Essays comparing Ocean Yacht Racing Leadership with School Leadership

What can leaders in our schools learn from ocean yacht racing skippers? Sport simplifies life: there are clear and simple goals, a ‘level playing field’ and an equal challenge for all participants, but it can provide wonderful metaphors that shed light on the complexities and confusions of leadership in ‘the real world’.

Twenty essays, written during the 2013-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, cover everything from The Loneliness of Leadership and Leading from the Front, to Team Building and Managing your Negativity.

  1. Leading from the Front
  2. The Loneliness of Leadership
  3. Showing Vulnerability
  4. Ours not to Reason Why
  5. Confidence under Pressure
  6. Data at Sea
  7. The Boss
  8. Helming and High Expectations
  9. Mucking in Leadership
  10. When Morale is Low
  11. What are Teams made of? Part 1.
  12. What are Teams Made of? Part 2
  13. What Are Teams Made of? Part 3
  14. Helming in a Pacific Storm: the Battle for Control
  15. Cruising and Grinding
  16. Manage Your Negativity Part 1
  17. Manage your Negativity Part 2
  18. Storming and Performing
  19. Is this a Democracy?
  20. What Makes a Winning Skipper?


1.  Leading from the Front

November 22nd, 2013  (before I became a crew member)

I am generally sceptical about the concept of ‘leading from the front’. It has a heroic aura about it, but I have a shameful notion that, had I been a private in a First World War trench, with my officer about to lead us over the top to almost certain death, without the prospect of a firing squad for cowards, I would have said ‘Be my guest. You lead on, I’ll just sit down here and light another Woodbine.’ Setting a good example is one thing, but leadership requires a few extra strategies.

However my scepticism was shaken 3 days ago when I read this report from Vicky Ellis, the skipper of the yacht I will be joining in January. ‘Switzerland’, nicknamed ‘Heidi’, is currently racing across the Southern Ocean, encountering one storm after another. This was a big one:

“One curling wave engulfed the bow of the boat from the side, picked up our headsail that the crew had lashed down earlier, ripped it from the deck and promptly bounced it over the side railings. The ties started coming loose as the sail was being dragged along by the surf. We had seconds before the destruction it would do to itself and the boat would be significant.

“The crew in the cockpit came to life in a nanosecond at the call for “heave too.” The preventer and backstays were released and Heidi was persuaded to come through the wind.

“A party of crew was called for to go forward and secure the sail which was rapidly making its way towards the sea again. Now, nothing ever happens in sequence and it was at this moment that the roar and screaming of the wind changed pitch to an eerie whipping tone and the sea took on a magical haze as the weather front descended, marking its arrival with a dense pelting of hail stones.

“With the helm now lashed to windward, I looked at the crew, hesitating before venturing towards the flailing beast on the foredeck and decided this was one of those times you needed to lead from the front.

“I left the lashed wheel in the hands of one of the watch leaders and scuttled up to the bow, closely followed by our bowmen and fearless foredeck crew.

“The sail was retrieved from the sea and sail ties wrapped around before it was unhanked and slid tug by tug by the icy fingers of the whole team, down the deck and secured below. Wave after wave washed over the boat threatening to take us and the sail with it, as Heidi sat nose towards the swell bobbing up and down as the wind kept its grip on the small sails flying hard backed against it.

“I can only report that from the bow of a Clipper 70, being repeatedly dunked in the ocean then pelted with hail stones, whilst grabbing at a sail on a suicide mission was an awesome sight! To be here in the Southern Ocean and to witness this moment of awesome nature is a one off, but to witnesses this moment of great teamwork, determination and skill of my crew: that was priceless.”

Clearly, at moments of crisis, a leader has to be at the front, facing the challenge alongside her team members. And what a bonding experience that has the potential to become. With what a sense of pride!

I wonder what the equivalent in school leadership might be?

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2. The Loneliness of Leadership

December 5th 2013

After sailing nearly 5,000 miles from Cape Town to Western Australia, and battling through to 5th place, ‘Invest Africa’ hit a wind hole and six boats sailed past them into Albany There is nothing more frustrating for a sailor. Without wind you are totally disempowered; changes of sail plan and direction are futile; it is a situation that throws an enormous burden on the skipper. It must have been your strategy that got us in this mess, but there is nothing you can do to get you out.

The following extract is from the diary of Richard Gould, skipper of ‘Invest Africa’, after several days of windless frustration:

“It’s hard to explain, but even though the crew are on the same boat, in the same conditions they really don’t understand what each skipper is going through out here. The only people that are fully aware what it’s like are my peers, the other skippers.

“It really is great to know that when the chips are down we are all there to support each other. Yes we are racing each other, trying to sail faster and harder than each other but there will always be that special something. It’s a sense of camaraderie that I have never experienced in any other sport.

“Would you expect in (insert name of any other sport you want to here) when one team is having a really tough day, that the opposition offers words of support? To really genuinely talk with their opponents in order to try and lift their spirits and keep them pushing on? I think not! This is what makes the Clipper Race so special, so unique, the challenge of a life time. That’s ocean racing!”

So how would it read if we inserted ‘Education’? I would hope that the majority of heads can share their frustrations and fears with other head teachers, but I wonder if it is often at the genuinely emotional level that Richard Gould experienced, especially with schools that are our direct competitors. And what might be the educational equivalents of ‘wind holes’?

There can be a terrible loneliness at the head of any organization: a loneliness that can come as a big surprise when we step up from the deputy role. Unless we are very lucky with our chair of governors, there is no one to top up our emotional bank account, and the brave face we put on can come at terrible price, draining our resilience. It must have been our strategy that got us into this wind hole, and the world is looking at us to come up with a miracle. The fact that there really wasn’t anything anyone could have done with the forces of nature or society stacked up against you is demoralizingly hard to accept.

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3. Showing Vulnerability

December 23rd 2013

Standing on the shoreline of Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney, waiting for the last few boats of the fleet to come in, I fell into conversation with an employee of Mission Performance, who are both sponsoring a yacht and providing leadership support to the skippers at each stopover.

One of the services they offer is to have ‘one to ones’ with each member of each crew, asking for feedback on their experience of the last leg, what they found challenging, how the leadership of their skipper had helped them grow and develop, or had frustrated or demoralised them. They then collate the findings and offer the feedback to each skipper in a coaching session. A process that must require considerable skill and delicacy!

One recurrent message apparently is that while crew members want to have a deeply felt confidence in their skipper, especially given the dangers they are facing and the critical nature of the decisions taken, they don’t like their skippers to appear invincible. They want their skippers to share their dilemmas, to be open about some of their anxieties and to look for support from their crew to compensate for areas of weakness. 

The skipper that gives the message, ‘I know it all; I’ve got it sorted; I don’t need any help from you lot,’ is not appreciated, as if this puts a ceiling on the development and growth of their crew members and is, at worst, an insult to their intelligence. Equally a skipper that shows no emotions but bottles up his or her anxieties is less highly regarded.

So how does a leader instil confidence, show vulnerability and bring out the best in their team? I’ll let you know when I’ve found out. The first of my races starts on 11th January, sailing from Brisbane to Singapore. It’s going to be a tough test.

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4. Ours not to Reason Why

Solomon Sea. 17th Jan   (on board now)

‘Vang! Vang! For God’s sake, Vang!’ My second or two’s delay had not pleased our skipper and the boat was now going into a broach, overpowered by a strong gust of wind.

