Tall Ship Leadership

By on March 9, 2012
3 Ships

Image Courtesy of Ocean Classroom Foundation

The schooner Westward, built by Abeking & Rasmussen in Germany and launched in 1961, is 125 feet long. Westward sets 6,500 square feet of traditional canvas, carrying a mainsail, forestaysail, main staysail, jib, jib topsail, fisherman staysail, storm trysail, a course and a raffee. She carries 5,000 gallons of fuel and 5,500 gallons of fresh water. It takes a professional crew of 12 to sail her, and she often carries upwards of 25 students on passages ranging from half a week to several.

The Westward is one of three tall ships operated by the Ocean Classrooms Foundation, based in New England. The Harvey Gamage and the Spirit of Massachusetts round out the fleet; each supports the organization’s mission of ‘authentic experience’ at sea. They sail from ports as far north as the Canadian Maritimes and as far south as Central American and the Eastern Caribbean. The three ships take students and their teachers to sea in the most traditional sense, on voyages in which the “traditions, values and adventure of maritime life provide a unique context for education.” Ocean Classrooms “strives to create programs aboard our ships in which our students grow stronger and more confident socially, intellectually, ethically and physically to take their places among the generations of exceptional men and women who have been transformed by seafaring life.”

So, how exactly does it relate to the yachting industry, specifically the megayacht industry, which is arguably the polar opposite, and nearly could be considered a different industry altogether? The answer is leadership.

I spoke to Ocean Classroom’s Captain J.B. Smith a few weeks ago. I told him I was interested in leadership at sea and how it can be applied to the yachting industry, and wanted to focus specifically on tall ships. I had an inkling that the tradition and sheer amount of work that goes into running such a large sailing vessel would shed some light on the leadership issue.

“There is a definitive chain of command, so everyone aboard always knows who is in charge,” Smith began. “There is a lot of flexibility, but everyone respects it, so to speak. That’s the skeleton of the whole leadership thing right there.”

Tradition on an Ocean Classroom voyage is a large part of the program for students, but the professional captains and crew maintain those traditions regardless of who is aboard. Each member of the crew is expected to learn marlinspike seamanship and maintenance skills — “the crew does almost all our maintenance under way,” and Smith — and are expected to share a deep-seated respect for the sea. New hires are given detailed tours of the boats, and are shown everything from how to do boat checks to where the flags are stowed. And often by deckhands not much more experienced themselves.

Empowering a less-experienced deckhand to do something perhaps slightly above their skill level gives him/her confidence that is earned, and has a major impact on their development. And once the real students show up, Smith explained, “everyone is an expert.”

We both wondered aloud whether this kind of upward mobility is encouraged on yachts. If it is not, we agreed, it certainly should be. “The megayachts, I would suspect,” said Smith, “everybody’s kind of got their spot and stays in that spot, to be more efficient. The point isn’t, I guess, to try and train up the crew as much as it would be just to kind of get the job done. I’m presuming that’s the case, anyway.” He has a point. Encouraging crew to seek additional education, whether formally at school, or informally on board, can only work to enhance the effectiveness of the crew as a whole.

Ocean Classroom’s aim, Smith said, is to empower the students to at least make them believe they are in charge. At that point, the professional crew stands down — literally. Watch rotations on program include the students, plus a professional mate and deckhand. When the students are ready, the professional deckhand removes himself from the rotation. The students are instantly empowered. The ships spend at least 50 percent of their time on program at sea, sometimes far more. The scenarios are real, and the stakes are high. Learning is inherent.

The generally complex organization and chain of command is responsible for a serious amount of sail area, “the dramatic side of it.” The forces created by it are significant, and there is no room for mistakes. But more importantly, he continued, “the less dramatic side of it is to make sure the dishes are washed properly and the heads are cleaned. The students are involved in all of that.” Smith’s point harkens back to the J-class skipper I quoted in the last issue, who spoke of the importance of the captain understanding just what he is asking of his crew, whether it’s raising sails or changing bed sheets.

In the tall ship realm, the professional crew are often personally motivated by their idealism, their love of the sea and their respect for tradition. They certainly are not in it for the money, which starts at a mere $500per month. Smith emphasized that they do not hire their crew based solely on their sailing experience. That can be taught, as it can be aboard yachts.

“You can be the ancient mariner,” he said, “but that’s not going to do you much good in terms of the business.”

Ocean Classroom runs week-long, month-long and semester-long programs for students and teachers of all ages. For more information, visit them online at oceanclassroom.org.

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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