We all think we know what teamwork is, especially in sports or at work. But on board? Why do some crews work like efficient, well-oiled machines, while others succumb to sullen moods, yelling and frustration?
It doesn’t matter whether a team is composed of a couple, overlaid with those particular one-on-one dynamics, or a group of strangers learning to get along for the sake of the vessel. When the captain and crew have healthy communications and trust in one another, they naturally bond and anticipate the group’s needs. Difficult endeavors become growth opportunities that, in turn, form a bond of shared accomplishments, which nurtures the desire to put the ship before the self. When teamwork is at its best on board, the collaboration required to accomplish a concerted physical and mental effort becomes joyful.
I once met a famous elderly cruising couple who in one afternoon changed my prideful and invincible teenage perspective. They casually mentioned having just returned from their third circumnavigation. I was skeptical because ashore, one could barely make a cup of tea without the other’s help. But once we went out to their small cutter, which lacked an engine or anchor windlass, they methodically helped each other get aboard, raise the sails and heave the anchor by tacking gently up the anchor rode. Alone, each was vulnerable, but together, they gracefully did the deck work of several younger sailors. Teamwork.
Whether it’s a cruising team of two or a racing team of 10, the teamwork elements are the same. Having a common objective — perhaps challenged by weather, difficult navigation, complex deck work, repairs or improvising with minimal supplies — leads us to choose the rewards of the ship over our own needs. It’s no wonder that corporations charter sailboats for executive team-building exercises. It’s a beautiful thing when captain and crew transform into real shipmates, pulling together for the good of the vessel.
The captain sets the on-board agenda while managing individual egos, especially when things are happening quickly. Individual demonstrations of strength and knowledge are inevitable, particularly among unfamiliar shipmates, but a good captain discreetly channels this hierarchy to advantage. A crew becomes a team when enthusiastic people jump in with a willing extra set of hands; when an idea, alternate tool, rig or strategy is offered spontaneously for the benefit of the boat.
But what happens when teamwork goes sour? The captain still drives the group dynamic: Conflict resolution is an acquired skill that, like good wine, becomes better with age. Sometimes an applied dose of support without criticism is the best tactic. Debriefing after a bad situation can remove emotion and blame, transforming a negative event into a positive learning experience. In the worse case, putting some distance between conflicting individuals or removing a problem personality is the only solution. It would be naive to think that conflicts are wholly avoidable, but if left unresolved, they only get worse.
Every crew has its methods, developed over time and forming a base of trust and willingness to work together. A good captain nurtures crew security, commits to a willingness to communicate and encourages bonding over shared experiences.
It works both ways. Captain and crew, when successful, anticipate each other’s needs and pool talents and resources. When a crew gets things right, a cruising boat can remain serene, and a racing boat can compete more efficiently. With effective teamwork in place, the shipboard routine can be a real joy.
Pat Mundus is a retired merchant ship deck officer who cruises her F. Spaulding Dunbar ketch, Surprise, in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. During the summer season she arranges crewed classic yacht charters through East End Charters. eastendcharters.com
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.