By William Strassberg, Cruising Club of America Safety & Seamanship Committee Chair
Advocates of the phrase, “leaders are born not made,” discount expertise and dwell on behavioral traits such as charisma, compassion, extroversion, boldness, etc. These personality attributes certainly play an important role in acquiring allegiance within a group. But when it comes to the complexity of command at sea and the risks linked to offshore racing and cruising, the inverse is true: leaders are made not born. The recipe for success includes sea time in challenging situations, an ability to weigh variables, and a sense to steer toward effective outcomes. Sharing this wisdom requires communication skills and an ability to inspire others. — Ralph Naranjo
Effective Skipper Leadership Makes Your Boat Safer
Skipper leadership and vessel safety are inevitably linked: Effective leadership translates vessel standard operating procedures and safety protocols into practice. Effective leadership empowers and enhances a vessel’s safety program.
In The Art of Seamanship (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2015), Ralph Narajano notes that when the wind is howling and everyone is engaged in efforts to keep things under control, communication is most effective with clear, confirmed communication, acknowledgment of problems, and a cohesive action plan. These principles center around concise communications, team understanding, and forethought. “A proﬁcient skipper must be as multifaceted as possible, not just in breadth of knowledge but also in the kind of wisdom that’s acted out on the pitching deck of a vessel at sea,” Narajano writes. “The ﬁnal challenge for any skipper is the transition involved in becoming a leader.”
Leading a safety-driven team is natural for some skippers, but leadership skills can be fostered in all. Some skills are innate, others are developed with time and experience, such as effective communication strategies, enhanced teamwork, and operational protocols.
Leadership Skills Can be Taught
My leadership interests came to the fore during my career as an orthopedic surgeon, when I became involved in issues surrounding patient safety and safe surgical practices. The goal was to create a culture of safety in my practice and operating room, utilizing protocols, actions, teamwork, and communications centered around patients and safety. Many of the techniques I learned were derived from the aerospace industry and airline safety programs, with systems checks, standardized procedures and protocols, and open, decentralized communication. Now, I try my best to carry the same concepts and leadership skills on board my Visions of Johanna.
A skipper’s leadership brings all components of a safety program to fruition. I believe the transition to leadership that Naranjo speaks of is marked by the ability to bring a crew together to embrace and adhere to the safety-first philosophy, while creating a team that works together and cares for and takes care of one another.
Skills of seamanship and breadth of knowledge develop with experience, and successful leadership in turn creates an onboard atmosphere in which the crew buys into the yacht’s rules, procedures, and safety protocols. This shared sense of responsibility is a good measure of a yacht’s safety program. Have your crew been discovered with their harness unclipped? Does the atmosphere aboard your yacht foster open communications, and is your crew comfortable raising concerns or disagreeing with a decision you have made? Answers to these questions are also markers of a yacht’s safety program.
Leadership and Communication Skills are Important Components of a Safety Program
Still, experienced captains can make major and dangerous errors. An airline industry example is United Airlines Flight 173, which crashed outside Portland, Oregon, in December 1978, killing eight passengers and two crew members. Although there was equipment malfunction, the investigation concluded the crew’s carelessness and inability to work together effectively led to a preventable disaster: exhaustion of all fuel with loss of all four engines. How does a modern-day jetliner simply run out of fuel?
The crew voiced concerns about low fuel levels, but they weren’t assertive. Ultimately, the captain’s isolated attention to landing gear malfunction eclipsed the more serious fuel depletion. The crash of UA 173 highlighted the crew’s inability to work as a team and communicate with one another effectively and led the airline industry to adopt safety training for all crews, known today as Crew Resource Management (CRM).
* Skipper preoccupation, improper focus, and ineffectual assertiveness by the crew leads to poor communication and dangerous outcomes
Crew Resource Management
Could this happen aboard a yacht? Definitively yes. Here is a hypothetical: You are approaching the last leg of your overnight passage from Block Island Sound to Maine, perhaps bound for Swan’s Island or Mount Desert Island. Your vessel has just made course for Jericho Bay, and you, the skipper, are down below troubleshooting your fridge compressor. You are in the “boat position”—butt up with head down in the bilge, trying to get your elbow to bend the wrong way to reach a part you cannot see. Focused on your problem when your crew comes below to tell you the boat could be caught up in a lobster-pot warp, you tell them to try to cut it, untangle the warp, or spin a 360 off it. They come back five or ten minutes later to say they are concerned the boat is caught on the warp, drifting, and they are unable to free it. You grumble that you only need a few more minutes to figure out the compressor situation, and they should keep trying to get unstuck. They go topside and try to deal with the problem, but perhaps they did not have the opportunity to share, or were uncomfortable mentioning their concern about a 2-knot current slowly dragging the boat toward Horseshoe Ledge. And … you might imagine the rest.