We were in the Coral Sea on the midnight watch, with good S.E. Trades winds with intermittent squalls sending us beyond the Barrier Reef. I had been placed in charge of the vang the previous night, with the instruction to release it if the boom ever looked like going into the water. The vang puts downward tension into the mainsail; releasing it takes some power out of it. But when tonight’s order came, the boom was nowhere near the water.

The boat was still broaching, being skewed around and flattened by the power of wind and sail. The next order was to release the main sheet, so that slowly, with spray drenching us and waves hitting us broadside, the helm regained control and the mainsail could be tensioned again.

‘So what should I have been looking out for as the reason to release the vang?’ I asked the skipper. ‘When you hear Vang, Vang! Don’t worry about the reason, just do it the second I tell you.’

Much chastened, I sat there puzzling it out. Last night we had been on a beam reach, well heeled over, with the tip of the boom skimming the waves. Touching them would have been an early sign of an overpowered helm. Tonight we were on a broader reach, with a less heeled boat, so I needed to look out for other signs, feel the gust of wind, notice the boat skewing to windward, feel the impact of the waves and, needless to say, up my levels of concentration!

So why had my skipper not wanted to seize the learning opportunity and tell me what the new signs were and clarify the function of the vang? Had she deliberately wanted me to figure it out for myself? I don’t think so. The one and only learning point she wanted to me to get was of unhesitating, instant obedience to a command in a moment of crisis. It wasn’t for me to reason why, but simply be ever alert to commands.

Not much like school leadership, then! Perhaps it is a question of urgency versus importance. What we are doing out here, racing around the world, it not nearly as important as what is going on in schools worldwide, each day; but in moments it can be more urgent. Much more urgent. A broach can be very damaging, especially for the crew below deck being thrown out of their bunks or cooking in the galley. Many a broken rib and worse has been suffered. So naval discipline prevails particularly in such moments. Command followed by instant, unquestioning obedience. At what points does a child’s education and wellbeing have urgency as well as importance? And is the command structure in your school up to it?

P.S. As I write below deck, there is all the excitement of a fresh squall above me. A reef being put in, the boat heeling and half a bowl of fruit has just flown out of the galley and landed in my lap! I enjoyed my first squall immensely this morning. We put one reef in, then a second pretty efficiently, and then the rain came. A wonderful fresh water shower washing the sweat and salt of five days at sea off our bodies, giving our clothes the only sort of wash they are likely to get before Singapore, and trickles running into our mouths. Such sweet water!

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5. Confidence under Pressure

Coral Sea 19th January

I first heard her voice above the rage of the squall during my second night at sea. Attempting to sleep in the heat and humidity of the sleeping corridor with all hatches closed, the brutal thumping and tossing of the boat, the roar of the wind and the desperate groans and grindings of the winches could have been very disturbing, but through it all I could hear the clear voice and commands of our skipper.

Sleeping whenever she can, she is very quick to come up to the companionway, take in the situation and give urgent but methodical commands to the crew, almost half of whom are new ‘leggers’ for whom this squall was their first taste of many.

The second time, I was also off watch, this time during the afternoon, and had given up on attempting to sleep in my bunk. Four days into the race and I had only had four or five hours sleep in total. I had expected to find the heat on deck during the day to be a challenge, but I was still in shock about the sweltering heat and humidity below deck, where, of course, all hatches have to be kept closed whenever there is the possibility of water washing over the deck, which is most of the time. I had taken refuge in the sail locker at the bow. A large, open space, since we carry so many sails, so less claustrophobic, marginally less smelly, and with some slight movement of air. The large hatch through which we lift and lower the sails, directly above my head, was of course closed, but through it I could see the rain lashing down, the sails under pressure, waves sweeping over the foredeck, while I was being bounced around on the sail bags.

The other watch was clearly struggling to bring down the Yankee 1, the largest of our high footed foresails, bigger than the mainsail on most cruising yachts, and the wind was not planning to give up its control of it. I could see the bodies of some of the crew passing over the hatch, then both saw and heard our skipper, taking control of the operation, her voice raised above the storm, urgent but calm, unfazed by the dangers, which are very real. Her commands simply re-emphasised the drill, sequence, coordination and rhythm that the team needed. It was very reassuring. I was safe in the sail locker, but to those on the foredeck, it would have been immensely reassuring.

At such times, reliance on your training is crucial. Whatever else might be going through your head, it must not detract you from the critical processes and sequences. And the calm but forceful and confident presence of the leader makes all the difference.

Schools, too, come under immense pressure from time to time, and for some schools the pressure is unrelieved and extreme. The need for leaders at all levels in the school to be a reassuring presence at such times is critical. To have belief that the systems and values of the school, if properly implemented by all members of staff as a coordinated team, will make all the difference. To be that calm, insistent, uncompromising, reassuring voice, modelling the confidence that we can win through in the end.

I can think of one such moment when I did manage to be that model, and it won me the respect I needed to win in my new school. I can also recall another moment when I lost my confidence and self belief under extreme pressure, and it took a very long time to recover. It is far from easy when a school is under threat from multiple sources simultaneously. 

Back to sailing, though, I had my own taste of the foredeck the next day. We are passing through the tropical squalls of the Solomon Sea, and we simply don’t know what squalls are in England. They are awesome! Once again we had to get our Yankee down fast. We had just put two reefs in when the air temperature plummeted, and moments later the wind hit like a shock wave. I was fourth from the bow and was given the instruction to go down under the foot of the staysail in order to pull down the Yankee on the other side. But there was no other side. There was nothing but a torrent of rushing water. Orders have to be obeyed so underwater I went, totally immersed in the rushing bow wave then safely up in the narrow gap to discover the partial security of the stanchion rail and get a foothold on the lip of the deck. As a team we started to grab the foot of the sail as it was lowered hank by hank. Rhythmically grabbing a fold of sail and wresting it from the wind. It was exhilarating. We got the bugger down in amazingly neat folds and tied it up. The boat sped on, its motion calmer and with us in charge.

The number 1 of the foredeck team said that my face was totally fear-struck when she told me to go under the sail into the water, and I don’t doubt it. But it was thrilling.

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6. Data at Sea

Bismarck Sea. 23rd Jan

When Joshua Slocum completed the first solo circumnavigation of the world over three years in the late 1890s, I’m not sure whether data was a word he would have understood. His awesome achievement was founded on his years of experience as a sea captain, navigator and boat builder. He had a sextant and one battered clockwork tin clock, of which he was very proud, particularly after it lost its minute hand but still gave him accurate longitude. Accurate longitude requires timing to the fraction of a second!

 He had charts too, except for the homeward run across the reefs and complex archipelago of the Caribbean. The story goes that the goat given to him in St Helena as a source of milk succeeded in eating through all the available tethers (not nylon in those days!), climbed down the companionway to the navigation station and had eaten the chart, just as a storm came up around the perilous reefs of the area!

By contrast our nav station has three computer screens and a vast array of other digital instruments, which are used to collect masses of data. Every 30 minutes the team of navigators log wind speeds, direction, course over ground, currents, sail plan and boat speed. This is intended to build up a resource to indicate optimum sail choices for every condition, and to provide indications of when we are underperforming. The screens are littered with bar graphs and pie charts. These supplement the ‘polars’ supplied by the yacht builder, which capture the possible speeds at each point of sail and for each wind strength. So called because the graph represents a cross between a butterfly and a map of Antarctica. They are all used by our skipper to help inform her course strategy and to set targets.

