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 reply, “What do you think it is then? A dictatorship?”

I silently replied, “Well, yes. An autocracy at least. Somewhere on the left of the Tannenbaum- Schmitt 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 finalise 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 real conviction on a course which we thought was about to change.

There hours later our skipper put her head up the companionway and looking quizzically at our sails. 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 to faster boat! No points there and then 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 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 them to feel like dictatorships 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, their 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 need to be told.

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