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Teaching a Soldier to Sail - Part One: Acclimatize

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

I’ll offer my take on how to chip a cohesive crew from a group-of-people on board a boat. This is the first of a 3 part blog under the title's 'Acclimatise', 'Sail' and 'Lead' - ASL, aka A Sailor's Life. I learned far more from teaching than I ever did learning. Hmm. Hold on to that thought!

Picture of a family trip preparing to leave to cross the Bay of Cadiz

I was a civilian sailing instructor working with the Joint Services in Gosport, and on day one, I was nervous. I was relatively new to instructing and 5 young recruits from Sandhurst (UK Army Officer Training School) were my first lot aboard. Would I cut the mustard as a leader? We’ll see. I was aware they had standards they’d gotten used to. Could I sail? Till now, yes.

So they came aboard and were sharp, witty and listened. In fact, I was more privileged than challenged. Civilian crews I’d worked with previously came aboard with a zigzag of personalities and standards. Between CEOs, vegans, the enthusiasts and the incompetent, it was a management juggle. Boats are inherently dangerous and running them requires order. The Sandhurst tribe nodded and responded with intrigue, and they ‘got on with it’. I saw organisation and, like a nerdy teenager with a chipboard, the valves to my dopamine stores snapped open. An encouraged leader's persona took over.

Stage 1 - Acclimatise

I call it such because joining a vessel is an environmental change every time, no matter your experience. New crews must:

  • Meet the boat

  • Meet each other

  • Meet expectations

Meeting the boat

A boat is as much an ‘ice-breaker’ as it is a vital exercise, and I conduct it via the boring old inventory. ‘Get your heads in every cupboard, find every hose, every tool, find everything and talk, talk talk’ I ask. Similarly to pristinely polishing your boots, this builds a sense of ownership and care through self-extension. It’s vital. They also loosen their vocal cords and expand their awareness. Collectively they remember a lot. They’re becoming more ‘boat’. (‘be water my friend’ - Bruce Lee)

Looking across Gibraltar bay, Royal Navy survey vessel HMS Scott in the background.

Read also: Building Vanguard

So, each other

I’ve stepped onto boats as crew before, and as quickly as I could drop my bag I’ve been ordered to slip lines and we’re off. Now maybe that works for the brash extroverts, but I’m not that, and I was left for days after with a foreign feeling, like I didn’t know this boat, this trip, these people. So aboard my boats we start early with a cuppa and a chat. What I’m trying to understand as Skipper is what makes who tick. I don’t care much about qualifications but I care about how a crew will relate to each other out there. For half an hour we’re shell-cracking with our steaming brew props and seeing what comes up.

Expectations are developing.

Sorry but we’re still here talking, with our teas. Though I’m certain it’s important we are. Now as skipper, I’m on the tiller of this chat because otherwise, it can broach into banter and bullshit or awkward silence. Bring it back to sailing, sea, weather, team dynamics etc. I ask lots of questions. ‘What makes an effective crew?’, ‘What from your life/job skills will transition to sailing?’ Construction? - You’ll fix breakages. Nurse? Same, if we’re unlucky. Chef? Clean and tidy. Military? Comms. Every skill’s a resource somehow. What we’re doing is becoming sailors-in-our-heads, we’re leaving shore already. And I get someone to take notes. These notes are a bit of a trick, they’re really affirmations. They’re setting their own standards in their own words. And I keep the scrap of paper to hold them accountable to throughout their sail.

Right, so we’ve gone from a bunch of strangers, and now we’re well into this boat, we’ve got ideas, we’re talking, we’re firing, we’re mixing. Let's talk next about sailing and leading. The development of the two among a team run in tandem, which I will try to explain in the next blogs.

Acknowledgement: UK JSASTC Gosport

Jeff Leigh-Jones

That thought I asked you to hold on to, I'll add to it in the next blogs, but for now please teach us. Do you have your own ideas on acclimatising a crew? Or do you start elsewhere with a new crew?

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