On deck, however, I have been far more impressed by the dedication of our watch leader, an Austrian business and sportsman, mountaineer, extreme skier and yachtsman. He is hugely competitive. Whatever the conditions, he is constantly tuning the sails, using all the subtle techniques available to adjust the tension in different parts of each sail, shape the profile, create more or less belly as well as alter the angle of attack. In light airs, this is most critical and even though the reward might be minimal, if twenty minutes of tuning result in an increase of 0.1nm over our rival, he is delighted and inspired to continue.

For him, the feedback data is critical. It tells him whether he is getting it right. The targets pale into insignificance because of course we want to sail faster and, if beating, get the best possible course to windward without losing speed. It is an art. There are physical principles and guidelines, but it is really about instinct and a feel for the wind, waves and the boat.

Yesterday in the Bismarck Sea, off coast of Papua New Guinea, I was given the chance to helm. ‘Best course to windward.’ I had the compass binnacle in front of me and the wind indicator at the mast head, as well as a set of digital instruments I could barely see because of the glare of sunlight. But I didn’t need them. Feeling the wind on my face and the sound of it in my ears; hearing the sound of the water against the hull and the rush of it at the stern; feeling the pull of the sails and the developing heeling of the boat: these were my performance indicators. This was my data.

There is a special moment when the sails are set correctly and the boat seems to start to sail itself. You find the groove. All she needs is an encouraging nudge to windward when the wind increases and gives you permission without loss of speed, or to bear away and ease the sails to help her pick up when the wind fades. On that afternoon the wind build slowly but surely, veered slightly to help us, and we did more in 1 hour than the 6 previous hours of an almost windless morning.

That night I helmed again, in a head to head battle with our nearest rival about a mile away. It was intriguing, highly competitive and as I write, we are still ahead. The feedback data was motivational; targets set using the data would have been irrelevant. It was about dedication, unrelenting focus, instinct, feel, cooperation, motivation and, since this is a sport, competitiveness.

At the helm, it was about lightness of touch. Every turn of the rudder is like applying the handbrake. It generates energy-wasting turbulence. Joshua Slocum knew this. He was able to sail solo around the world because he rarely touched the helm. He set the sails up so that they were perfectly balanced, adjusted the helm to find the sweet spot, lashed it in position and then went down below to read his books. He sailed 2,700 miles across the Indian Ocean without touching the helm once!

How wonderful to be a headteacher who has set up his or her school with all the key ingredients of talent, dedication and motivation to inspire learning, and who then has the wisdom to leave well alone…

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7. The Boss

Celebes Sea. 2nd Feb

Our skipper has a large coffee mug with the words ‘The Boss’ writ large on it. A common enough mug, but in this case there is absolutely no irony. She IS the boss. Whatever she says goes and we don’t question it, whether it is a sail change, a change of course, a running repair or an instruction to pull on a rope, we do it. There is no debate. In this heat, the order to close hatches is one of the most difficult to stomach, because ventilation below decks is at a huge premium: the slightest draft of air over your body as you sleep in these latitudes is bliss. The order to close hatches might result in an entire off-watch of sleeplessness.

This is all part of the deal. In return she bears the huge responsibility for our safety and for the key decisions that might win or lose the races. 

Nevertheless there is a huge amount of delegation on board. From the day crews were allocated last summer, roles such as bosun, victualler, engineer, medic, sailmaker, media manager and so on were given out, each carrying a huge responsibility and each coming with just one day’s training. The bosuns, for example are responsible for the repair and management of all the running rigging and deck gear. Last night they had the task of disassembling, repairing and reassembling a complex winch, or they may have to be hoisted up to the very top of the mast in high seas to free a jammed halyard.

Each watch is led by a watch leader, they are the deputy heads of yacht. They are in charge of their watch and need to be experienced sailors and to show genuine leadership of their teams. They are fully responsible for the management of their watch, with targets of speed and course set by the skipper at their briefings, and a set of standing orders which determine the circumstances in which the skippers should be woken up, for of course she needs her sleep during the days and nights of these long races. Her key requirement is that she should be able to trust us to carry out all the standard evolutions without her: changing sails, reefing in or out, tacking and gybing. 

Sometimes she is off deck for hours at a time, working at the nav station if not asleep, which is compliment in itself, then she will pop up in the companionway, take in the scene, spot an error or two, exchange a word with the watch leader, then duck down again. The equivalent of a drop in lesson observation or learning walk. There is no doubt that she knows exactly what is going on. Even in her sleep she will know whether the boat is being well sailed, will sense our speed in the water and be alert to the first signs that wind or wave might be getting the upper hand.

The watch leaders also delegate. Each crew member is expected to be able to lead an evolution, briefing their fellow crew on their roles in the preparation phase, the action phase, the tidy up phase and then debriefing the successes, snags, safety issues and learning points afterwards. It is highly systematic with everyone held to account for their part in the process. I was slow to prepare my running back stay during a sudden evolution at 2 am, minutes before watch handover, and my watch leader immediately wanted to know the reasons for the delay. It was a serious incentive to do better next time!

Every aspect of life on board the boat fits into this scheme of authority and delegation in a highly disciplined way, which I, as a new legger, have learned to accept; fundamentally because safety is at the heart of it all. The sea is a dangerous place. I have already experienced a hurricane force gust and know that the route across the North Pacific will be hugely testing. We are also putting phenomenal loads onto the halyards and sheets. The coffee grinder winches have a gearing system that loads the ropes with tremendous force. When you first ease a sheet of the winch it is like a gun shot when the rope slips for the first time against the friction of the drum. Our fingers are in real danger if we get it wrong.

At a school I worked in before embarking on the trip, I suggested that teachers should feel comfortable about being held to account through the performance management system. ‘It’s bad enough being held to account. You can’t expect us to feel comfortable about it!’ came a protest. 

I touched on the analogy with sailing. ‘But that’s different; it’s a safety issue.’ So how should we compare the relative importance of safety at sea in a yacht race with that of giving every child in school the best possible life chances? 

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8. Helming and High Expectations

February 17th, 2014    Sulu Sea

‘Come on Edward, you should be able to get one and a half more knots out of her on this course and with this wind.’ Surely not, I thought. I had been helming for ten minutes or so and thought I had found the sweet spot: the boat felt balanced, we were heeling positively and making a good 6.5 knots into the wind. I didn’t think we could go any faster except by bearing away, which means increasing your angle to the wind, but steering further away from your desired course.

‘Bear away, pick up more speed, and then head up again,’ my watch leader added. So I did. I bore away few degrees, the boat heeled further, the rush of water increased, the foam started to spill over the deck rail, covering the base of the stanchion posts, and we started to record almost 8 knots. Then I started to edge her back up towards our intended course, taking advantage of the push and pull of the waves to minimize the use of the rudder. Helming needs to be as light as possible, especially in these conditions.

Sure enough, we were soon back on course and doing the speed my watch leader had predicted. How can this be? The increase in speed of 1.5 knots meant that we had increased our apparent wind speed by the same amount, and with the same wind angle, were sailing faster. I found the sweet spot once again, where the boat felt balanced, the sails trimmed to suit our course and the helm light to the touch. 

