Taking the Helm: Job expertise doesn’t happen without intentional practice

Mar 28, 2020 by Paul Ferdais

Taking the Helm: by Capt. Paul Ferdais

I was recently on a boat doing a stern-to anchoring in a bay. The plan was to set the anchor, then back up toward and attach to some rocks to secure the vessel for the night. Before the maneuver, there was a team meeting to describe what was to be done and what everyone’s task was. 

The bosun was on the bow operating the windlass, paying out the chain while the captain backed the boat into position. As the boat was reversing, the captain was on the radio to the bosun, asking to know how much chain was in the water, how tight the chain was and asking for more chain to be paid out. 

The bosun may have been a little inexperienced or not completely focused on his task – at the beginning, when the captain asked for the anchor to be dropped and two shackles to go in the water, the bosun proceeded to drop the anchor and let the chain run and run, without control on the windlass, dumping the chain in a big pile on the sea floor. 

After a short time, with the sound of the chain running and running, the captain rushed to the bow to tell the bosun to stop the chain and control the descent. The captain then returned to the wing station. The bosun was visibly flustered. 

Next, the bosun was asked to pay out another shackle of chain when they were getting the vessel into the final position. Unfortunately, apparently no one on the bow was paying attention to the paint marks on the chain and the  final end of the chain came out of the chain locker and went sailing through the hawsepipe. The only thing keeping the chain from completely dumping into the sea was the safety line attached to the last link. 

There was much radio chatter, the captain came to look and then called the engineers to the bow to assist with the chain retrieval. Fortunately, everything worked out in the end.

The point of the above story is that while we put in the effort to keep the boat looking good with wash downs, paint repairs, dock protection, regular maintenance and more, we often overlook keeping ourselves in tip top form with training in job-related duties. It’s often taken for granted that someone with experience gained on another vessel will know what we need on our vessel.

This is, of course, incorrect. What was done on another vessel may be totally different on this boat. For example, shackles on a chain. Yes, the paint markings may be “standard” between a few boats, but this doesn’t mean they’re standard everywhere. In the above circumstance, the bosun either didn’t know what to do or was so flustered from the captain’s correction that a serious mistake was made. Either way, it points out everyone needs to practice their tasks in real situations in order to become an expert. 

Repetition is key to learning and developing excellent levels of skill in anything we do. If we leave practicing big tasks like anchoring or tender retrieval only until they’re required, expect everyone to fail in the beginning. 

For example, launching the tender is usually straight forward. At the same time, when I’m new to the boat and we’re on a charter and this is the first time I’ve launched the boat, expect me to make mistakes until I learn this boat’s system. And this leads to embarrassment, as well as looking less than professional in the eyes of the guests.

To make accomplishments look effortless, we should be good at all aspects of the job, so outsiders will comment that it looked easy. For a bosun, this includes not just washing the boat, but anchoring, launching the tender, getting jet skis ready, dock arrangements, setting up the gangway, etc. This applies to anyone in any role.  

When we practice, we must intentionally think about what we do, how we do it and when we do it. This takes conscious thought, rather than relying on habit to help us get through. Your guests will then never realize the work or the thinking that went into whatever task they see you perform. 

Part of intentional practice requires feedback and input. Ask how this can be better or what can be done more efficiently. Schedule practice into our busy lives. This way, after hours of practice, we know what to do and comments such as “You could have…,” “You should have…,” or “What were you thinking…” won’t show up.   

Capt. Paul Ferdais, skipper of a motor yacht, has a master’s degree in leadership and previously ran a leadership training company for yacht crew. Comments are welcome below.