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Behaviour 1 – Comms


Trevor Martin is a forensic psychologist, teacher and solution focused therapist who has also sailed and worked in the marine industry throughout his life.  He is a regular contributor to the yachting press.  Here he tackles the elephant on the water, or more precisely the elephant on the boat.

Men are skippers. Dumbo was loveable and had big ears.  Skippers have big mouths and small ears.  So how can skippers be an elephant?  To get into that wavelength and this article, ask most women crew.

We all know that no boat, especially a yacht, can be run by committee. There often isn’t time to convene a strategy meeting, review, compliance, risk assessments etc.  In its place we have   “Do it now!”

Professional crews and racing teams have something else going on, very much in their favour.  Consent.  They have also volunteered or chosen their role.  Those that chose poorly, are rapidly guided to positions of strength or departure.  Those that endure also upskill to a level where their role is honed and understood within their team.  Criticism is always positively received, expected and essential.  Professional skippers are out of necessity, professional.  They also go home after work.

Single-handers are no exception, except that they take on all roles, give themselves time to do that and with the exception of truly mad Frenchmen and a few elite others flying on just carbon rails and a computer, do everything possible to slow it all down.  So, our solo sailors eliminate all ‘orders’ and people skills but sadly and very early in each voyage, start muttering to themselves, convinced that they will be able to stop that when they return to the bosom of their loved ones?

At the other end of the spectrum we have the majority of our contemporary sailing souls.  Let’s say, Mike is the skipper aka Dad, primary breadwinner and in a suitably stressed job.  He is also seasoned at being cool on the exterior and a highly-regarded commensurate professional in his work life.  Jane used to sail dinghies before she met Mike, like since she was eight years old, her father was an old gaffer.  Jill is 14 and Billy 9.  Some of you can tell at this point that I have been working with too many case studies in social work.  Fill in the children’s characters and back story for yourselves.  Centre-stage of this scenario is a three year old European built, GRP 30’er sloop.  I will specifically avoid tarnishing any particular brand!

Hopefully, I have painted a ‘common’ picture.  Yes, it is stacked full of stereotypes that you may have found distasteful, but stereotypes exist because they are in the majority, or have been historically. Soul search to determine whether they are obsolete.  Again, find your own answers, or just listen anywhere near a large popular marina in the so-called English summer.  Other countries are available.

So, now any readers, not sure of where this article is heading, have got on board.  Whilst I am tempted to give examples of behaviour and language, occasions and circumstances to the horror of some, reminded nausea of others and education to a few, that would be too self-indulgent, albeit a jolly good laugh.  Neither am I going to write referenced Phd lecture notes.  Think of this as powerpoint without the power.   However we all like a good parable.  PBO translation: ‘Learning from experience’.  In short, story-telling.

Mike made sure that he signed up the whole family for the day-skipper/coastal course.  He experienced a professional trainer.  He and you expecting nothing less.  He aced every navigation task and test, but Jane asked some ‘embarrassing’ questions which he found tedious.   Jill didn’t get to most of the theory lessons for various very good reasons, none of which Mike understood, but Jane did.  Billy was a sponge for it all and well chuffed that he was learning alongside loads of adults and just loving the time with Dad.

Mike felt that the first season went well, adventuring a little more, learning until he was confident that they were ‘competent’ and the boat was ‘ready’.  The next season was late starting.  It became difficult to make the time.  Any lessons learnt were faded, except for Mike, who had pegged his sailing prowess in with his professional persona.  He had spent the winter reminding his associates and friends how “we sail now” and might have inferred that he was born to it.  Many were and wished he wasn’t.   Easter didn’t happen.  Late May had a weekend with sun.

Mike had enjoyed all the benefits of a kind, patient, structured, relaxed, affable, pragmatic instructor who took a keen interest in each ‘pupils’ back story, abilities and aspirations.  Who probably had also studied Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs and Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Learning Theory.  So, it was always a good lunch and criticism was delivered in a sandwich form.   Praise, critique, affirmation and a dollop of relish.  That’s training lingo for positive ‘feed-back’.  Pun intended.

