8.   Underway. Develop and use written shared protocols

Description: Promote log-keeping, employ checklists for inventory and critical procedures, assign emergency roles/billets in a “Station Bill”, write and use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). “Check Lists” used heavily in aviation and military operations have an important place at sea. These compensate for complexity and fatigue.

Situation: Use of written procedures and assignments help catch and track problems or aberrations before they become crises. 

9.   Underway. Encourage crew members to train for new skills, tasks, positions, and roles

Description: Encourage crew to broaden skills and learn other roles to establish backup and redundancy in case of sickness or injury.

Situation: In a Bermuda Race the navigator fell and broke several ribs. He had to stay flat in a bunk. Another crew took over and needed to know the instruments and software.

10.   Underway: routinely use “what-if” exercises

Description: Have the crew think and talk through first steps for handling potential problems.

Situation: Topics should include what each crew does in COB, Ffre, flooding, rig failure.  An example would be increasing heavy air downwind: Discuss with the watch what to do if the halyard parts, or the tack or clew blows out, or COB. 

11.  Preparation & Anticipation – Things to Avoid

  • Vague responsibilities:  Too little or too much control.
  • No anticipation: Leaving everything to the last minute.
  • Not involving the crew. 

 F.   Sail the Way You Train, Train the Way You Sail

1.   Plan and practice for crisis management 

Description: Plan and train for each situation as if you were in that situation as part of your preparation. This requires practicing in all conditions, day, night, flat water, heavy wind and seas. Take advantage of heavy weather opportunities to test equipment, storm sails, and crew. Make primary assignments for each crew member for different emergencies but rotate all crew through each position so they know what to do if they have to fill in for someone. Figure out which COB method works for your boat type and crew including Quick Stop, use of sail and/or motor, various recoveries (alongside, Lifesling, Mid-line lift). Practice what you would do with an injured or hypothermic crew overboard to get them back on the boat including second crew in bosun’s chair, drogue, net, ladder, use of halyard). Ensure each crew knows the location of all through hulls, use of the sat phone/SSB/VHF/DSC buttons, location of the damage control kit and how to use all contents. Discuss who has the authority to launch the life raft,  how to launch, and where to find the ditch kit. Leaders should make training for emergencies part of the on-board culture. 

Practicing for emergencies is more important than perfecting a fancy spinnaker drop. Make practice realistic, set standards, and give metrics for measuring improvement, i.e. timed reefing or COB drill contests between watch teams. Practice COB with a real person if safe, or a tall buoy, discuss and practice how to get them back on board. The benefit is that during an actual emergency, the crew can rely on muscle memory and pre-assigned roles and have their remaining brain bandwidth available to adapt to changing conditions.

Situation 1: Crew overboard in the Clipper Race. The crew were well trained, but still had issues returning to the COB. It was a downwind situation, and the engine wouldn’t start. They got the kite down then sailed a reciprocal course for 20 minutes. They were able to spot the COB by noting where the albatrosses were circling, and – by lowering a crew in a bosun’s chair  – were able to recover the COB. Pre-race training enabled the crew to react without panic. In a real emergency there is always an element of stress and shock, which affects your ability to think clearly.  Practice mitigates this challenge.

Situation 2: This crew of experienced racers only practiced a COB recovery once in the harbor, under motor, and with only a hat in the water (which they lost) so they could “tick the box” for race organizers on the way to the start line. They had a real COB incident 25 minutes after the start and were unable to recover the COB. They failed to provide timely flotation, fouled their jib, and eventually sailed over the COB on the third pass. This crew failed to practice and determine the best strategy for their boat’s characteristics, so a proper COB Plan (bill) could be constructed. 

2.   Extend training for emergencies to crews for pre- and post-race voyages (i.e. deliveries)

Description: When sailing in non-racing situations (cruising, or race boat delivery) precautions should still be put in place to mitigate risk and prevent injury or boat damage. This includes safety training and practice similar to what a racing team undergoes. Ensuring your crew has enough experience is just as important on a delivery as on a race. The benefit is that the crew and boat make it to their destination safely.  Experience indicates that boats on return deliveries seem to get in trouble more often than while racing, often due to smaller manpower and the presence of less experienced sailors. 

Situation: A delivery crew can get into trouble when there are too few experienced offshore crew versus too many inexperienced crew, especially if the latter lack the necessary Safety-at-Sea training.  Such a crew in adverse conditions can find itself short-handed. This can snowball into a series of small errors leading to a significant crisis. 

