Acting your Way to Being a Great Skipper

Bill Kinney, OCSC Instructor and freelance writer/photographer, recently published a fantastic article in Good Old Boat. Bill has been kind enough to let us share the piece here on the OCSC Blog. This is great advice and a good read for everyone interested in being a better skipper. Enjoy!

When you are the skipper of the boat, you are in charge; you are responsible for everything that happens on the boat, and to the boat.  Nerve-racking, isn’t it?  You don’t know everything about sailing. Even the stuff you do know, you sometimes forget.  Stuff keeps going wrong.  Equipment breaks. The crew doesn’t know what to do!  It’s enough to make you scream!  But don’t!  Wait, take a deep breath, and think of what a great skipper would do.  Bad skippers scream and yell.  Great skippers speak just loud enough that the crew can hear and understand, and they never insult or demean.  If somebody does something wrong, they suggest “Let’s try it this way….”  Great skippers take their time, even when things go wrong.  They don’t worry about “looking bad” because they know that a classy response to a problem can make them look good.  Great skippers know that everybody thinks better and works faster when they feel like they are surrounded by calm confidence.  Great skippers know that even when they aren’t feeling especially calm and confident on the inside, being calm and confident on the outside really can make things go better.

In the world of sailing legends, we can learn from two of history’s most famous characters.  One name has become synonymous with “floating tyrant”: Captain Bligh of the Bounty.  He was an incredibly skilled sailor.  His boat handling and navigation talents were truly exceptional.  But does anybody think of that first when they hear his name?  Nope.  We think of the problems he had with crew moral and motivation.  Nobody wants to be known around the docks as “a real Captain Bligh.”   On the other hand, Admiral Lord Nelson, the British naval hero of the Napoleonic wars, was made famous not by his obviously superior sailing skills, but rather by his ability to inspire the devotion and loyalty of all who served under him.

How does the average skipper make that magical transformation to “Great”?  A good start is by always knowing what is important, and having a “Plan B”.  Knowing what is important is easy:  Crew and boat safety.  In that order.  On my boat we have three rules:  #1:  Be safe.  #2:  Have fun.  #3:  See Rule #1.

What is “Plan B”?  It is what you do when your first plan falls apart.  Something goes wrong.  An engine stalls, a halyard breaks, any mechanical or human failure that means some thing is wrong and a stressful situation develops.  If you have already planned out what to do–if you already have a “Plan B”–your response is likely to be a good one.  Not having to improvise means you can implement your “Plan B” with confidence and class.  Let’s look at a typical situation and see how keeping priorities straight and having a “Plan B” can help.

“Captain Bligh” is motoring upwind in the marina, putting the mainsail up…  and something gets stuck.  Bligh immediately starts yelling at his crew to “Pull Harder!” and when that doesn’t work he is soon screaming “What’s wrong?”  There is a lot of running and shouting, but the problem goes unsolved and suddenly Captain Bligh and crew find themselves out in the wind and waves with a sail that won’t go up and maybe won’t come down either!  Not a pretty picture, but possibly quite entertaining to the people watching from  the yacht club bar.

Now, let’s put our imaginary “Captain Nelson” in the same situation. After all, even on the best run boats sails still get stuck sometimes.  What does he do differently?  First he runs through his mental check list to see what might be wrong.   If a quick troubleshooting session doesn’t solve the problem, it’s time for “Plan B”:  Turn the boat around and motor back into the marina, maybe pull up at the public dock and sort out the problem.  This strategy would allow time to look things over carefully and try again at everybody’s leisure.

Is our Captain Nelson smarter?  Not necessarily. After all, neither skipper solved the problem with a blinding flash of insight.  Whose crew members do you think had more fun sailing that day?  Which boat was less likely to have serious damage done to rigging and sails?  Our Nelson might have been feeling just as confused and helpless as our poor Bligh.   Captain Bligh got so focused on the short term goal–getting out sailing–he forgot his first priority:  Keeping crew and boat safe.  Captain Nelson had a “Plan B” at the ready, he knew ahead of time what he would do if he had trouble setting sail.  Captain Nelson also had a “Plan B” ready in case of engine failure in the middle of the marina, or any one of a number of other problems.

Plan B is one of the critical elements of good seamanship.  None of us do our best thinking under critical time pressures, so having a plan into which we have invested some thought and even practice can make the difference between a graceful exit from a problem, or an expensive disaster.