On this sunny day in May, the tide was ‘wrong’, so Mike knew that he had to ‘catch up’.  As they shot out of the marina, he began to see the things that should have been done before setting off.  So, with Skipper prowess, commanded Billy to turn on the chart-plotter and radio, Jane to attach the genoa sheet to the …genoa.  Meanwhile he leaned back and fished the aft mooring line out of the water, rather pleased that it had not fouled the propeller and that no-one had noticed.  Jill had.  He told Jill to stop looking at her iPhone, and double check the seacocks.  To which she answered “No”.  And gave him a stare that he normally avoided by walking out of the room or, were it an employee, make sure they were gone by the end of the month.

What have we got?  Most of you know.  A boat that is not ready to leave the pontoon.  A boat that could have fouled its prop and ploughed, unstoppably into a nice cherished ‘other yacht’ or a hopeful 10 year old motoring his dinghy so diligently.  Any mention of life jackets and safety lines?  Did they even sort out the seacocks?  Unlock the liferaft?  That was locked as Mike is top man on security.  Feel free to fill in the rest of this list.

In reality, we have something far more dangerous.  Here comes my mini-lecture from when I teach unregulated children to climb.  The difference between ‘perceived’ risk and ‘actual’ risk.  Most of perceived risk is dealt with by caution. The rest is pointless and what gives us high blood pressure if we are male or an empty Chablis bottle if female.  Please see the point rather than the sexism.  Oh, and ruins ‘fun’.

The ‘actual’ risk is what we do every day that can kill us.  Like driving to the boat.  It always amused me that I could balance any risk assessment for outdoor pursuits but failed miserably on driving my charges to the venue activity itself, without exaggerating the benefits of ‘choosing a time when the roads are less busy’ or ‘having a first aid kit’.  So, Mike has already remembered to pull in that line and he is going to go on to suddenly and timely remember the apparent ‘riskies’.  Jill has a long list of all of them as she downloaded ‘How to sail a yacht’ on You Tube and is totally alert – especially as to how many hours remain before she is reunited with her friends and her Playstation.

Why are the crew dangerous?  Firstly, Mike is augmenting his ability, expectations and especially  timing, sound in the belief that he has people about him to help.  And get it right first time.  So many of the boat’s actions and responses will be tardy or fail.  The more frustrated he becomes the less likely he will be to remember that tick-list in lesson 4 of the course which now seemed so long ago.

The family all accept that Dad is tired and stressed, but it works when Billy is out on his skateboard, Jill is staying over with friends and Jane runs the house, raises the children, does her part-time job and gets to the coffee shop.  These things are normal life and dilute or enrich life which is generally good.

Mike, you don’t have ‘crew’.  You have family that are crewing.  If Jill had ‘taken’ her Dad to her friend’s stables and was currently screaming at her Dad how to stop the horse bolting, or how to take command, or how to …  well, it wouldn’t happen would it?  Because Dad would not have put himself in that position.  But Jill had no choice.  She doesn’t want to be on a boat with a stressed, irritable, dogmatic, irrational and out of control …Dad.  Her Dad, who she really does love, but today slightly less.  Billy the sponge, by contrast, is lapping it up.  The water, the adventure, the time with Dad, really rather blind to what version of Dad he now has beside him.

Until Mike realises that the genoa winch handle is on the ‘wrong’ side.  Jane is still at the bow having, you recall, just tied the blue and green ropes to the sail at the front and has been looking at the seagulls, and lobster pot floats.  Mike orders Billy to move the winch handle to the other winch.  Billy has done this last year.  Billy drops the handle and it bounces overboard, splosh!  It is not a floating one.  Mike shouts at Billy something extremely adult and Billy goes straight down below with tears welling up in his eyes.

Jane comes back to the cockpit, takes a look at Mike who is scowling and redder than the sun has afforded in the season so far.  A well-practised glance at Jill, who rolls her eyes and then trails them cabinwards.  Jane can see Billy curled up in the front bunks, mostly stifling his sobs, but visible by his body movements over the drone of the engine. “What have you said to him?” She shouts, so to be heard over the noise of the engine but also, she admits, because Mike had promised not to shout at him this weekend and she was feeling suddenly defensively mother-henish.  You don’t get many hens on boats.