3.   Review previous incidents’ lessons learned.

Description: Review previous incidents and make a comprehensive lessons-learned brief. Lessons can be pulled from racing, cruising, and other sources, such as the published accounts from the recent Navy incidents. Reading detailed accounts of mistakes others have made can be incorporated into your own boat’s collective knowledge. US Sailing reviews of sailing incidents can be found on the US Sailing Website https://www.ussailing.org/competition/offshore/safety-information/safety-reports, and https://www.sailing.org/sailors/safety/reported-safety-incidents.php is the link to the World Sailing collection. Also of interest is the Mariners’ Alerting and Reporting Scheme (https://www.nautinst.org/resource-library/mars.html) that provides accident and incident reports from actual past commercial marine incidents.

Situation: Learning how, why, when and where things fell apart in the sequence of events in an incident, such as all the different crew overboards, can help us focus and improve our own training.  An example was in the US Naval Academy’s basic offshore training: Based on lessons learned from the greater sailing community, the Academy learned what to do if someone fell overboard, still attached to the boat by their tether, and dragging through the water. The helm needs to immediately stop the boat by going head to wind or heaving-to so that the COB is on the high side. Sir Robin also recommends snapping a halyard on the tether and hoisting it as a fast remedy.

4.   Train using all of your boat’s equipment

Description: Training your crew how to use all the safety equipment and systems on board will help ensure they can do their assigned jobs quickly and efficiently during an emergency. Testing all your equipment during practice will also help you identify any potential maintenance problems prior to going offshore. Push your crew and your equipment during practice to simulate any worst-case scenario. As the Skipper, you should be an expert in everything on your boat and be able to do all the jobs on board. If you’re not, but have an expert crew, have them train you. 

Situation: An equipment failure during a short, intense microburst led to a serious injury. The crew was in the middle of a light-air gybe when they were hit by a 10 second microburst. The mainsail gybed violently, and broke a block at the gooseneck, which hit a crew member in the side of the head. The Skipper went to call for a medevac on the sat phone, but wasn’t able to operate it, so had to rely on VHF, which was luckily in range. Post-race the Skipper replaced all components of the mainsail system, replaced all the standing rigging, and learned how to operate the satphone.

5.  Know your crew, and how they react under duress; train and practice accordingly

 Description: Knowing your team’s strengths and weaknesses will help you assign them to the right job in an emergency situation. Frequent and realistic training will help you learn how members of your crew react under stress. This includes choosing your second in command. 

At least two of your crew need to have medical training and experience, for redundancy if one gets injured or sick. This is typically a requirement from offshore race Organizing Authorities in their Notice of Race but is good practice for deliveries or even local racing. Ask for volunteers from your crew to take the training. 

Situation: An experienced offshore crew did not perform as expected during a medical emergency caused by a block hitting a crew member in the head. They were unable to take charge of the injured person due to shock and squeamishness. By assessing each crew member’s strengths and weaknesses (e.g. can’t deal with sight of blood), primary pre-assignments can be made that make the most of strengths and avoid weaknesses. For example, if a member of the crew has medical training, and/or has been in a situation where they had to deal with a medical emergency, they should be the Person-in-Charge. There should also be a backup trained medical crewmember. The injured person in this instance got medevac’d out, so the level of knowledge needed was stabilization, contain the bleeding and monitoring the patient for shock until professional help arrived. If a member of the team exhibits fear/panic/withdrawal during the emergency, assign them a lower stress task such as monitoring the VHF radio or checking for lines over the side before the Skipper starts the engine.  Perhaps this crew member also needs extra training.

6.   Sail the Way You Train – Things to Avoid

  • Neglect: Neglecting maintenance of equipment and systems on your boat; failure to keep an inventory.
  • Complacency: Being complacent and doing just the bare minimum to get your boat through a safety inspection before going offshore. “Tick the box” rather than prepare, practice, and draft a specific procedure (bill).
  • Ignoring small problems: Avoid the snowball effect or error chain of events during an emergency. A series of small problems can quickly escalate into a larger issue. 
  • Identify problems as they’re happening and stop them. 
  • Even inexperienced crew members can do this, if you give them the tools to do so. Teach them that a propane leak smells like rotten eggs and an off-watch crew or cook can avert a bigger problem.

G.  Situational Awareness

1.  Use the principles of Bridge Resource Management (BRM); establish routine observation and communication involving all of the crew.

Description: Ensure all crew know they are responsible for observing and communicating changing conditions. Make sure all crew understand the game plan for race or passage before departure, and under what conditions that plan may change. Update  the game plan and communicate as necessary. DO NOT dismiss remarks from the newest or least experienced crew – Listen! 

Situation: Example: In the Uncontrollable Urge case (https://www.cruisingworld.com/how/us-sailing-releases-report-2013-islands-race-tragedy-southern-california), before departure they could have discussed the conditions for the race, and what wind speeds/wave conditions might be too much for the boat. The race started in fine conditions, 15 knots of wind, but the wind built. One panelist suggests that winds of 28, with gusts to 35, was too much for this style sportboat. We surmise the crew never had an initial mental plan for the top wind and wave conditions for the boat. Consequently, although they observed the wind building during the race they did not retire early, as they might have.