Some situations we see every time we go out sailing are worth thinking carefully about “What we would do if…”  For example, if we are motoring straight into the wind in that narrow approach channel and our engine quits.  What is the FIRST thing to do?  The instinctive first response for most sailors who haven’t taken the time to develop a “Plan B” would be to try to restart the engine.  It is very unlikely that the engine will simply restart.  Some problem made it stop, and we haven’t had the time to fix that problem. We are far more likely to drift out of the channel and go aground while we have our head down fussing with the engine. So what’s our “Plan B”?  If there is room, I would suggest just turning the boat downwind, and start sailing under bare poles down the channel.  Put a jib up if you can to get some power and control.  Do you have enough searoom to sail?  If so, keep going while you troubleshoot the motor.  If not, maybe you should ready an anchor so you can put the boat in a safe place while you fix the problem, or call for help.  Many of the details will depend on the local conditions and the way your own boat handles. The whole key is that you have thought out your Plan B ahead of time.

Another great situation to put together a Plan B is around docking maneuvers.  Everybody who has to put a boat into a narrow slip has had at one time or another to deal with a crosswind or crosscurrent.  These situations make the timing of the turn into the slip critical, and prone to error.  If I miss the turn into my slip, what do I do?  Try to back out?  Or just quietly drift to the other side of the fairway where I can hold position well fendered while I take stock of the situation?  Maybe I pull into the empty slip down the dock.  Any of these answers might be “right” depending on the local conditions.  You can be sure you will be far more likely to make the right decision, and to execute it with care and confidence, if you have spend some time thinking it through carefully before the crisis.

“Plan B’s” are not limited to plans developed far in advance.  Sometimes you develop your “Plan B” in on the fly in response to the current situation.  Every time our hero, Captain Nelson, approaches another boat out on the water, he puts together a mental checklist.  What will I do if he stands on his course?  If he turns left?  turns right?

The importance of calm and control was reinforced to me when I started teaching sailing on San Francisco Bay.  Most of the year we teach in winds of 20 to 30 knots that blow straight into our marina across San Francisco Bay with a wave building fetch of 8 miles.  Yet every day we put three novice sailors who may never have been on a boat before and let them take the helm of a 24 foot keelboat out into what most sailors would consider rather challenging conditions off a rocky lee shore.  That first day of class has become my favorite.  We take landlubbers and start them well on the path to being sailors by making sure that they don’t panic.  How?  By being calm.  A quiet voice, a tolerance of mistakes and a basic understanding that there are really very few things that anyone can do that would put the boat and the people on board at serious immediate risk.  Care is used to keep the new sailors far away from situations where they could get into trouble (like accidental jibes), while letting them revel, and learn, in the wind and waves.

How can you put these approaches to use with your crew?  Think of the relatively few things inexperienced crew could do that would really be dangerous. Spend all of your effort preventing those things from happening. Maybe you spend a few extra minutes explaining things and asking questions to be sure everyone understands. Maybe there are some things that you don’t ask the crew to do, but do yourself.  All those other things you get frustrated about? If they don’t threaten crew or boat they are, by definition, just potential learning situations.

No matter how frustrating it may be to see one of your new crew coiling a line wrong, or stowing something in the wrong place, it is not worth raising your voice.  Far better to calmly suggest that you prefer an alternative approach.   Sometimes it might be a better idea to let something go until you’re quietly tied up at the dock at the end of the day before offering suggestions for alternative ways to do things.  If you want someone to do something in a way that is new and different to them, it always helps to explain WHY you want them to do it your way.  It’s perfectly OK to say that your way is not better than their way; it’s just the way you expect to find things on your boat.

When things really go wrong, if you are frustrated, angry, or even scared, it is far better to ACT calm and quiet.  Take your time in giving orders, be sure what you say is exactly what you mean.  In a difficult situation a few, well chosen, words can be far more effective than a flurry of contradictory commands.

Think for a moment about the great old-time movie heroes.  Characters played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood.  They rarely raised their voices, yet they were still commanding presences.  You don’t have to be the new John Wayne to be a good skipper, but at moments of crisis when things are going wrong ACTING like a calm and competent skipper can, in a bizarre turn-about, actually MAKE you one.  One of the great things about being a cruising sailor is that there is almost always time to sit back, take a breath and think, “How would a great skipper act?”

Copyright: 2010, William Kinney

Originally published in Good Old Boat May/June 2010

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. montreal canadiens tickets

    Hi there,

    This is a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at

    May I use part of the information from your post above if I provide a link back to your website?


  2. Nancy Gillette

    Terrific advice from a terrific teacher!

Comments are closed.