Thursday, 5 July 2012


Thinking about the happy time when I have a boat commissioned and ready to sail.

Thinking also about my friend Alain who is busy putting together plans to run a sailing experience opportunity for holidaymakers on board his newly acquired wooden lugger.

Thinking too about how both of us in our ways will have to inspire confidence in our crews and passengers.

Most of us will have volunteered to act as crew for someone at some time or another and on occasion we may have regretted making the offer. The skipper who needs an extra hand may have seemed like a friendly regular sort of guy propping up the bar in the boat club but once on the water in command of his own vessel he could turn out to be a regular tyrant – Captain Bligh with attitude, or even worse, it could be that despite all his clubhouse yarns, he really doesn’t have a clue about seamanship. Yes, we’ve all been there and seen every kind of fault from close quarters so we know what makes a poor skipper but what about the good ones? Here is my checklist – see if you agree.


A good skipper knows his boat and how to handle her. He can navigate with and without electronic aids, he understands and uses boating terms without being pretentious, he knows the right knot or bend for the job, he can read the weather and he knows something of first aid. He has an ability to translate theoretical knowledge to practical action and his knowledge base is broad enough to enable him to find alternative solutions if required.

Much of this knowledge comes from experience of course. Knowledge and experience gives the skipper an air of measured confidence and unruffled coolness. These are the attributes that instil confidence among the crew. The problem of course is that these qualities take time to acquire and there is no substitute, unless of course the skipper is a good actor. Time on the water improves skill and few of us manage to get enough time out there, so to some extent it could be argued that all the best skippers are good actors, appearing cool and confident even when they aren’t.


A good skipper is always prepared for the trip and he makes sure his boat and crew are prepared also. It used to be said that you can spot a seaman by the way he lays his ropes, and the knots he chooses. You can also spot a potentially good skipper by the way he cares for his boat. The boat will be well provisioned, flares will be within date, the course will be marked out on paper charts and they, along with the log book will be on the chart-table ready for use. There will be a place for everything and everything will be in its place ready for action.

Not only will the boat be well prepared but a good skipper also makes sure his crew is well prepared. He briefs his crew carefully before departure and explains the route he is taking, he describes how the tide will help and or hinder them along the way, gives an estimate of the length of the voyage and he updates them on the latest weather forecast and its implications for the trip. For those who haven’t sailed with him before, he shows them round the boat highlighting the locations of the first aid kit, liferaft, flares, and lifejackets.

People Skills

Above all things the Skipper must have well developed people skills; he needs to take time to get to know them as individuals, their strengths, weaknesses, interests and the sources of their motivation, and he has to accept that some will be more experienced than others and allocate tasks accordingly. He needs to understand that people volunteering as crew are placing a great deal of confidence in him and he must accept this responsibility not only for their well being but also for their feeling of well being. They may have come along to gain more experience and he has a duty to them in this respect. Above all they want to work the boat and share in the feeling of achievement which comes with a successful voyage. He has a duty of care for their physical and psychological well being – every crew member needs periods of work and time for rest and leisure. They need to be well fed - a skipper who ignores this doesn’t keep a crew for long. 


The key difference between skipper and crew is that he is the leader and decision taker. There is only room for one skipper on any boat and this fact needs to be clear to all who ship aboard. A good skipper doesn’t need to explain this. Along with the ‘privilege’ of power however, there is a responsibility to act with sound judgment. A good skipper doesn’t avoid this or try to run his ship as a committee. He will take the decisions he feels he needs to take regardless of their popularity. Decisions of whether to sail or postpone a trip because of adverse weather forecasts are his to make as are mid-voyage decisions concerning whether to press on or run for shelter. He may choose to consult with his crew in order to ascertain their strength or motivation to complete the trip but the decision is his and his alone.

Sense of humour

Finally, a good skipper needs to have a good sense of humour and be relaxed in his role. He maintains a sense of discipline when it is required but he must also plan for crew relaxation. So, he shouldn’t push too hard. He should take account of the strength of his crew, accept that their appetite for long voyages may be less than his, make it clear that their safety is his prime concern, share his love of the sea and the boating life with them, be prepared to teach new skills and allocate tasks fairly, but also leave some time for fishing, picnics, and exploring new harbours and anchorages. Boating is supposed to be fun after all.  Have I missed anything out?