Home . Articles . News . Technique . Skipper Skills

Skipper Skills

2011 April 1

Taking the leadership role aboard a sailboat requires positive qualities both
tangible and intangible

What makes someone a skipper? It's a tough question to answer comprehensively, but over the years, as I've gone to sea with more than 100 inexperienced sailors, I've learned what they expect of me and what I expect of myself.

Being a good skipper comes down to a few skill categories, some which are easy to define while others are personality qualities to be strived for. A few of these include:

" Have intimate knowledge with the
vessel, systems and gear
" Be able to monitor and maintain all systems and be able to make repairs underway
" Have protocols in place for
any contingency
" Make navigational and tactical decisions
" Know heavy weather tactics
" Basic first-aid knowledge
" Maintain a steady, confident and
positive attitude

Someone on board must have a thorough knowledge of that particular boat and the systems in use. The skipper usually serves as the chief engineer as well; responsible for the ship's continuous monitoring and maintenance while underway. Our ability to ferret out problems and make repairs come to the fore when no help is available. Many of my favorite crewmembers were also knowledgeable, and were willing to help when repairs were necessary.

One of my goals before making departure has always been to create an environment of confidence that the crew adopted.  This is based in part on the contingencies and protocols  in place that enabled us to handle whatever events transpired during a passage. This, more than any other, was the most effective means by which I combat that fear residing in the minds of unseasoned sailors. An important phase of crew education is to demonstrate the techniques to cope with various situations that can arise, including:

" Rig for and negotiate heavy weather
" Crew overboard
" Fire
" Flooding
" Serious injury/illness
" Evacuation
" Abandoning ship

The time to consider just how you'd handle these situations is not on a windswept, tossing ocean with terrified crewmembers looking at you for a decision; it is well in advance of departure with written protocols that each crewmember understands. 

Sometimes offshore voyages progress just as the Pilot Charts and our route planning predict they will. While at other times, they don't.  Weather and sea states change and new strategies become necessary. Crewmembers look to the skipper to make those decisions. This involves using information amassed from a variety of sources-downloaded charts or text, onboard monitoring, and sea buoys are examples-to make forecasts of local wind and sea state conditions that dictate what actions it will be necessary to take. 

The competent skipper understands options such as altering course, initiating heavy weather preparations, shortening watches and opting to make for port or weather a storm at sea.  Experience has taught me that confidently making these decisions can be the captain's ultimate test. Once a tactic is selected, conducting the boat appropriately becomes the next objective. 

We make rules that keep people safe, but people are more likely to get sick or be injured at sea. A well-stocked medical kit should be at hand and the skipper should be versed in life saving techniques and first-aid procedures. We don't have to take medical courses, but knowledge here is power, and can be invaluable. 

The best sailors I know don't ever stop learning or practicing their skills. Consider the vast array of disciplines involved in just sailing. Now compound that by negotiating the offshore environment. It becomes obvious that mastering all of the skills is a never-ending quest.

A captain's first and foremost duty is to safeguard the crew and vessel. Crewmembers at sea find themselves battling unfamiliarity, seasickness, and sometimes fear.  Perhaps the best measure by which to judge a skipper's readiness is the capability to lead when it's needed the most.