That’s something else I am learning: to keep my hands as relaxed as possible on the helm; not to fight the movement of the boat, but to respond delicately to her. When she is set up correctly, with every sail perfectly trimmed for tension, profile and angle of attack, she wants to sail fast.

As we sailed on, I reflected on comfort zones, expectations and lightness of touch. I had slipped into a comfort zone where I felt happy and the boat felt good, but it wasn’t enough. My watch leader, with his knowledge of the boat and the performance data we had collected on her, had higher expectations. I recalled the deputy head at one of my schools, who was brilliant at presenting data to show what value the school had added to pupils individually and collectively. His charts dramatically illustrated what was possible, what we had achieved in the past and what we could reasonably be expected to achieve in the future. 

Enough to coax us out of our comfort zones and then to discover that it’s not that uncomfortable to be stretched and far more satisfying.

That night we were in a head to dead duel with a competitor yacht about a mile away. It was drama by moonlight. We overtook them, then we had a bad spell and they recovered the lead, but finally I had the greatest of pleasure getting the lead back as I took the last hour on the helm before going off watch at 2am, with lessons learned in my head.

One difference with education though: When we refer to the person ‘at the helm’ metaphorically, we tend to imply the person in charge of the school or business. This is not so on any of the yachts in this race. Our skipper very rarely helms. She does so when we motor into and out of marinas, where other boats could get damaged, and she may take the helm in a crisis. It’s just as in the film Titanic, when Captain Smith says, “Take her to sea, Mr Christian,” and hands over the helm, he didn’t expect to touch it again before New York. 

The vast majority of helming is shared amongst the crew members. The watch leaders take a share, but mostly act as helm buddies while we do 1 hour stints and develop our skills in different conditions. Being on the helm of such a big yacht is a thrilling responsibility, but it’s not actually the role of the leader!

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9. Mucking in Leadership

Hong Kong. 25th February

A knight is replacing a fitting on our forestays. Two days out of Singapore one of the fleet had to retire when their forestays, which holds the mast up from the bow of the boat, failed. Luckily they did not lose their mast but had to alter course to Borneo for repairs. Two days later, in quick succession two other yachts suffered the same failure. There was clearly a defect in a critical fitting, with reports of metal fatigue circulating.

We had just dropped a staysail and hoisted a Yankee, when our skipper ordered us to hove to, drop the Yankee and re hoist the staysail. Perplexed we did so, with speculation rife. Three hours later at watch changeover, she announced that the race had been cancelled and we were ordered to motor sail to Hong Kong.

So here we are. It is almost dark, and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is going from yacht to yacht with his own improvised staysail fitting replacement, working astride the bow with the bosuns of each crew and being generally encouraging. He has been working all day and will resume tomorrow morning. It is an impressive example of ‘hands on leadership’.

Earlier, in Singapore, he put on his diving gear and went under our boat to repair the leaks in one of our rudder bearings. It had been a problem ever since the boat was commissioned last summer but now seems largely cured.

Sir Robin, founder and chair of the Clipper Round the World Race, was the first man to sail solo round the world non-stop. He did so in 1968 in a tiny wooden boat called Suhaili, built in Bombay in the ‘30s, and with navigation systems more similar to the 19th Century than those of today. 

Now aged almost 75, he doesn’t look as though he is about to retire. He competed with the fleet in the Sydney-Hobart race this year and Circumnavigations in 1994, winning the Jules Verne Trophy in 2007, aged 68.

Whenever I think things are tough, I know that he has been through far worse. That’s real, inspirational credibility.

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10. When Morale is Low

East China Sea. 8th March

Life is very tough at the moment. We have been battling force 8 -9 storms, eased by the occasional force 7 gale, but with hurricane force gusts, for more days than I can remember. On deck we are lashed by driving rain, strafing waves of spray and a bitterly cold chill factor. The sun has not put in an appearance since before Hong Kong and the wind is against us. We have been beating against it almost all the time since leaving Australia, and the violent slamming as the boat falls off the top of high, backless waves, is taking its toll. 

One crew member has fractured his knee and his race is over, and there have been some painful bruises amongst the rest of us. 

We are about a week behind our scheduled arrival time in Qingdao and it almost feels as though we will never reach our destination. We grind on through interminable watches in the half-light of day and the utter darkness of the nights. The words of Gloucester in King Lear keep coming to mind: ‘They have tied me to the stake. I cannot run but bear-like I must stand the course.’

So what might raise morale?

Two things strike me strongly. We seem to be operating in an information vacuum. No one seems to be able to tell us how far we have to go, what distance we have covered, when the weather might ease or where we actually are. Watch follows watch with little idea of our progress, or lack of it. Yet there is no shortage of information or data on the boat. Between watches I pop into the nav station to ask where we are and if they could show me on a chart. However the computer screens are full of such complex graphs and tables that a simple map to show how we are progressing through the Taiwan Straights or how far up the coast of China is not available. 

The navigators are strangely evasive: somehow the simple questions elude them. How great it would be if some of all that data were used to feed back to the crew of each watch so they could see how our efforts had contributed to progress, or to get a realistic sense of the challenges we face. It is hard for intelligent people to work in ignorance.

Wondering how often the important things get lost in the complexity of modern data management systems, I have invented my own Performance Indicator: degrees North. Our journey from Hong Kong goes roughly north. A day or two ago we had reached 25 degrees North. For all our tacking, we seem to have been stuck there for ages. Qingdao lies on 35 degrees, so that makes 600 nautical miles as the crow flies, each minute of a degree constituting one nautical mile. With the variations of our route and the tacking we have to do, it’s probably 900 – 1,000nm, but at least it will give me the indication I need of progress and I hang onto it grimly as a source of hope.

Secondly, morale would helped greatly if our ‘Emotional Bank Accounts’ were topped up. This simple concept, described by Stephen Covey in ’7 Habits of Successful People’ is one I frequently end my courses with. We have an emotional bank account with everyone in our lives, at home and at work, and when we are in credit, we are only too willing to go to additional efforts to achieve a goal. When we are in debit, however, reluctance and resentment show their heads. Last night, 5 minutes before the end of a gruelling 6 hour watch, our skipper came in deck, made an inspection and declared that the staysail halyard needed to be changed because she had spotted some chafing. We hoved to, dropped the staysail, switched halyards, re hoisted and tacked in an operation which took over half an hour. 

By the time we got off watch, supper was cold and we had only 2 hours of sleep before the next wake up. It was a huge withdrawal from our emotional bank accounts with the skipper. But there was not a word of thanks, no sense of appreciation for the extra efforts we had made when cold and tired. There were no complaints or mutterings, just a further drop in morale.

Skillful leaders keep their Emotional Bank Accounts in credit. It costs so little: a quiet word of appreciation, noticing the little things about the efforts we make, using our names, saying thank you and apologising when a withdrawal is made. What a difference that would make!

Up to 26 degrees North now.  At last! 

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11. What are Teams made of? Part 1.

10th March Yellow Sea. 

A huge emphasis is placed on team work in this race. At our team building weekend back in August in London, our skipper claimed that success was 50% determined by the quality of the team in a race, and many of us have mentioned that being part of an effective, well bonded and energised team is one of our main motives for signing up for this race.

So what exactly are teams made of? And what really differentiates one from another?