Preoccupation, narrow focus, and communication problems can and do happen aboard cruising yachts. To minimize opportunities for errors, a skipper can adopt the practice of Crew Resource Management. CRM training focuses on both interpersonal and cognitive skills. Best practices include situational awareness, problem-solving and decision-making, effective communication, and leveling of the organizational hierarchy.
Components of CRM
Situational awareness extracts and integrates information to form a coherent picture of vessel status.
Problem solving is a multistep process whereby problems are identified and information is gathered to define potential solutions. Effective communication can be a challenge as human nature tends to defer confrontation. Yacht procedures should designate it the crew’s duty to communicate their concerns, as the ineffective assertion is often linked with ineffective communication. People generally have a really hard time using unmitigated language that doesn’t hedge, qualify, weaken, or soften, but effective, assertive communication requires unvarnished and unambiguous messaging.
Leveling of the organizational hierarchy facilitates team communication. It does not mean the skipper is not in charge. It does not create an equal or mutual command structure, nor does it alter the responsibility or authority of the captain. CRM makes it the duty of every team member to voice any concerns they might have. Simply requiring crew to speak up and voice their concerns goes a long way toward improved communications. The skipper’s encouragement, willingness, and desire to hear dissenting, conflicting opinions and concerns are a large part of the rest.
Effective Communication is Paramount
In medicine, communication techniques changed remarkably during my surgical career. When I began my private practice in Maine in the 1980s, the surgeon was king of the operating theater, while coworkers played a relatively subordinate role. The first time I walked into the recovery room in a rural Maine hospital, two nurses wearing classic nursing garb and caps jumped to their feet. They almost stood at attention as I did a 360 trying to figure out what was going on! By the time I retired from surgery, in another, larger Maine hospital, I would enter an O.R., announce my name, and ask coworkers to call me Bill. I would outline a brief plan of intended surgery, stating our shared goal. I explained that my focus was often on a small portion of the surgical field, and I could potentially miss a critical issue outside my immediate zone of attention, so they must please speak up if they saw anything they wanted me to consider. In a span of 15 years, surgical practices morphed from a hierarchal structure to one emphasizing teamwork and communication. The revamped culture was enabled by conscious leveling of the command structure, protocols, and enhanced communication techniques that fostered a shared understanding of our common goals.
To enhance crew communication aboard Visions of Johanna, I utilize a technique called SBAR, an acronym for situation, background, assessment, and recommendation. Originated within the nuclear submarine community, SBAR was later put into use in health care and surgical safety to facilitate prompt and concise communication.
Situation determines what is going on and identifies current status and any concerns in a brief description. The main goal is to communicate what is relevant – what is happening now.
• Background provides context of how we got here and backfills the story.
• Assessment surveys the situation and proffers solutions suggesting the most appropriate course of action.
• Recommendation is an explicit statement of what is required, how urgent, and what action steps are necessary.
SBAR is a natural tool used for exchanging information and empowers junior crew to speak out and proffer recommendations as the following 2 a.m. watch change demonstrates. The on-deck watch gives the following SBAR briefing:
Situation: Good evening. All generally fine right now. Number 2 jib is up, and we still have a single reef in the main. Wind was 10–15 knots at the start of my watch, and over the past 30 minutes, it has built to 12–18 knots, becoming gusty and now forward of the beam.
Background: Tonight’s forecast called for scattered thunderstorms, and I thought I heard thunder out there, but I’m not sure.
Assessment: I see an increase in wind pressure and have a concern about impending thunder boomers. We need to get ahead of this and be ready for a squall.
Recommendation: I’ve considered placing a second reef in the main and waited for you. I want to help you do it before I turn in. And it’s time to start a radar watch, checking for squalls on the quarter-hour.