Or, as Dawn Riley said in her morning session, as “Chief Worrier,” she reevaluates the goals regularly and restates them to the crew, at least daily.

2.   Work consciously to observe accurately and avoid observation bias, especially those observations that do not fit your prior experiences. 

Situation 1: We have all heard “How to cook a Frog”, by putting him in cold water and heating it gradually. A very experienced Skipper was returning from Bermuda to New York with an experienced, but small crew. While running downwind, the wind gradually increased. The Skipper wanted to avoid reefing his fully-battened main, as he would have to luff up to do so. After coming up from an off watch, he realized the true wind had crept up to about 40 knots and the boat was unstable and in danger of losing control. The ensuing evolutions were a nightmare.

Situation 2: Another observation bias is that sailors can be lucky for a long time, which alters their perception of their abilities (overconfidence) and leads to a diverging trend between their perceived experience level and actual ability to deal with truly extreme situations. For example: “We’ve sailed through squalls without reefing” may not work if the next squall packs 50 knots, or a storm system brings 50 knots and breaking seas for three days.

3.   Base decisions on good seamanship; avoid decision making that is not based on good seamanship and be careful to exclude outside biases. 

Description: Make sure the inputs for assessing situations and consequent decisions are based on seamanship, not external factors. DO NOT use mental models and make decisions based on overconfidence in yourself or your boat. Another tool is to ensure you have “a reason” for each decision, i.e. mentally challenge your decision as if you were in front of a judge in court. What alternatives do you have, and why did you choose the one you did? Judges do not care per se what decision you made, only that you did it with forethought and good judgment. 

Situation 1: A quick example: adhering to a schedule (despite changing circumstances) is a cruiser’s worst enemy.

Situation 2: In the Uncontrollable Urge situation, the boat’s designer or builder was on board, and this was one of the first races for the boat. He was likely in a role to affect decision-making. Did this affect the decision to continue to race as conditions deteriorated and to try to save the boat without outside help? Would an unbiased, neutral party have made a different decision about whether or not to race?

4.  In emergencies – consider the worst case/maximum loss and minimize the likelihood of that loss.

Description: DO NOT ignore the potential for a catastrophic loss because you think the probability of it happening is low! In the Uncontrollable Urge example, once they lost their rudder and broadcast a call to the Coast Guard, they waved off offers of help by nearby boats. Their perception was they could sail without the rudder (but they had never tested this thesis). However, the downside if they could not steer was potentially catastrophic since they were only two miles above a lee shore. A better decision would have been to ask those offering help to stand by until they were able to prove they could sail without the rudder.  Continuously update observations to inform or alter decisions.

Situation: In our case study of Uncontrollable Urge, to better balance the rig and steer without a rudder, the crew changed to the #3 jib. However, the #3 quickly blew out, foiling that plan. The loss of the jib certainly could qualify as an event to reconsider their prior decision to wave off assistance.

5.  Rely on distributed functions and responsibilities (from the Station Bill). 

Description: When a situation develops, the Owner/Skipper/Watch Captain has a lot to deal with. Having subject experts can develop a higher level of Situational Awareness at a lower level of detail. Distributed responsibilities and delegated decisions within the scope of those tasks is good Leadership; not all decisions should have to go through the Leader, except in an emergency. 

 6.   Situational Awareness – Things to Avoid

  • Overconfidence: Using mental models and making decisions based on overconfidence in yourself or your boat. 
  • Distraction: The Skipper and watch captains need to keep their heads “outside the boat” so they are aware of changing circumstances.
  • Ignoring input: Dismissing remarks from the crew, even the least experienced crew. Listen.  It’s what you don’t know that can hurt you.
  • Ignoring potential for catastrophic loss: Ignoring the potential for a catastrophic loss because you think the probability of it happening is low. 

H.  Emergency Management

 1.   Stop. Think. Execute. These three fundamental actions, done in sequence, are required to respond effectively to an emergency.

Description:  Stop – In the moment of crisis with possible panic emerging, make yourself stop. Take a deep breath. This reflects the Leadership characteristic of humility (listen, assess).

Think – Make a plan to deal with the situation (hopefully based on practice for such emergencies). Plan to deal with the problem in a series of tasks. Then do it again and again. This reflects the Leadership characteristic of empathy (consider the crew and help them build confidence). 

Execute – Put the plan into action, moving task by task until the situation is under control. Breaking down the situation into achievable tasks is a key to resolving the emergency. This reflects the Leadership characteristics of integrity & decisiveness (make a decision and have the conviction to keep the team on course for that decision).

 2.   Watch people carefully 

Description: Keep an eye on each other. Help each other not to make mistakes. Notice when someone’s behavior has changed and is out of norm. 