As I draw to the end of the second race of a long and gruelling leg to Qingdao, I have some suggestions:

Firstly, they are well drilled. The key to effective teamwork on a racing yacht is well-drilled performance of the ‘evolutions’. These are all the sail changes, the manoeuvres, the reefs in and out - the business of sailing. Some are highly skillful and complex such as peeling a spinnaker, when you switch seamlessly from one spinnaker to another, hoisting the second behind the first before you drop it. Even the basic ones such as tacking involve getting over a dozen actions performed in perfect coordination to maintain boat speed, which is not so easy when it is an emergency tack in high seas at night!

Changing foresails in stormy conditions is also hugely challenging, especially when going from a large yankee to a smaller one because the boat is being overpowered. The wind has a powerful grip on the sail and the team must work in perfect coordination while being swamped by waves and spray, utterly drenched and tossed wildly from wave peak to wave trough. 

I was helming two days ago in a Force 8 storm, when the foredeck team had to change a foresail and was entrusted to ‘avoid slamming at all costs’. Slamming is when the yacht drops off the back of a backless wave. For a moment we are weightless, then the boat hits the trough with an excruciating thump. It can, and does cause injuries above and below deck. I did pretty well, but one crew member was still badly bruised my a mammoth wave which rose up and engulfed the entire team.

Evolutions are all briefed in advance, (well they are supposed to be), with roles assigned, safety points discussed and snagging points anticipated. They are then debriefed at the end, particularly if they haven’t gone so well. It is a rigorous process, but the importance of getting it right is well understood by us all. When made a mess of my running backstay element of an emergency tack a few weeks ago, my watch leader had a ‘quiet word’ with me about my mistake afterwards with his Germanic sense of accountability!

The drilling does not allow scope for individuality or creativity. It is about accurate and perfectly performed tasks by the team. Is there an equivalent in schools? When do we need our teams to simply perform a task in a sort of military harmony? Report writing? Assessments? Moderation?

Mostly our teamwork is about more ambivalent tasks and challenges…

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12. What are Teams Made of? Part 2

11th March. Yellow Sea 

The second element is the way we try to look out for each other and aim at fairness. Simply because of safety, the crew all look to for each other, from spotting whether you’ve attached the crotch strap on your lifejacket, have put the correct number of turns on the winch for the next evolution or whether you are handling the ropes correctly to ensure that fingers don’t get crushed. It is frightening how much tension we put on the ropes. Up to 5 tons!. Fingers can be easily lost. Round-the-Worlders particularly look out for leggers.

Related to this is the buddy system. As we start the Pacific leg in a few days’ time, I will be buddied up with a new crew member, and my job will be to look out for him or her. Both for the safety aspects of clipping on to the jack stays, so they stay inside the boat, and for the critical aspects of rope and winch handling technique. A sort of mentoring role, but not really a mentoring style!

We also look out for each other in sharing the menial tasks on board: cleaning the heads (toilets), pumping out and sponging the bilges each watch, making drinks, maintaining the generator and water maker and cleaning up the messes of sea sickness etc. it is a crime to spot something but pass by hoping that another team member will rectify it. 

A third element is about putting the team interest ahead of individual interests. Some are better at this than others. On the last bitterly cold and stormy race across the East China Sea, in driving rain and plummeting temperatures, I noticed how the Round the Worlders had developed techniques of spending half an hour, or more, much more, below decks. Whether to do an official blog, check inventory, make drinks or communicate with navigators. As a new legger my only excuse for gaining the shelter below deck was to pump the bilges. Even that became a privilege!

Self interest is universal. Some crew members are much more successful than others in putting the team interest first. As I notice the subtle ways in which self interest determines the behaviour of some crew mates, my sense of the team is compromised. Such privileges can be very corrosive. It is also difficult for watch leaders to challenge a Round the Worlder, with whom they have developed a bond of friendship.

The challenge of middle management and the basic instincts of human behaviour are probably pretty much the same in schools! Old colleagues look out for each other, sometimes at the expense of the team and a new, young head of department needs a great deal of confidence to call out their behaviour.

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13. What Are Teams Made of? Part 3

Qingdao. 14th March

The third key element of team building concerns morale, relationships and the emotional component of the team. Our skipper, during calm, warm passages (distant memories now) held Happy Hours, in which one watch would prepare an entertainment for the next. There would be hero and doughnut of the day awards and she even ran an inter-yacht Blind Date competition! Of course we had the ritual celebrations of crossing the Equator, and even a Burns Night, led by the three scots on board. She showed great courage in initiating and carrying through her ideas for activities that always run the risk of back firing.

Some were sceptical about what they saw as compulsory fun, while feeling so stretched by the challenges of the race, but most were won around. Most significant here, though, are the relationships that develop between crew members through quiet conversations on and off watch. The depth of the bonds that form was evident when one Round the Worlder was asked to join another yacht for a race. When we met her briefly in Hong Kong for repairs, the joy and affection show in the hugs she had for everyone were wonderful. 

She had had her 50th Birthday on board the other yacht, so we sent her photos, messages and a poem, which conveyed our genuine affection and our sadness on missing her. See my poem written to celebrate her birthday while she was on the other yacht,

The emotional component comes into play particularly when morale is low, and the role of the leader here is crucial when team members are running low on their own emotional resources and resilience. But that was a topic for an earlier blog.

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14. Helming in a Pacific Storm: the Battle for Control

April 2nd mid Pacific

A few nights ago, still several hundred miles short of the dateline, I found myself helming during a storm with winds around forty knots and gusting into the sixties. Back in the tropical seas near New Guinea, I talked about the lightness of touch on the helm. This had no lightness about it. It was brutal, bullying stuff.

Beneath my feet there was a battle going on for control of the rudders. (This is a yacht with twin helms and rudders.) The sea, in alliance with the wind, wanted control, but I had to win and steer a true course avoiding the risks of broaching if I bore away too far, or a crash gybe if I headed up too far.

Steering a straight course involves a huge amount of activity at the wheel, unlike a car on a solid surface. As a wave lifts you from the stern, it pushes the stern of the boat strongly down wind, turning the bow up wind. If this goes too far, the sail find themselves at right angles to the wind, the wave is a right angles as well and the boat if suddenly overpowered. It heels violently. The helmsman is not strong enough to control the rudder which in turn is not big enough to counter the power of wind and wave. The boom crashes into the water, and in extreme circumstances the whole mast is flattened to the sea.

It will right itself, but not before huge damage is done above and below decks. I always lash myself into my bunk before sleeping for fear of a broach, since a fall from a high side bunk is hugely dangerous to life and limb. Not to mention those with boiling pots in the galley. There are no hospitals out here, so the helm must bear away in time, lifting the stern up into the wave and catching the surf.

As the surf passes though, the boat is dumped powerfully upwind. In the pitch dark, when there are no stars, sometimes no sense of the horizon, pure blackness beyond the glow of the companionway, it is hard to tell how far you have been turned. Turn too far and your stern will go through the wind, risking a crash gybe: a quarter of a ton of boom, fully powered with enormous wind energy, tears off its preventer ropes and crashes across the boat, with huge risk to the rigging.

It was a battle for control for every second of my one hour stint. Luckily I avoided the twin perils, but with huge physical effort to stay in charge of the rudder, especially as the wave patterns were so irregular on that night, and the wind very gusty and variable.