SBAR is also used on Visions of Johanna as a specific tool for crew-to-captain communication. While I hope never to utilize it, our SOP allows a crew member to assert themselves by “declaring” an SBAR to the skipper in urgent situations. This works as a “red flag” for the captain, providing a low friction pathway for crew to alert the skipper to an issue of concern. For instance, after giving notice of lobster warp entrapment to the refrigeration-weary skipper, the crew could declare an SBAR if sidelined a second time (or the first time if situation dictated):
Crew: Skip, I need to declare an SBAR. The captain’s attention is now harnessed.
Captain: OK, talk to me.
Crew: Situation: Boat speed has dropped to less than 1.5 knots, and I am sure we have caught a warp and are dragging a lobster pot. We have just entered Jericho Bay per your plan and are close by Horseshoe Ledge with a significant current running through the channel.
Background: We were motor sailing and averaging 6.5 knots before you went below to suss out a problem with the fridge. I do not see any line behind us but something is on the keel or the prop. This channel is narrow and has port and starboard ledges.
Assessment: With limited maneuverability, we are drifting and are in imminent danger of grounding on Horseshoe or a nearby Ledge. We need corrective action immediately to prevent grounding.
Recommendation: We need you on deck. We need to either get more sail up and try to sail out to deeper water or get an anchor down immediately and get someone in the dinghy or in the water to inspect our propeller.
Leveling of Organizational Hierarchy
Simply put, hierarchal leadership leads to errors, while leveling of the team structure facilitates communication and helps avoid them. For example, after Korean Air Cargo Flight 8509 crashed shortly after takeoff from London Stansted Airport, an investigative report said that the captain, irritated by the flight’s late departure from London, spoke in a derogatory and barking fashion to his crew, setting a tone that discouraged further input. When the plane went into an ill-fated bank less than a minute into the flight, the first officer said nothing even his instruments indicated the plane was turned almost sideways.
Leveling of hierarchal structure facilitates team communication and helps avoid errors. A captain who encourages input demonstrates a respect for the crew while fostering a culture that minimizes errors and promotes safety.
Human Factors and an Accumulation of Errors
Malcolm Gladwell discusses airline tragedies in his 2008 book Outliers, noting errors are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions rather than one big horrendous event. “In a typical crash, for example, the weather is poor—not terrible, necessarily, but bad enough that the pilot feels a bit more stressed than usual,” he writes. “In an overwhelming number of crashes, the plane is behind schedule, so the pilots are hurrying. And in 52% of crashes, the pilot at the time of the accident has been awake for 12 hours and more, meaning that he is tired and not thinking sharply. And 44% of the time, the two pilots have never flown together before, so they are not comfortable with each other. Then the errors start—and it’s not just one error.
The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors. One of the pilots does something wrong that by itself is not a problem. Then one of them makes another error on top of that, which combined with the first error still does not amount to catastrophe. But then they make a third error on top of that and then another and another and another and another, and it is a combination of all those errors that leads to disaster. These seven errors, furthermore, are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill. It’s not that the pilot has to negotiate some critical technical maneuver and fails. The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication [emphasis mine]. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot. One pilot does something wrong, and the other pilot doesn’t catch the error. A tricky situation needs to be resolved through a complex series of steps—and somehow the pilots failed to coordinate and miss one of them.”
Errors and a Raging Sea
In our maritime world, these issues still happen today. On October 1, 2015, the American container ship El Faro sailed into the eye of Hurricane Joaquin and went down with all aboard, becoming the deadliest maritime accident in a generation. What was the El Faro doing anywhere near the erratic, unpredictable Joaquin, pinned between the Bahamas’ Crooked Island and the hurricane? This event was heartfelt in Maine, as many of the 33 souls lost that day were Mainers and Maine Maritime Academy graduates. Unfortunately, deficiencies in vessel SOPs, poor communications, and a harmful onboard culture can result in maritime tragedy. Boston-based author Rachel Slade wrote about the El Faro in her 2018 book, Into the Raging Sea (Ecco, 2018).
Failures in crew communications and coordination also led to disastrous consequences for Air Canada Flight 797 in 1983. After a fire broke out around the rear lavatory while in flight, the jet landed in Toronto and immediately became engulfed in flames when the door was opened, killing 23 people. The investigation determined that misleading information about the fire and underestimation of the fire’s severity contributed to the severity of the accident. In safety-critical contexts, a failure in team collaboration can have severe consequences.
