Sailing and Teamwork

Investing a vacation week learning how to sail was edutaining. I signed up for the Humber Sailing Course at Humber Bay Park in Toronto. Every day I was out on the water learning the ropes, pun intended, developed some vertigo, worked on my tan and was part of a fine crew of three students and one instructor. At the end the week I developed into a strong skipper with good command of my crew, points of sail, crew overboard rescue techniques and can now pilot a sailboat up to 35 feet. I also received a refresher on what makes a great team.

Any Group Dynamics, Life Skills or Organizational Behaviour course will tell you that the life stages of a team are Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. On the first morning of the first day we set out to sail under the supervision of the Sailing Instructor. The Instructor gave directions to the Acting Student Skipper and Crew. While out on Lake Ontario we rotated through the helm position as a Skipper every ten minutes. The Student Skipper’s responsibility was for the safety of vessel and Crew. And the Crew’s role was to assist the Skipper. If the Skipper told the Crew that they were about to tack, turn the sailboat through the headwind/upwind, then the Crew took the necessary actions by hardening or easing the lines, which means tightening or loosening the sail ropes. This was done either by explicit command of the Skipper or with a more experienced Crew, automatically as the sailboat tacked and the Skipper yelled out, “Helm’s a-lee’.

Success was achieved through communication, transparency, the sharing of common risk and the development of trust. If the Crew didn’t’ adjust the sails as per the Skipper’s command then we all could be going for an unscheduled swim. And if the Skipper turned the sailboat when the Crew wasn’t aware or ready then we all could be going for an unscheduled swim, or worse. Everyone knows what is going on, has a vested interest in the outcome and works hard to acheive that outcome.

What you’ll most undoubtedly find in poor performing organizations is team with a mixed bag of personalities at odds with each other under-performing with incongruent goals, lack of direction or planning, no clarity, no training, lack of trust, no responsibilities or accountability, unequal distribution of work and rewards, no resources to support, no conflict management model and a host of many more issues that affect performance.

The concept of sailing is an example of an effective team model. You can even go further to the influences of vessel performance and how it relates to organizational effectiveness. The internal: The sailboat, sails and the experience/skill of the crew and skipper. And the external: The wind, temperature, rain, sun and wave conditions. It’s a microcosm of a business organization (sailboat) and your competing marketplace (weather) in order to reach your goals. So before you go sailing, make sure you have a good crew. Helm’s a-lee.


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