I thought back to the various forces that tried to extent control over my school as a headteacher and other school I have worked with since: the unions, Local Authority, local politicians, informal power bases within the staff, individual strong personalities, parental groups and massive socio-economic factors. It is not easy to maintain a true course through all of these.

When my hour at the helm was up, I handed it back to my watch leader. Suddenly the boat seemed more manageable. He seemed to steer less and with less effort. With 25,000 miles of experience since the race left London, he had a true feel for the waves in the darkness and could anticipate each bullying shift.

Catching each shift early needs much less effort. Knowing your adversary and spotting the early signs of conflict and addressing them saves enormous effort later, and although I did have to help him a couple of times, as helm buddy, heaving on the twin helm when he was getting overpowered, as any deputy head should, my observations in those tropical seas held true: when you are highly skilled, a lighter touch is far more effective. 

There is also great satisfaction in getting that little bit of rudder on before the bullying wave or gust strikes!

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15. Cruising and Grinding

April 17th  North Pacific Ocean  

Today I have been grinding for two hours. For one hour during the midnight watch with our heavyweight ‘kite’, or spinnaker, and also took my turn to grind for an hour during the morning watch with our large, colourful, medium weight kite flying.

We are nearly half way across the North Pacific, the winds have eased a little while we await the arrival of the next cold front and its accompanying storm. It is a very comfortable period in which we can recover from the previous low pressure system and enjoy some sunshine and blue skies while surfing smoothly. Champagne sailing.

We could relax, enjoy the ride and cruise, like any school in comfortable circumstances; but we are not. We are racing. Which means that we do not, or should not, relax and settle into comfort zones. Which is where the grinding comes in.

When you fly a kite, two key crew members are involved: the trimmer, who holds the sheet, or rope, which controls the back corner, or clew, of the sail, and the grinder, who stands by the upright, two handled, ‘coffee’ grinder which drives the winch with the spinnaker sheet wrapped around it. Their aim is to get maximum performance out of the kite, by easing it out as far as it will go so that it is pulling forward as much as possible rather than sideways.

However you cannot tell what that furthest point is until the leading edge of the sail begins to curl back in on itself, and if it does not correct itself, or get ground in to correct it, it will collapse, power and momentum will be lost, the grinder will have a lot more work to do to recover it and the helm may have to bear away from the set course. Fast and efficient grinding is critical.

The trimmer, however, is constantly easing the sail out to the point where it curls and is in danger of collapsing. He or she then calls out, ‘Grind!’ to the grinder who starts turning the winch handles for all he or she is worth. As soon as the sail is ground in and is recovered, the trimmer starts to ease it out again to find the point or maximum forward pull.

It is a never-ending sequence: easing, grinding, easing, grinding, with no room for complacency.
A perfect metaphor for a school that is, or has the option of, cruising.  A process in which comfort zones are not allowed to get established, in which new challenges are set and new expectations in search of an ever changing maximum performance.

Sometimes it feels as though the trimmer is something of a sadist, cruelly abusing the grinder and not being very polite about it either. We don’t say, ‘Could you please grind in a little for me?’ or ‘When you’ve got a moment, could you fit in a little grinding?’ On a boat, the simpler the instruction the better. Yachts can be extremely noisy places. In a storm with wind screaming in the rigging, surf roaring at our stern and to leeward, sails flogging wildly when reefing, hoisting or tacking, and with typically three layers of hats, balaclavas and spray hoods covering our ears, simplicity and clarity are key. ‘Ease!’ ‘Grind!’ ‘Hold!’ are the stuff of our discourse.

Having said that, I can’t resist saying ‘Thank you,’ when the grinding is done and there is a moment’s respite. After all, the one trimming now will be grinding later! 

The following day, when the strong winds and high waves of next low came in, a new technique came into play: that of grinding for the surfs. Whenever you accelerate in a yacht, the apparent wind will shift forwards, so sails should be trimmed in tighter to the new wind angle.  So we learned how to grind in our kite as each wave lifted us from the stern and accelerated us in that wonderful rush onto the surf, hold it briefly, then ease the sail out as the wave dumped us into the trough.

It was hard, relentless labour: easing and grinding furiously several times a minute, with each significant wave. Much more frequently than the previous day. But this is high performance racing, and perhaps holds a message for high performance schools, too!

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16.  Managing your Negativity Part 1

May 11th,   North Pacific,heading down the coast of California.

Half way across the Pacific we hit a windhole and came to a miserable standstill. At 5.40 am I came up on deck for the morning watch and encountered a mood thick in silence. I had heard shouting a few minutes earlier and had wondered what the cause might be. Whispered comments from crewmates recounted how our skipper had just been on deck and vehemently criticised two loyal and hard working Round-the-Worlders for some very trivial gaps in their knowledge. They were mortified.

There are many highly stressful scenarios in the life of an ocean racing skipper. Entering a windhole when racing is one of them. They render you impotent. Not allowed to switch your engine on, you can be stuck for hours, days, even weeks, and are every moment plagued by the thought that the rest of the fleet might have avoided your windhole and be gaining a huge advantage. 

For our skipper, this windhole was arguably not just a case of bad luck, but a consequence of her strategy to go deep to the south to avoid the worst of a low pressure system. We had weathered a severe storm, but lost valuable and irrecoverable places in the race as a result. That is tough for a skipper who has decided on the strategy alone and must feel the responsibility for it, even if they do not acknowledge it and when no member of the crew would attributing any blame.

It was a powerful illustration of the importance of leaders managing their negative emotions. As it was, those emotions were passed on to the crew who had to manage not only their own disappointment in the race and their frustrations with regard to the windhole, but now had to rebuild their self belief and self esteem after their humiliation. That is a lot to recover from.

A few weeks later, the race from San Francisco to Panama started, preceded by a spectacular parade of sail past all the piers of the city and out to Alcatraz. Race starts are also highly stressful for a skipper, especially with eight new crew members joining as leggers, who are feeling nervous and are well out of their comfort zones. 

Once again the stress was expressed in shouting and frustration, with crew members suddenly being taken off their roles and replaced if they made a mistake. The atmosphere became tense and defensive, and although it might be argued that the criticisms are immediately forgotten by the criticiser, for those criticised it can take a lot of time and resilience to recover.

Conversely, during the storm that preceded our windhole in the Pacific, a crew member from another yacht, Andrew Taylor, was swept overboard. It was 90 minutes before he was found and recovered in those high seas, and his body was beginning to shut itself down with hypothermia. His eventual rescue was in the very nick of time. I can think of no scenario more agonisingly stressful for a skipper and crew. As the minutes went by and the hour passed, they must have been living with the horror of a tragic possibility. The incident was extensively covered in the British press. Sir Robin Knox Johnston’s briefed us about how positive and focused the skipper and crew had been, following the sequence of emergency actions to the letter and supporting each other emotionally through the trauma. Thank goodness their approach was rewarded!

This race is merely sport. The outcome does not really matter. A man overboard situation changes all that. Suddenly the outcome matters enormously.

In schools, the outcomes for each child also matters enormously, and sometimes it is hard for headteachers to sustain their own personal positivity in the face of hugely adverse circumstances. I certainly found it very hard in my inner city comprehensive, and it is perhaps one of the toughest tests of leadership. We might manage the PR positive face, but colleagues will detect our inner conviction and confidence and become sceptical if the two do not match. Staying passionate about what really matters might be a good move.

