2004 - Teamwork in sailing
Most companies are faced with
two choices when seeking to build on their expertise:
they can develop their own talent or they can
buy it in from elsewhere.
Buying expertise can be expensive
- particularly when recruiting for a permanent
position. But sometimes, if the need is immediate
and temporary or the specialist skills are in
short supply, it might be worthwhile.
Traditionally, companies have
tried to develop their own specialists but emerging
markets and new business streams are forcing employers
to modify their recruitment and development programmes.
Outsourcing and the growth in external "talent
pools" are beginning to offer attractive
alternatives to the in-house product.
So what is the best strategy
- building your own centres of excellence or buying
in outside professionals?
Perhaps surprisingly, one activity
that might offer some answers to this is sailing,
which, with its emphasis on leadership and teamwork,
has many parallels with recruitment and training
During the past few days I have
been introduced to an experiment in crew training
for offshore racing events thatcould shed some
valuable light on this question.
Offshore and ocean yachting is
a rarefied sport that, like motor racing, enjoys
a healthy financial relationship with "aspirational"
corporate brands. Companies will spend millions
emblazoning their logos on some of the most exotic
vessels afloat, competing for international trophies
such as the Admiral's and America's cups.
It is difficult to describe the
sport's big boat image as anything but elitist.
A typical professional crew member or skipper
on a top-class offshore racer would probably have
been introduced to sailing as a youngster competing
at club, then national, and sometimes Olympic
level before turning professional.
Club-based sport is accessible
to weekend sailors but the more exotic events
tend to hire professionals with international
reputations. This is the equivalent of companies
renting the professional talent they feel they
Rob Cousins, managing director
of Formula 1 Sailing, a Gosport-based yacht chartering
business, has decided to challenge this accepted
wisdom in the sport, backing a new race-training
venture* proposed by Philippe Falle, the company's
Mr Falle skippered and trained
the team that won the 2003 Royal Ocean Racing
Club Offshore School Boat Trophy, a hotly contested
event among UK sail training schools. Now he wants
to repeat this feat with Formula 1 Sailing, backed
by sponsorship from Volvo, the motor company.
But beyond this reasonable ambition
is a much more audacious goal that he admits is
something of a dream: to enter a team in the 2006
Rolex Commodore's Cup, a biennial event that attracts
some of the world's best race teams. To represent
Great Britain, the Formula 1 Sailing crew - competent
sailors but relative race novices keen to improve
- would need to beat off some of the best professional
teams in the UK, an almost unthinkable achievement.
"It's important to me that
we start from scratch and don't helicopter in
some rock stars as most teams do these days. I
want people who will get up at six in the morning
when the rest of the world thinks they're mad
and give it everything to learn to race. If they
work together week in week out they can form a
close understanding," says Mr Cousins.
The proposal is a logical progression
from the Global Challenge round-the-world yacht
race for novice crews, created by Sir Chay Blyth.
The race emerged from his personal frustration
at the costs and high barriers to entry in existing
His belief that men and women
unfamiliar with sailing could train together then
compete against one another, racing around the
world in identical yachts under professional skippers,
proved a phenomenal success.
The Challenge races have bred
some of the best racing skippers in the world
such as Mike Golding, a former fireman, and Pete
Goss, a former Royal Marine, but once the events
have finished most crews tend to go back to their
Mr Falle was a crew member in
the 1996/97 race before skippering a Challenge
yacht in one of its transatlantic races. Around
the same time he became a sailing instructor,
running his own small school in Southampton.
I sailed with him in the 1996
race so an invitation to join him with his new
crew of race hopefuls last weekend seemed like
a good idea.
Sunday in the Solent with winds
gusting up to 30 knots was a real test of our
enthusiasm. In spite of the obvious discomfort,
I still think sailing is worth it because it has
lessons that can be passed on in the workplace.
However, I remain dubious about
office managers who take their work teams on sailing
days as bonding exercises. No one should be exposed
to a rough sea against their wishes. Even so,
the way that sailing skills are acquired and the
way that yacht crews interact with each other
is a model for great teamwork.
One thing that was noticeable
on Sunday's exercise was the element of competition
that emerged among different groups working on
This was a mixed crew and for
some reason the sexes tended to separate themselves.
It was possible to compare performances of these
teams-within-the-team through certain manoeuvres.
The level of boat speed that can be maintained
during a tack, for example, is a useful indicator
of crew efficiency and in this case the women
beat the men.
These early training sessions
will lead to team members finding their favoured
positions. Although rotation of positions is important
if crew members are to be familiar with every
aspect of running the yacht, the demands of racing
mean that each individual must be super-proficient
at a particular skill such as helming, navigating,
sail-changing or winching.
This harks back to the single-skill
emphasis in assembly line manufacturing and military
drill. Such drills persist because they are efficient
but they can lead to boredom so skippers must
ensure that their crews get varied experience
to support their specialities.
Another feature of the learning
was strong communication. This did not, as you
might imagine, involve shouting - even though
a gale was blowing across the deck.
"Eventually I would expect
the talking to subside as people start to work
more smoothly together but just now it's important,"
says Mr Falle.
Can he turn a relatively novice
crew into an ultra-competitive unit? If he can,
then it would tend to vindicate those employers
who concentrate their training efforts on home-grown
The training regime may also
point to various transferable lessons in the recruitment
business, so, seasickness permitting, I shall
be keeping a watching brief on the Formula 1 Sailing
experiment in the months ahead.
as a pdf file