Storming and Performing

Jamaica 16th March

Last night we became a Performing team. We came on watch at sunset, with the aim 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 which 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, our objectives , agree on 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.

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 we 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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