Team Work in a Hurricane (8 min read)

“If you want to go fast – go alone.

If you want to go far – go together.”

– African Proverb

Exactly two years ago, I braced against the helming cage as another colossal wave ploughed into our 70ft sailing yacht. I only just managed to yell “Hold On!” to the crew in the cockpit before being completely submerged in freezing water. My knees buckled and my safety lines strained under the enormous load. My lifejacket inflated making it harder to breathe but gratefully jamming me within the helming cage. With the compass now underwater, I was helming blind through the foam and spray. For a second, I saw the wind-reading peak at 218mph, then returning to a more reasonable 86mph. In an inundated dry suit, with eyes red sore from the salt and frozen helming hands, I still had control of the boat.

We were deep in the Southern Ocean, 2,000 miles from western coast of Australia, not even half way through our round the world sailing race. That week not one but three violent lows came together to bring hurricane-force winds, massive swell and precipitous waves. I was a watch leader with a team of eight. At the time, my sole goal and purpose was to keep my team and the boat safe. We managed incredibly well – not only to stay safe, but to keep racing through the lows. In fact the decision to keep racing was probably key to assuring our safety.

Looking back, these are the lessons to effective teamwork in a ‘hurricane’, whether you are sailing or leading a team through turbulent times:

1. Effective Communication. In hurricane-force winds speaking is not possible. Even shouting is drowned out by the wind and the waves. Balaclavas, spray hoods and scarfs make lip and facial reading challenging. Body language becomes key. In demanding conditions, it is tempting to shut down and not communicate. However, that will endanger the entire team as the boat can only run safely when everyone understands each other and the sailing instructions.

First, to get their attention, you would come up to the other person and look them in the eyes. You speak clearly and concisely, asking if the other person understood the message. Then you listen actively and globally – picking up verbal, tonal and body language clues. You listen to understand without interrupting.

Body signals can also be misunderstood. We had a multi-cultural team. To one person, a nod signifies “yes”, to another “no”. Once I made a “T” sign with my hands to the team member on the bow asking them to check sail trim, that team member passed back the message: “Yes please, white 2 sugars”. Agree on the meaning of signals at the outset.

2. Common Goals. We were racing. However, the goal “racing” meant different things to different team members. For some it meant, “we race to win at all cost”, to others “we race provided we all have fun”, for others still “we race provided I get to learn as much as possible”. Different interpretations of the same goal caused tensions and conflicts. Team members who wanted to win at all cost argued that we should put only the best drivers on the helm. This annoyed team members who wanted to learn to helm. As watch leader, I had my own goal and responsibility to keep the boat and team safe, so I did not put up our kite (bigger sail) if I thought as a team we could not handle it. This annoyed team members who wanted to win at all cost.

So we had a team meeting and thrashed out a set of common goals, identifying exactly what they meant for each crew and establishing an order of priority – Safety, Performance, Learning, Fun. As the crew changed every leg of the race, we had another team meeting to establish our common goals for the next leg. We did not fix the goals in stone. If the conditions changed mid-leg, we would re-open the meeting and come up with new goals or order of priority. Ensuring that each team member agreed on the meaning and bought into the goal.

3. Preparation and Continuous Coaching. Happily, the Southern Ocean lows were preceded by a big storm just of Cape of Good Hope. We had ample practice running the boat in strong winds and huge waves. More crucially, the team were mentally prepared for the next onslaught.

We all had basic training before setting off on the race, however, for new crew on that leg that training was months ago. So as watch leader, my job was to bring the new joiners up to speed as quickly as possible through intensive coaching and training. Our team was only as strong as its weakest member. The coaching and training maximised the strengths and talents of both the learners and the coaches. So if you are an ace driver, you will be coaching new joiners to helm. If you are particularly patient, you will taught to repair sails.

The coaching continued into the last of day of the race.

4. Culture of Support, Trust and Respect. There were no hydraulics or electric deck equipment on our boat. Everything was done by hand and through human strength. A single headsail weighed 350kg, so you needed most of the watch to lift it out of the sail locker and you really wanted to be sure that your teammates would not drop it on your head. During these lows, we only had two drivers on my watch – my helming buddy and me, as our third capable helm was injured in the previous storm. We were often helming blind through the waves and spray. As one of us drove, the other would be their “eyes” spotting the course ahead.

Such trust and respect build over time working with each other. They can be nurtured by encouraging a supporting and trusting team culture. We asked team members to look out for each other – “Is her safety line fixed? Is he getting too cold?” Coaching each other in different skills also helped to establish trust and respect amongst team members. Some degree of competition within a team can boost performance (“I will strive to helm straighter than him”), however, too much competition can result in mistrust and break the team apart. Most importantly, we never stopped talking to each other, even when the topic was tough.

