The 5 Different Types of Skippers

Jessica Watson
Posted March 29 2016

The isolation and sometimes extreme conditions on boats create a unique environment for teams. The many different roles, short bursts of action, long periods of inaction and the challenge of communicating over the noise of the wind require a skilled leader to keep a team on course. Historically, and to this day, skippers and captains are often held in great admiration at the yacht club bar or on a national scale. But, of course, no two captains are alike so I took a look at the different leadership styles you’re likely to see used by those behind the helm.

Hierarchical

First up is the most traditional style of leadership: the hierarchical, coercive approach where the skipper demands the crew do as they say because they are in charge. This hierarchy will then flow right through the crew with each member having a clear position in the pecking order.

This type of skipper appears to know it all, and of course they might actually know it all, but chances are their lack of knowledge and ability is hidden beneath their authority. This type of skipper is very unlikely to give up their position at the helm of the boat, a clear visual reinforcement of their power. One time this type of leadership may be most effective is during a crisis situation where fast and decisive action is required.

Charismatic

Then we have charismatic leaders: big, sometimes quirky characters that are well known and often well respected or liked in boating circles. These are skippers that will attract great crew and inspire them to achieve great results. Their performance may not be sustainable, however, as these skippers can become complacent and may be polarising to those who clash with their big personalities.

Pacesetting

These skippers are typically the “best” or most technically competent sailors on the boat. They are disciplined, doing a great job of their role and expecting the crew to follow their lead. While these skippers may have a tendency to make decisions with little input from other crew, their expectation of high standards commonly translates to high performance.

Democratic

Democratic leaders share their leadership and distribute responsibility for safety and performance throughout the crew. This type of leadership seeks input from all crew members but requires commitment to a collective goal. One easy way to spot democratic leadership on a yacht is that crew members will be willing to do anything and everything on board. The helmsman might be seen scrubbing the bottom of the boat before sailing and the navigator might be seen helping the bowman run the sheets.

Nurturing

A nurturing or coaching leader will focus on providing their crew with the resources they need to perform. You see this style in boat owners who insist on buying their crews the best new sails and always having the logistics of sailing well in hand, allowing their crew to do what they do best. Like the democratic style, this type of leadership requires the team to be committed to their goals. These skippers will put their crew’s needs first and dedicate their time to developing and their crew’s skills ahead of their own.

Which type are you? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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Jack and Jude
Deckee Pro  Posted September 30 2016
Jess, you know we're great fans of yours, and applaud you're trying to classify something as broad as human personalities, weaknesses, doubts, and frailty, but it gave us a bellyache from giggles.

We've been piloting crafts across seas for a fair while now and have come across each of the types you described, but kinda think skippers are often a mix of all you list and a lot more.

Without spending all day trying to describe the potpourri of souls commanding ships, I'll hit out at you're saying hierarchical types are coercive, lacking knowledge. Oh my. Every professionally run ship is hierarchical. Has been since the dawn of sail. Why? Because it works. Can't run ships democratically and take a vote on decisions. That leads to deck hands raising sails when "they" thought it prudent, or altering course when they think it best, when in fact on a sea going ship there must be one with the big picture, and the knowledge.

One asset a captain/skipper needs that you've not touched on is calmness in the face of disaster. Yelling at crew, showing a lack of confidence undermines the crews efficiency and leads to a frightened mob unable to do their work.

Both of us are quite used to managing ships shorthanded, and I admit that's far easier than leading a motley crew across a sea of danger. But as captain, our job is to enthuse confidence and motivate everyone to do their best for the ship, just as much as it's our job to know what to do. Sometimes taking any action is better than doing nothing. Other times, like Chichester said, "time for a cuppa."

Keep it up Jess, love reading your stuff. Meanwhile, you've got me wondering what type do I fit into?? And dare I ask, which spot do you fit into. Or are you like me, a bit of all of them.
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Jessica Watson
Posted October 3 2016
You’re not alone, I’ve had a few friends tell me they thought this post was amusing! Good to know I provoked a few giggles even if you don't all see eye to eye with my classifications! I also had fun putting it together and thinking about some of the stereotypes you see out on the water.

Point taken regarding my being a little dismissive of hierarchical leadership. It certainly plays an important role, I suppose I’ve just seen a few very bad examples. And a few very good examples of relatively flat structures.

Fantastic point regarding the ability to remain (or at least appear to remain) calm in the face of a disaster, a very important skill.

I dare say you do fit a little of each. Isn’t that the art of a good leader, the ability to switch between the different approaches as the situation requires...
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Brian Calvert
Posted September 19 2017
HI Jess, i am a loyal fan. this is a great piece, and good perspective. i also believe it best to be a combination of these categories. i have been full-time cruising for 8 years, now half way around the world. i usually have crew i get from findacrew.net, folks from 28 countries which has been a wonderful experience. Most are inexperienced often first time on a boat. i send each one a long letter detailing life on Furthur. Here are a few excerpts from the letter: "please understand a cruising boat is not a democracy, I am a dictator although I strive to be a benevolent dictator. " on duties aboard "Generally speaking, I want the crew to work out duty schedules themselves. The crew shares in the day to day duties of the boat; basic cleaning, cooking, and washing. The crew is encouraged to divide these duties without my involvement" on safety "Although I do not like being “the mother hen” I do take your safety very seriously. I will lay out the basic safety rules. If I make a decision based on safety it is not up for debate, I am glad to give my reasons, usually at a later time. Half way around the world with no injuries and no damage to the boat and I want to keep it that way. On learning " I also encourage you to learn as much as you can about the running of the boat, mechanics, and navigation. I will teach you as much as you like, just ask. " more on learning "The key to any good relationship is honest forthright communication. Please know that I want you to ask any question any time, the only dumb question is one not asked. " when asked about crew duties " have fun, learn and be safe" Hope this is helpful to those considering taking crew or being on a crew...

Capt Brian

MV Furthur
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Jessica Watson
Posted September 24 2017
Great to hear your thoughts as well Brian!

It's good to hear that you've had good experiences with crew who are often new to sailing. Although as you say this probably has more to do with your honest communication than luck.

I wonder what part of the world you are currently in?
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