What makes a winning skipper?

Den Helder 8th July

The race is nearly over and it is clear who are going to be the overall winners in the 2013-2014 Clipper Round the World Race: three very different skippers.

In first place will be ‘Henri Lloyd’, skippered by Canadian Eric Holden. His key advantage from the start has been his meteorological knowledge. With a PhD in Meteorology and a professional cv which includes race routing consultant to the Canadian Olympic yachting team, he was always going to know where to place his yacht to get the best winds.

To some extent, the winds are a lottery. You win some; you lose some. But I think it is clear that the deeper your understanding, the more often luck appears to be on your side. I imagine Eric can read complex weather charts the way that conductors can read a full orchestral score. It is music in their heads and I suspect he can almost feel the wind in his!

He is a quiet, shy man; he gives the briefest of interviews and on board he is quiet too. He has delegated a great deal of authority to his watch leaders, so that they feel free to sail the boat and take quick decisions without fear of being second-guessed by their skipper when he wakes up. He also has the vital ability to stay calm in tough situations, of which there are plenty on a round the world race! Crews, especially amateur crews like ours, look to their skipper for an emotional lead. If the skipper is panicking, then a crew is likely to panic too. If he or she is calm, the crew will be reassured and operate more effectively.

In second place will be ‘Great Britain’ skippered by Simon Talbot who has been characterised by single minded determination to win. He is a strict and demanding leader: ‘Do as I say because I want to win!’ An approach which has worked because they have a forestay covered from deck to masthead with podium place pennants; proof of his credibility.

He organises his crew on the basis of strict specialisation. The roles on the foredeck are fixed; the foresail trimmers and mainsail trimmers likewise specialise in those roles and there will be just two or three helms designated for each watch. This is clearly a good strategy for winning, but does not give crew an all-round experience of sailing. Every yacht has to strike this balance: how much should we specialise in order to play to our strengths, even if this is at the expense of boredom or frustration for some; or how much is this round the world adventure about giving everyone the chance to develop a range of talents?

Rumour has it that Simon has also deselected crew who do not share his ambition to win. Crew are allocated centrally, but there is some scope for individuals to express preferences and to change boats. There is immense power in expressing your expectations clearly. He had no more right to select his crew than any other skipper, but by being clear about his ambition and approach, he appears to have got the crew he wanted.

In third place will be One DLL, skippered by Olly Cotterell. He has the reputation for being cool, relaxed, keeping a light mood on board but being strict and stern when the crew are off their game. I recall being towed by them after the early end to the race to Panama when our engine had broken down. We could hear their party music on board, could see them bare chested, without life jackets and moving about the boat barefooted, while they busied themselves with a deep clean as they motored. All these would have broken standing orders on board ‘Switzerland’. Shoes with enclosed toes, tee shirts above and below decks and life jackets even when motoring were non negotiables!

We also learned during a dinner party swop just off Costa Rica, when half their crew swopped with half of ours during the motoring phase, that each crew member could plug into a range of films during their off watch periods and that they had a steak night every week. Unheard of luxuries! So a strategy of combining fun with a cutting edge. I have also heard that Olly has watch leaders who are also people managers. . . .

So how do you rate against each of these winning, and contrasting models of leadership?

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