5. Defining Roles and Responsibilities. Shouting against wind and waves to decide who is doing what is not effective and in a storm simply dangerous. At the outset, we decided on primary roles and responsibilities for each team member, with a clear back up plan for role changes in case someone was injured or on “mother duty” (cooking below deck). Each role was defined and clear-cut to minimise unhealthy competition and territory clashes. Even more importantly, each team member felt that they had a crucial role to play in the safety and performance of the boat, helping to maintain high engagement and morale.

We had a rota for more mundane duties – cooking, cleaning, engineering, navigation, media. All roles were valued and important. Every team member, including the watch leaders, was on this rota. To manage resources effectively, it was explicit that in challenging conditions watch leaders would be up on deck rather than on rota duties below. The rota provided a sense of equality and fairness.

6. Effective Conflict Management. When you are freezing cold, exhausted, hungry and beaten up tempers fray easily. Even something as trivial as someone standing on your foot or spilling your warm drink can degenerate into a shouting match. Getting the issue out in the open helps to move towards resolution. More dangerous are the simmering tensions below the surface. Once communication breaks down it is more difficult to move forward.

In calm waters, my conflict resolution strategy was dealing with tensions as soon as possible by talking to each warring party separately, understanding each point of view, finding common ground and facilitating discussions. In a storm, boat and team safety took priority and there was no time for discussions. Sending a team member below deck or separating roles was not practicable, as often everyone had to work together to make the boat sail. So what’s the answer? Being blunt worked for me: “I understand that you don’t see eye to eye. Right now, we are in a big storm 2,000 miles from land and we have to work together to keep the boat safe. Once conditions settle down we can talk about this further”.

As our team communications and goal setting improved, the number of serious conflicts declined. We also found that clearly defining each team member’s role and responsibilities helped to minimise territory disputes.

7. Adaptive Leadership. Knowing when to push and when to keep back. I’ll be honest with you – sailing through massive swell, battered by enormous waves and hurricane-force winds was really frightening. My knees shook on many occasions. Some dark nights, I even wondered whether we would see the sunrise in one piece. But I never let my team know that my confidence wavered. That time my role was to lead by example – to show resolve, skill, confidence, support and constant presence on the front line.

It was infectious. My cockpit team did not have to sit on the high side getting soaked, frozen and thrashed against the deck gear – they could have taken turns going down below into the protected cabin. But they all stayed up – to show support for the two drivers on the helm – because we were one team.

Later, when the wind abated, we sprung into action changing sails on the foredeck. It was time to push my team hard and motivate. Once we settled, it was time to back off and let the team members take on their roles, to reclaim their confidence and responsibilities. I delegated the lead to another team member and sat quietly at the back of the helm.

Another aspect of effective leadership is putting your hand up when you mess up and asking for help. One night I steered too sharply down a wave and even with my whole body weight (granted 52kg versus 34 tonnes boat) I could not get the helm back to neutral. The boat was dangerously heading nose down into the wave trough and the wave ahead. I yelped for help and my helm buddy grabbed the wheel just in time to pull it back. Had I tried to “save face”, the team would have lost confidence in me. As such they laughed and served me more porridge the next morning for extra strength.

Then there was the time I left a halyard end (rope for hoisting a sail) 30 metres up the mast in choppy seas, but that’s another story.

8. Morale. How happy would you be careering down colossal waves, submerged in tonnes of freezing water every few minutes, gathering enormous black bruises from conflicts with deck gear?

The hallowed biscuit team appeared out of the companion hatch, a team member on high side undid one of his safety lines to grab the tin (we all had at least two safety lines attaching us to the boat). At that moment a huge wave came over the boat, sweeping everyone into the cockpit. The biscuit tin man was swimming in the inundated cockpit with bloody split lip and three others riding on top of him, but he held onto the biscuit tin. We all laughed so hard we forgot about the cold wet fear. Small things matter and humour is great at maintaining morale and team spirit.

An army marches on its stomach. Freshly cooked hot food was crucial to morale. So even in the harshest conditions, the “mothers” still baked fresh bread during the night.

I mentioned that the decision to keep racing was probably key to assuring our safety. Why? Because we had a purpose to keep performing, to keep sailing the best we could, which kept the team busy and maintained morale. Had we battened down the hatches and stayed below awaiting the end of the storm, mentally, we would have given up and would have been weaker in the event of emergency.

Continuous coaching and training support helped to maintain morale. As did regular team meetings, clear roles and responsibilities, effective conflict resolution strategy and open communication channels. Team members felt that they were directly contributing to our shared goals, they felt valued and so they fully engaged in their roles.

Sailing is fantastic for developing effective teamwork, communication, leadership and interpersonal skills. Fortunately, you do not have to sail round the world to reap the benefits. For more information on Be Do Have Coaching Teamwork Workshops and Sailing & Coaching Team Events both on and off the water, please contact Natalia.

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