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17. Manage Your Negativity Part 2

May 12th,  Panama

Yachts, schools, businesses and institutions all have a complex makeups of positive and negative energies and emotions, illustrated by metaphors of half full or empty glasses, radiators and drains. What is interesting me on this yacht is how the same person can emit both positive and negative energies. 

Our skipper puts a huge amount of energy into giving positive crew briefings, setting up ‘happy hours’ and giving ‘pep talks’ and she always thanks the ‘mothers’ for their cooking. What she does not do, however, is give positive feedback to us individually on our contribution to the sailing of the yacht. She has decided not to use the technique of the quiet word of appreciation to an individual for their effort, their progress or their daily contributions to the yacht.

She describes herself as a ‘hard taskmaster’ and only gives individual praise when we exceed her expectations and high standards. I clearly have not done that yet, after 16,000 nautical miles, which is somewhat dispiriting.

Other forms of praise appear in her blogs on the internet, (to which we have no access while at sea), in set speeches at receptions and at other formal occasions. Without the quiet, private word of appreciation, however, these feel purely like PR and leave me, at least, in the dark about whether I am making a valued contribution to the boat. So I dig into my self belief and in my current watch, we are getting good at giving each other affirmation and reassurance. Neither, however, is a substitute for the huge whoosh of energy and motivation that would result if we felt our skipper really valued us enough to tell us when there is no audience present.

Her motivational addresses to the crew as a whole also feel like the equivalent of a teacher telling off or praising the class as a whole. Tell them all off and the innocent feel lousy, while the guilty feel they have got away with it; praise them all, and the modest, conscientious and self critical will feel that the teacher probably is talking about someone else.

Like my skipper, my watch leader is also young enough to be my son. He is a most accomplished sailor, and perfectly at home leading the most complex of evolutions, such as peeling directly from one spinnaker or the next without leaving the yacht bareheaded for a moment. It is an impressive manoeuvre, and I am just glad to do what I am told to do at such times. He, too, was reticent about giving personal praise or positive feedback until I had a quiet discussion with him and said how much it would mean to me if he felt I was contributing effectively. Since then, our relationship has developed really well.

I suspect that while children need praise in a ratio of something like 7:1 to any criticism, that as adults, the ratio doesn’t change much! Praise and appreciation for our genuine efforts are warmly welcomed.

Perhaps part of the problem for our skipper is that she tends to come up on deck when something is worrying her. From the navigation station she can see everything we are doing, every wind shift, every wobble off course and hear every sail collapse, so when she emerges in the companionway it is usually to correct or point out a fault. No harm in that, apart from the cumulative effect on us, such that we start to feel nervous, apprehensive or even defensive when she arrives. It would be so refreshing if she popped up when she had seen some encouraging data in the nav station!

Steven Covey describes the concept of the Emotional Bank Account in his book, Seven Habits of Successful People. Keeping that emotional account topped up by small words of acknowledgement or appreciation is a massive motivator and just might move us a few places up the leader board by the time we get to London if it were adopted! 

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18. Storming and Performing

Jamaica 18th May

Last night we became a Performing team. I came on watch at sunset, with the target of improving our race position from 8th to 5th place overnight. During the day we had made great progress in moving up from 12th and last position.

Our skipper had gambled on a strategy of sailing due east for more than two watches, a direction which scarcely brought us any nearer to Jamaica, but would mean that with luck, when we tacked north, we might ‘fetch’ the lighthouse at the eastern tip of the island in one tack, which, with veering winds, might turn into a faster point of sail.

For once we had faith in our skipper’s strategy. No other boat had gone as far to the east as us, but we had already been the second fastest boat in the fleet for two six hour periods. I went below and brewed up some strong coffee to keep us sharp, and we set about trimming the boat.

For once, we were given the freedom to experiment with the trim of the sails, particularly the mainsail, which is a subtle art. All watch long we checked the sails, trimming or checking trim constantly, sharing a determination and focus that felt new. The negativity had vanished. Our skipper stayed below catching up on sleep, leaving our watch leader to run the boat, and I sensed his confidence in my ability to get the best out of the mainsail.

It has not often been like this. We started as a ‘Forming’ crew back in London before race start, when about half the full crew of 80 met to get to know each other, discuss our vision and objectives, agree a crew contract and share our expectations. It had been a positive experience, and one which is repeated at the start of every leg, because the crew for each of the eight legs is made up of about 9 circumnavigators and 10 others who are doing single or multiple legs. As many as 7 crew might leave and join at each changeover stop: a constantly reforming team.

At the start of each leg, there is a new process of getting to know each other, sharing each individual’s aspirations for the race, the skipper setting out her expectations and everyone signing the standing orders and crew contract. The aspiration is always expressed to integrate the new ‘leggers’ as quickly as possible. I have been curious about what this integration means. Essentially it is about getting the new crew to play an effective role in the evolutions – the sail changes, tacks and gybes – doing things the ‘Switzerland’ way. To fit in with the sailing culture of the boat.

It does not mean to be socially integrated with the Round the Worlders. They are very much a club of their own, although that club has started to fragment badly as the stresses of such a very long journey build up. One crew mate, who completed five of the first six legs never felt that he was admitted to membership of the RTW club. I can understand their reluctance to invest emotionally with new leggers who will disappear after a few thousand miles, but you’d think that 5 legs would allow admittance!

For myself, completing four legs, I find that I build new and supportive relationships with the new leggers as they arrive. Hoping always to find someone who will provide the mutual, emotional support needed for such a relentlessly demanding challenge.

So, after a few days, the Storming begins. Intelligent leggers start to ask ‘Why?’ Why do we trim that way? Wouldn’t it be easier if. . . .?’ As with any organisation, there is a stated desire to be open to new ideas and suggestions, but in fact any such new ideas are felt to be a threat to the accepted culture and norms of the group, and encounter defensive responses. It takes a very mature team indeed to be genuinely open to new ideas. Experienced sailors can be seen as a threat, so it is easiest to treat all new leggers as inexperienced and train them from scratch in the accepted ways of sailing the boat. This leads to considerable tensions and questions around leadership.

Classically, a legger with a PhD in Philosophy who asked ‘why?’ too often was given the response ‘Just shut the f. . . up and do it!’

Eventually we become a Norming team in terms of our ability to perform competently on deck, but the Storming, particularly around leadership issues, continues at a deeper level.

However last night we were Performing. It felt great! And when I came back on watch at noon the next day, Jamaica was looming large and there were just two sails ahead of us. We bore away around the lighthouse, hoisted our lightweight spinnaker swiftly, performed a series of immaculate gybes, and a few hours later celebrated crossing the finishing line in third place. Wonderful!

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19. Is this a Democracy?

Mid Atlantic 18th June

Half way across the Atlantic we hit a windhole. We had sailed brilliantly out of New York, vying for first place with the eventual winners, crossed the site of the sinking of the Titanic, the Grand Banks, where 'The Perfect Storm' occurred and the southern fringe of the icebergs that drift down on the Labrador current. None of these had posed problems, but a 'col' of high pressure now cut us off from our destination in Ireland.

Our skipper spotted a thin break in the col with light airs forecast, so we went for it. For 30 hours we battled against the windlessness, changing sails to try to make the most of any light breeze and almost reached its eastern edge when the whole system shifted east and put us back where we started, on its western edge.

