Developing Yacht Crew of the Highest Caliber

By on January 1, 2017

In the 2008-09 Volvo Ocean Race, the Swedish flagged Ericsson 4 reeled off 596 miles in 24 hours, a monohull record. And only 18 days after the race’s start. They went on to virtually lap the field, securing the overall win after finishing third in Stockholm on Leg Nine. There was still one leg to go. Ericsson 4 would have a victory lap.

Their story, which I recently read in the prologue (by Sean McNeill) to Mark Chisnell’s High Stakes, High Seas: The Race Around the World, highlights the importance of leadership and teamwork to win at the highest levels of the sport.

American John Kostecki (whose overall victory aboard illbruck in 2001-02 cemented his reputation) was to skipper Ericsson 4. He was chosen early, along with now ubiquitous Argentinian designer Juan Kouyoumdjian and a crew of the best offshore sailors in the world.

The boats (Ericsson 3 was launched first in the two-boat effort as a test mule) were launched and sent to the sail-training base in Lanzarote, where the crew soon joined them to begin training. Then, Kostecki pulled out. He had hand-picked the crew himself, and several of the team had signed on specifically to sail under his leadership. Ironically, Kostecki’s early departure was perhaps most responsible for the team’s subsequent success.

Along with Kouyoumdjian and two others from the shore-side management team, watch captains Stu Bannatyne and Brad Jackson rallied to keep the program’s development moving forward, and with a positive vibe rather than a sense of panic. The two watch captains were instantly empowered, and Ericsson became their team. They gave the crew an open forum to discuss the team’s development. Soon, it became apparent that without their leader, their ultimate success would depend more than ever on the resolve of the group.

Brazilian Torben Grael came onto the scene late to take Kostecki’s place. By his arrival, Bannatyne and Jackson had already nurtured a team spirit and commitment from the crew. All were expected to give their input, and with it the understanding that they’d in turn be accountable for their individual performances, and the team’s performance as a whole. “It wasn’t like a normal structure, where the skipper is the leader…The programme was already up and running, and we were doing everything when Torben came in,” said Jackson, quoted in McNeill’s prologue. “On a personal level it was very rewarding to see we had proceeded down the right track more often than not, so I felt we did our jobs well, keeping two sailing teams and the shore team working towards a common goal.”

Interestingly, the Ericsson sponsors had decided early on to do something unique with the crew of Ericsson 3, their trial horse. Initially, they’d discussed using a “masters” crew, no one under 50. They talked about a mixed or all-female crew. Finally, they decided on an all-Nordic crew, with young, relatively inexperienced sailors from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Nine of the 11 crewmembers had no experience in the Volvo. Charismatic Swede Magnus Olsson, who, conversely, was a wily veteran, led them. At 60 years old, his stint on Ericsson 3 would mark his fifth lap racing round the world. Ericsson 3 was victorious in the race’s longest-ever leg, from China to Brazil, over 12,000 miles of sailing in 40-odd days. It was no coincidence that they’d all trained with Ericsson 4 in Lanzarote.

Ericsson’s success was no accident. The lesson is in leadership, teamwork and preparation. While most superyachts are not regularly out racing round the world, they too rely on a highly cohesive unit to maintain the increasingly high standards by which the industry is measured.

The skipper of the J-Class yacht Hanuman was quoted in the September issue of Yachting World as saying any successful captain will have an intimate knowledge of everything that goes into the running of the boat. The captain should understand, from experience, how to provision, how to clean heads and make beds, have some experience in the engine room and with the yacht’s systems. His belief is that, as skipper, you must have an understanding of what you are asking of others before you ask it.

His attitude is not unlike that of Bannatyne’s and Jackson’s. In his case, skippering one of the Js, the stakes are just as high, if not higher. The Ericsson squads succeeded by empowering their crews to take an active role rather than sit passively by and mindlessly take orders. Thanks to Kostecki’s retirement, they had to. Hanuman’s skipper is essentially espousing the same thing: empower those who know their jobs to do them, and let them do it their way, so long as it works for the group as a whole.

This may sound obvious, but the success of running a superyacht is dependent upon the crew that runs it. It’s not dependent upon the resumes of the individuals. Ericsson 4 routed a field filled with sailors of similar ability. Ericsson 3 won an historical leg with an inexperienced crew. Think of them next time you have a crew meeting.

Andy Schell regularly contributes to Yacht Essentials and is chief editor of the annual Yacht Essentials Portbook. He and his wife, Mia Karlsson, work as a skipper/mate team and are currently between jobs after crossing the Atlantic in their yawl Arcturus. Contact Andy at fathersonsailing.com.

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