Yesterday we were out racing in our local sailing regatta. At the end of any regatta race we always have a debriefing on what we could have done better. Turns out this one works especially well in our work lives as well and so that was the topic of conversation over a few beers afterward.

We were approaching a downwind mark and setting up the strategy for a reach to the next mark. Unfortunately we were not leading the pack but at least we could see what every one else was doing. They were all dowsing their spinakers and reaching with their genoas for the outer mark. One lone boat however kept up their spinaker but things were starting to get busy as we closed in on the mark and so we didn’t see him. (Turns out the skipper on that boat was the 80 yr old father of the famous Chris Dickson – one of New Zealand’s top sailors having skippered in 5 America’s cup challenges).

So up went the genoa, down came the spinaker and round the mark we went. Once around the mark we just couldn’t keep up speed with the pack. And as we were seeing, the wind had shifted a little so that keeping up the spinaker for the reach would have been advantageous. The order came to get the spinaker back up.

Thus starts the lesson:

Getting the spinaker back up again immediately after a take down is out of the ordinary. It was quickly packed in the launch bag and passed upstairs and set into place on the bow pulpit. The spinaker sheets were quickly re run. The pole was clipped into the port guy and raised with the topping lift to clip onto the mast. The halyard was bought forward to be clipped onto the head of the spinaker (top grommet of the spinaker). BUT the spinaker head was no where to be found. Luke, who was working the foredeck was yelling back to the spinaker packer that he couldn’t find the spinaker head. All eyes fell on Luke as he frantically dug through the launch bag to find the top of the sail.

Now if if you’ve ever worked with a spinaker, you’ll know that it must be packed perfectly like a parachute in order for it to launch properly. Each edge of the chute must be “chased” from one point to the next as it is packed. The clew, tack and head must all be positioned in the launch bag properly. It not the results can be disastrous.

As eyes  stayed on Luke hoping and willing him to find the spinaker head, focus was lost. The helms person was watching Luke, The mainsail trimmer was watching Luke. The headsail trimmer was watching Luke. Everyone was wanting to help Luke.

It was the skipper who pulled it all back together and called an end to the kafloffle that was going on. Spinaker efforts were abandoned and focus was back to everyone doing their jobs. By that time we’d lost incredibly valuable distance to the main part of the pack.

In reality, it only required one person to sort out the mess and the rest to just keep doing their jobs – trim and steer trim and steer. On a sailboat – you’re job is to race the race doing YOUR job. As a skipper your job is to keep everyone focused on their jobs and keep the big picture in play. Getting the spinaker up was not the big picture. Making the boat go fast was the big picture.

How can we make our business’s go fast?  What’s the big picture of your job? I know this – for a sail trimmer – the big picture is to keep all the tell tales flying – that’s it. And it’s not an insignificant task!

I recently experienced this myself again in the Rolex Regatta in St. Thomas last March. NauticEd and its adventure Partner Safe Passage sailing chartered an 80 ft Maxi race sailboat to compete in the series. For much of the race series I was working the mainsail. A dozen other NauticEd students joined us. The boat was awesome, huge, and the biggest I’d raced on. I found it incredibly hard to focus on my job. There was only one thing I could do when all hell was breaking lose at the bow of the boat. That job was to sail the mainsail.

At the start of one race, we had a 90 ft boat right next to us forcing us up to the start line. The job was to sail the mainsail not look at the paint job on the multimillion dollar boat 10 feet away and fear a crash. Just sail the mainsail!

NauticEd Students Racing in the Rolex Regatta

NauticEd Students Racing in the Rolex Regatta

One more example which we talk about in our bareboat charter bvi course. We were coming out of North Sound on Virgin Gorda in the BVI’s. Another catamaran had already exited and had turned back towards Virgin Gorda to head to wind to get the main sail up. As you may know, getting the mainsail up on a big cat is not an easy job and it was taking some time. All eyes were on the sail going up. No eyes were on Prickly Pear reef towards which the Catamaran was immanently going to hit. Had it not been for our horn blast and pointing, they surely would have grounded on a breaking nasty reef.

In this case the helms persons job was to keep the boat into wind and watch out for traffic.

So many analogies can be made between sailing and the corp world. What I’ve found is that through out a race (which takes about 2 hours) almost all the same issues come up in a 10 month project. You can see a very subtle secondary analogy in the example above. The 80 year veteran kept up his spinaker whist every one was taking theirs down. We had the advantage of observing that – but we didn’t because “things were getting too busy”. Hmmm, how’s that for a lesson in watching the competitive field.

It would be of incredible value if we could take our project team and run them through a sailboat race first before we start a project. Quick side note:  I’ve got 32 different exercises to be done on a sailboat depending on the required developmental strengths that a team needs. If anyone needs a experiential training program for their team let me know.

Regardless – next time you’re leading a team in a race regatta – make sure your team keeps focus on their own personal job.

Search for a topic.
My vision for NauticEd is to provide the highest quality sailing and boating education available - and deliver competence wherever sailors live and go.
Grant Headifen
Last updated on November 24th, 2022