Every boat buyer becomes a boat captain and leader of a ship’s crew, whether at the helm for one hour or one week. With luck, their logbook will make dull reading, but when challenges arise, we hope their crews will remember them as having the focus and perseverance of Ernest Shackleton, not the delusional fanaticism of Capt. Ahab.
That was my perhaps simplistic takeaway on leadership afloat from a recent conversation with Richard du Moulin, a Newport Bermuda Race-winning sailor and shipping company owner who has been a longtime proponent of offshore safety training at the Storm Trysail Club in Larchmont, N.Y.
In du Moulin’s safety courses, he has encouraged the move from safety classrooms to in-the-field practice, with flares on the beach and swimming to board overturned life rafts with life jackets inflated. He has also spent years teaching youth big-boat safety, including crew-overboard recovery drills. Recently, he’s come to believe that developing leadership skills among all captains may be most important of all.
At its core, this task requires persuading boat captains of their responsibility to develop a “culture of safety” on their boat, a recommendation recently published by the Cruising Club of America’s Safety and Seamanship Committee. (Du Moulin is also a CCA member and one of the paper’s authors.) Yet to create that culture on each boat — to even realize its importance — requires that captains truly take on the mantle of individual leadership.
In November, the former America’s Cup sailor chaired a Zoom event staged by Storm Trysail that addressed leadership as the most important attribute to develop and improve boating safety. The daylong Offshore Sailing Leadership Symposium, sponsored by Safe Harbors, included offshore sailing experts and leaders in several other fields.
“The root cause of almost all tragedies on boats have been failures of leadership — poor preparation, training, lack of situational awareness, panicking,” du Moulin says. “The assumption we’re making now is that you can train people to be better leaders. The military, in fact, makes its business the training of leaders.”
In a 70-minute highlights video posted on Storm Trysail Club’s YouTube channel, du Moulin is joined in exploring ways to develop leadership within safety-at-sea training. Also present are half a dozen exceptional sailors and a diverse assortment of military officers, mountaineers, merchant mariners, public health experts and business executives. Some of the insights from non-boating leaders really hit home for me because they apply equally for boat crews and business teams.
Measure yourself as a leader against these statements (some of which combine quotes by more than one leader).
Succession is Critical
Bad leaders are those who don’t develop the next leaders. If you’re not planning for yourself to be gone, you’re not doing your job as a leader. Develop new leaders constantly. Plan and create redundancies, and have a plan to effect them.
Great Leaders have an Extremely High Emotional Quotient
In terms of self-awareness, self-regulation and control, people will always follow these type of leaders. Bad leaders have extremely low EQ behaviors.
Failure is the Greatest Instructor
As long as there is no danger, there are times when someone is overconfident, and it’s OK to let life teach him a lesson. Allow him to fail.
Humility is Key
None of us is as good as all of us. Never be afraid to say, “This was my fault.” Create a culture where the most junior person has the confidence to speak up. Often, the best ideas come from the least likely source.
Drills build confidence and muscle memory. “Train the way you fight; fight the way you train.”
Be a calm, transparent communicator, exchanging information. Soft skills are better than yelling, although there are times and places for both.
Don’t be afraid to change your mind or adjust your goals. Conditions around you are changing. You’re not locked in.
When you start getting confident, it’s time to review your checklist.
Going forward, du Moulin plans to take these perspectives and dozens of specific training ideas that emerged from the symposium’s breakout sessions out on the water for testing at a Safety-at-Sea Training Day planned for May on Long Island Sound. Sailors will bring their boats and crews to practice reefing sails, setting storm sails, heaving-to and doing crew-overboard recovery drills while coaches take video and observe from nearby boats. To maximize learning, each skipper and crew will be given templates to fill out in preparation for the session and for their debriefs afterward.
While du Moulin’s focus is safety on an offshore sailboat, he offered some thoughts about promoting safety more generally within the recreational marine business.
First, develop the concept of a culture of safety with every new captain. Provide buyers with training in safe operation of their vessels, learning the right-of-way rules, use of life jackets and enrollment in safety courses.
Second, build in the same practices developed for sailors for those with cruising powerboats. Invest in Lifesling crew-overboard gear and EPIRB technology; create training opportunities for owners to use their Lifesling or life ring with 150 feet of floating line in a crew-overboard drill.
Third, support transparency and learning when a boatbuilding or design weakness is uncovered. (Among sailboat designs, this has been an issue when keels have fallen off, and accident reports have been kept out of the public eye.)
Fourth, if the opportunity can be created, du Moulin recommends involving local Coast Guard groups in training exercises. “Every single one of them is trained to be a great teacher,” he says. “They love to do this when they can, particularly the rescue swimmers, who are women and men from diverse backgrounds.”
In addition to the YouTube video, an in-depth written report on the Leadership Symposium will be available later in March on the Storm Trysail Club website, stormtrysail.org.
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.