Today we have a daughter that loves her dad a little less and her respect for him is taking a nose dive because she increasingly looks out for her brother when she can.  Jane, the embedded peacemaker is wishing she could remember being that part-time lover.  And Billy?  He didn’t burst into tears that easily.  He bit his lip.  He took himself as far away as he could, without argument.  All he knew was that he had just been reminded of the last time Dad shouted at him, yesterday.  But each day, he woke up loving his Dad to bits.   This boat is going to damage crew.  Damage others and itself.  And any happiness will be at the expense of capitulating to, not a skipper, but a Dad who really doesn’t know what he has done to deserve all of it.

A whole 1.4 nautical miles off, I am lazing at the helm, well, one foot perched on the bottom of the wheel and gazing at the clouds, enjoying the ten minute interval before having to look around me for shipping.  Yes, I do have an autopilot, but its nominal noise was avoidably intrusive on such a peaceful day.  Seabirds calling, a far-off child laughing probably having caught a crab at the foreshore, a slight tremble in an untrimmed sail, who cares?  The trickling of water at bow and stern, early season sunlight basking my pasty face….. “ Don’t you bloody shout at me.  He’s your useless son, go and sort him out!!!”  (That’s the cleaned up edit).

That is the end of that story. Anything further is your enjoyment, not mine.  Though I rather like an epitaph that says Jill went on to join UKSA and raced for England some years later.  But again, you get to fill in the rest.  By now, you are writing this article more than me.  Excellent.  That’s the sort of skipper I am.

So, here is your homework.  Ask yourself, whether skipper, crew, man, woman or child, what do you really want?  Who are you?  What is your capacity today and what are your aspirations?  Who do you want to be – on a boat, a family boat.   Loving, caring, responsible, reasonable, loved, valued, respected, warm, reassuring, competent?  Then take one step at a time.  And talk to each other.  Initially, in the house, on land.  Be prepared to explore, to face new challenges.  Yes, in the house!  Consider inviting friends and partners, especially your children’s.  Everyone in a family behaves better when there are witnesses!

Discuss opportunities for downtime, relaxation, enjoyment.  Some might like an empty cabin and a book.  Or up-time on the iPhone.  Others would want to trim sails.  Or dream.   Depends on how we are wired.  Split the chores no-one wants evenly and rotate them.

Identify roles for enrichment, satisfaction, pride and challenge.  On any day, someone should be doing the very thing that another can be doing better.  That way everyone improves and feels valued.  The yacht gets better and safer and happier.   How many times have I heard, “she or he doesn’t do ‘xyz’, I have to do that bit”.  Really?  Everyone in time should be able to cover all tasks on the boat even though they will develop strength areas.  These can be saved for when the conditions are extreme.  Can you ever imagine an ideal day when each member of the family could sail the boat alone!  Horrifying?  But why not?  Two people with disabling sea-sickness, another with mild concussion having slipped…. yes, Mike that could be you.  Billy, yes Billy, could plot a course to more sheltered waters and assistance, helm and get on the VHF for advice.  A years worth of self-confidence study in PSHE lessons achieved within an hour on a yacht.  That is why sail training organisations have amazing outcomes.

Parents – remember ALL we do is modelling for our children and who they are to become, whether by reaction or absorption.   But, Mike, LISTEN.  Then be a loveable elephant on the water.  A whole family crew having fun.  And, dare I say it, I can get back to the sound of the water trickling under my bow.

And lastly, many years ago, I was sailing for the first time with a very good friend of mine in a dinghy.  Comfortable in each other’s company, we had not spoken since launching which made sense as she had sailed many miles with her father.  After about 20 minutes of what I took to be total harmony, she broke the silence with…  “Trevor, I can’t stand this any more – when are you going to start shouting at me?”  I was dumbstruck.  And ever since, whilst I have had a really good idea of what is going on for my yacht, sadly very little about the minds of my crew. Especially the female ones.  Want to join me single-handed, anyone?

Next month:  Admiral Horatio Jekyll – the psychotic paradox.