Situation: It may be as simple as observing your watchmate as they don foul weather gear and harness preparing to go on watch, noticing a missed buckle or a foul lead on a tether. It could also be more dramatic such as when a crewmate – on a dark night with a full moon rising – went forward to inspect the rig and check for chafe. The only other person on deck had just taken the helm. The crew on the foredeck suddenly started shouting but was not making any sense. The helmsman shouted for relief from below and turned over the helm as he quickly went forward to deal with the disoriented crew member. The end of the story was that the man was hallucinating after having applied two scopolamine patches earlier in the day. The watch captain had acted quickly because he had observed something not quite right as his watchmate was preparing to come on deck. He also realized that an immediate intervention was required. He knew that the relief helmsman would have to manage his role without being informed of the nature of the emergency because time was of the essence (From Gary Forster).

3.  Foster and enable Micro Leadership, Calm Group Dynamics, Heads Down (and Up) Action – Awareness and Focus of Each Individual Crew Member on Their Tasks 

Description: Responding to and resolving emergencies is best accomplished when each member of the crew focuses on their task(s). Understanding each person’s skills and strengths establishes their “domain,” sail handling, mechanical, rigging, navigation, etc.

Situation: The Young American Sailing Academy (YASA) youth team was training on the R/P 63 Gambler in preparation for the 2018 Newport Bermuda Race: 

“It was a windy day in Newport RI and we were training inside the bay.  After a successful spinnaker change, the next move was a spinnaker gybe which would take us under the Newport Bridge and away from the rapidly approaching Jamestown rocky shore. 

The releasing spinnaker sheet jammed in the turning block and before we knew it the boat was sideways on her ear pressed by the now-fouled spinnaker. If there ever was a time to feel fear this would be it as we moved ever closer to the rocky lee shore.

None of the young crew had ever been in a situation this serious before, but the collective response was “we got this”. The group dynamic was calm and focused with the 18 young crewmembers organically breaking into work groups tackling the various tasks. One group was focused on freeing the fouled sheet, another was retrieving the anchor and getting it ready for deployment, another was getting the propeller leg down and the engine on, while another was sending a crewman to the top of the mast ready to spike away the spinnaker (because, naturally, the halyard lock would not release!). All this action with no one barking orders in a central Leadership role. The young crew instinctively knew to turn their fear off and their brains on. 

The small groups of teams exhibited micro Leadership. They simultaneously focused on staying in their zone with heads-down attention to getting their job done, while at the same time keeping a heads-up 360-degree situational awareness. It was this 360-degree situational awareness that powered their cognitive process and allowed for an organic assistance to other teams when needed. 

The unplanned event served as a powerful lesson in the formation of the young sailors, who today are confident offshore sailors, and who are calm in the face of adversity and know the power of clear thoughts, focused efforts and teamwork” (From Peter Becker).

4.   Train for emergencies

Description: More than just a crew member overboard or abandoning ship. Train for fire, rig failure, hull breach, loss of steering, injury/medical emergency, etc. 

“Emotional drilling and reevaluating” in the Marines: As a Leader you should be conscious of other people’s fear levels and also how much control they can or think they can exhibit over the situation. How familiar you are with the situation has a pretty direct correlation to levels of fear, and it does help to prepare mentally and emotionally for different things and experience, as well as risks. (From Walker Potts) 

Military Leadership. Understand the level of experience and chain of command. The military does a really good job of letting individuals take charge and ownership on a micro level so that people can focus on their tasks, but also have a good understanding of the chain of command so that when situations change people know who to look for to take charge (from Seth Greenwald). 

It is an essential quality of training for emergencies that we are allowed to make mistakes and learn from the experience (from Ariel Nechemia). 

The more you practice, adjust emergency drills based on what you learn about your boat and crew, and repeat the exercise. Then, when the real event happens, the crew is more comfortable with the situation and more likely to react effectively without panic or unreasoning fear.

5.   Emergency Management – Things to Avoid

  • Fearful Leader: The Leader acknowledging and exhibiting fear.  Butch Ulmer reported having been on both sides of the “I’m scared” syndrome while sailing and while at sea on a US Navy ship. He will tell you unequivocally that the cure for being scared isn’t having the guy in charge step up and say, “Yeah, I’m scared too”.  The Leader needs to focus on the situation and lead the response. 
  • Looking Back:  It’s too late to worry about how you got into a situation. In the moment, the only thing to focus on is how to respond to and resolve the emergency, not the reasons for why you are in the situation.  Hopefully there will be future opportunity to figure that out.
  • Losing Situational Awareness: Don’t forget to look around you, keep your head up, and maintain situational awareness. Maintain an understanding of the big picture so you can make timely critical decisions (such as abandon ship). Don’t get lost in small tasks that should be delegated. Let the crew focus on each of the individual tasks required to resolve the emergency.

The 2021 Offshore Sailing Leadership Symposium was made possible thanks to the following partners:

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Supporting Partners