It was 2 am. The new watch had just come up on deck, bleary eyed. Our skipper explained the situation to both watches. We had a choice: to continue our struggle east through the col, which two leading boats had already passed, which might take a further 36 hours or to cut our losses, head back west to the wind and rejoin the tail of the fleet, heading north to go over the top of the high pressure system. Then, surprisingly, she put it to the vote.

The result went narrowly in favour of continuing east. Having offered the advice that it is not wise to sail knowingly towards a place where there is no wind, I chose to abstain on the grounds that I had not got enough information; I had not had the chance to study any of the charts or weather forecasts, and because this was not a democracy. This last explanation received the curt reply, "What do you think it is then? A dictatorship?"

I voicelessly replied, "Well, yes. An autocracy at least. Somewhere on the left of the Tannenbaum- Schmidt continuum between 'Sells' and 'Invites Questions but does it Anyway.' "

So the bleary-eyed watch took over and my watch went below muttering. Four hours later we were on watch again only to find that we were on the opposite tack heading west. No explanation was forthcoming for a few hours, but we were later told that new forecasts had come in that had made our skipper change her mind and overturn the vote. It had been a short-lived democracy.

Short lived but not entirely dead! We rejoined the fleet in 11th place and managed to climb back to 9th when we reached to top of the high pressure system and started the Ocean Sprint between two lines of longitude heading east for about 200 miles. It is an optional sprint, worth two points to the winner but none for the runners up, and we made a good start in light to moderate winds.

About 50 miles into the sprint our skipper came up on deck at watch change over to consult us again. We had another choice. The shortest course across the sprint was not great for our overall strategy to Ireland. We needed to go North West and we would get stronger winds and better spinnaker angles by baling out of the sprint immediately. Did we want to go for the two points, an all or nothing option, or head north west and possibly pick off a couple more of the fleet by taking the fastest route to Londonderry? A level headed discussion ensued (it was midday this time!) and there was a unanimous consensus in favour of baling out of the sprint and racing to Derry.

Our skipper acknowledged the result and went below deck to finalize the navigation plan. My watch was on deck, trimming the sails for best speed east and awaiting the instruction to bear away north. The minutes passed. Then the half hours. Then the hours. We were getting increasingly perplexed, and were struggling to sail and trim with any real conviction on a course that we thought was about to change. It was very disorientating.

Three hours later our skipper put her head up the companionway, looked quizzically at our sails but said nothing. I knew immediately that the consensus had been disregarded and that we were continuing on the ocean sprint. You can imagine the confusion! We had noticed an improvement in the wind and boat speed and learned later that this had convinced our skipper that we had a real chance of winning the sprint and earn two invaluable points to compensate for our disastrous windhole.

We did indeed do brilliantly, but were beaten by Old Pulteney by just 12 minutes. They had crossed further north where the lines of longitude were 4 miles narrower, so we had in fact been the faster boat! No points gained and ultimately no improvement in our race position. All this was forgotten, though by our brilliant reception into Londonderry, where thousands of people lined over a mile of the river front cheering and waving us in, and for me, by the wonderful news that my second grandson had safely been born as we made landfall!

No headteacher needs to be told that their school is not a democracy, but we don't want it to feel like a dictatorship either, so a balance has to be struck. Our strategy to cross the col had been a brave one and should have worked if the forecasts had been accurate. The weather systems had been the most complex and subtle our skipper had ever faced. She must have been exhausted and dispirited when we came so close to the far edge only to be foiled when the system shifted east. 

At that point the burden of leadership must have been massive and a democratic vote must have seemed like a way to share it. But even if a leader adopts a position on the far right of the Tannenbaum-Schmidt continuum, a position that fully empowers their team, there is no let up in accountability. The responsibility of the leader is inescapable.

Similarly for the attempt at consultation later. We had the impression that our unanimity had been accepted as a decision taken. Better then, to have placed the exercise in context with a health warning that it was not going to be viewed as binding. The one thing we have all learned on this adventure is that ‘It All Depends On the Wind’. When the wind changes, everything changes. We just needed to be told.

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20. What Makes a Winning Skipper?

Den Helder, Holland   8th July

The race is nearly over and it is clear who are going to be the overall winners in the 2013-2014 Clipper Round the World Race: three very different skippers.

In first place will be ‘Henri Lloyd’, skippered by Canadian Eric Holden. His key advantage from the start has been his meteorological knowledge. With a PhD in Meteorology and a professional cv which includes race routing consultant to the Canadian Olympic yachting team, he was always going to know where to place his yacht to get the best winds.

To some extent, the winds are a lottery. You win some; you lose some. But I think it is clear that the deeper your understanding, the more often luck appears to be on your side. I imagine Eric can read complex weather charts the way that conductors can read a full orchestral score. It is music in their heads and I suspect he can almost feel the wind in his!

He is a quiet, shy man; he gives the briefest of interviews and on board he is quiet too. He has delegated a great deal of authority to his watch leaders, so that they feel free to sail the boat and take quick decisions without fear of being second-guessed by their skipper when he wakes up. He also has the vital ability to stay calm in tough situations, of which there are plenty on a round the world race! Crews, especially amateur crews like ours, look to their skipper for an emotional lead. If the skipper is panicking, then a crew is likely to panic too. If he or she is calm, the crew will be reassured and operate more effectively.

In second place will be ‘Great Britain’ skippered by Simon Talbot who has been characterised by single minded determination to win. He is a strict and demanding leader: ‘Do as I say because I want to win!’ An approach which has worked because their forestay is covered from deck to masthead with bright, fluttering podium place pennants: proof of his credibility.

He organises his crew on the basis of strict specialisation. The roles on the foredeck are fixed; the foresail trimmers and mainsail trimmers likewise specialize in those roles and there will be just two or three helms designated for each watch. This is clearly a good strategy for winning, but does not give crew an all-round experience of sailing. Every yacht has to strike this balance: how much should we specialize in order to play to our strengths, even if this is at the expense of boredom or frustration for some; or how much is this round the world adventure about giving everyone the chance to develop a range of talents?

Rumour has it that Simon has also deselected crew who do not share his ambition to win. Crews are allocated centrally, but there is some scope for individuals to express preferences and to change boats. There is immense power in expressing your expectations clearly. He had no more right to select his crew than any other skipper, but by being clear about his ambition and approach, he appears to have got the crew he wanted.

In third place will be ‘One DLL’, skippered by Olly Cotterell. He has the reputation for being cool, relaxed, keeping a light mood on board but being strict and stern when the crew are off their game. I recall being towed by them after the early end to the race to Panama when our engine had broken down. We could hear their party music on board, could see them bare chested, without life jackets and moving about the boat barefooted, while they busied themselves with a deep clean as they motored. All these would have broken the strict standing orders on board ‘Switzerland’. Shoes with enclosed toes, tee shirts above and below decks and life jackets even when motoring were non negotiable!

We also learned during a dinner party swop just off Costa Rica, when half their crew swopped with half of ours during the motoring phase, that each crew member could plug into a range of films during their off watch periods and that they had a steak night every week. Unheard of luxuries! So, a strategy of combining fun with a cutting edge. I have also heard that Olly has watch leaders who are also people managers. . . .

So how do you identify against each of these winning but contrasting models of leadership?

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