Teamwork, Communication and the Smell of Smoke
It was only eight minutes from noticing the smell of smoke and fire to the Mayday call. Could this situation happen aboard your ship? You bet! Imagine the smoke and fire occurred with you on a passage, halfway through an ocean crossing. Precise communication, urgent problem-solving, and teamwork are keys to a positive outcome. During any safety-critical situation aboard a yacht— i.e. smoke and fire, water ingress, dismasting, collision, hurricane, or medical emergencies—crews need to swiftly change from normal to emergency tasking in order to respond to unexpected events. Success depends upon the need to accomplish separate and sometimes competing tasks, placing unique challenges on the critical component of leadership.
Deposits in the Bank of Experience, Education and Training
Most of us have heard of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, famous for the 2009 “miracle on the Hudson,” when he safely landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Sully’s accomplishment is a demonstration of CRM in action: outstanding leadership actuating safety practices and protocols. The plane struck a flock of Canada geese about 4.5 miles northwest of LaGuardia Airport shortly after takeoff. Both engines failed, and Sullenberger assumed the conn while his co-pilot worked the checklist for an engine restart.
Sully evaluated the options: Return to La Guardia, divert to Teterboro, New Jersey, airport, or attempt a water landing in the Hudson. Sullenberger radioed a Mayday call to New York Terminal Radar Approach Control: “We’re turning back toward LaGuardia.” Then: “We’re unable.” Controllers suggested Teterboro. Sully replied: “We can’t do it … We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”
Nine hundred feet above the George Washington Bridge, Sullenberger commanded, “Brace for impact” as the plane made an unpowered ditching. Sullenberger opened the cockpit door and gave the order to evacuate. Water rose in the cabin as Sullenberger walked the cabin twice to confirm it was empty. Nearby ships and the Coast Guard assisted, and no souls were lost that day. The NTSB final report credited the outcome to four factors. Among them were good decision-making and teamwork by the cockpit crew, and performance of the flight crew during the evacuation.
“I never had an engine failure in 42 years in any flight I’d ever flown, but I was ready,” Sully said. Later, he elaborated, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. On January 15, the balance was sufficient, so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” Sully has been quick to point out the positive outcome that resulted in all lives saved was due to the actions of multiple groups and teams.
Culture of Safety and Core Principles of CRM
On this occasion, Captain Sullenberger, a safety expert and CRM instructor, demonstrates the core principles of CRM: Situational awareness, problem-solving and decision-making, effective communication and leveling of the organizational hierarchy. Sully’s coworkers not only adhered to safety protocols and routines but were trained to be active participants in the safety culture.
Vessel safety is a combination of safety protocols and gear, skipper leadership and crew participation. Practice of protocols and drills engages crew, bringing them into the safety process. Their involvement reinforces an onboard safety culture as the crew communicates and problem solves as a team. The true culture of safety is only realized when yacht protocols and skipper leadership result in a crew ethos that not only adheres to safety develops a crew that actively participates in the safety culture of the ship.
The transformation of a crew, from one that follows safety protocols to one that participates and builds a culture of safety, is the mark of both a successful safety program and effective leadership. Incorporation of these principles into small vessel management will help make us better and safer out at sea. ■
Bill Strassberg has sailed Visions of Johanna across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and to high latitudes in Iceland and Greenland. While Bill has had his share of mistakes and mishaps over the years, he is pretty good about not making the same mistake twice. At the same time, he always seems to be inventing new ways to mis-step and he has learned that strict adherence to vessel procedures and protocols, combined with a crew that works as a team, helps build the Culture of Safety we strive for. His number one crew, his wife Johanna, no longer wishes to join him on long ocean crossings or in high latitudes. Nonetheless, she is always with him, perched on his shoulder while whispering sage advice and commentaries in his ear, such as “it’s time to reef!”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the 2022 edition of Voyages, the Cruising Club of America’s annual publication, and is reprinted with permission. Special thanks to CCA Commodore Chris Otorowski and Voyages Editors Amelia & Robert Green.
The Cruising Club of America comprises more than 1,300 accomplished ocean sailors who willingly share their cruising expertise through books, articles, blogs, and onboard opportunities. Together with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, the CCA organizes the legendary Newport Bermuda Race. With active involvement and support from its 14 stations and posts around the United States, Canada and Bermuda, the club focuses significant national and international outreach efforts on ocean safety and seamanship training through hands-on seminars. For more information, visit cruisingclub.org.