Who is in charge on board ship? Leadership on Spindrift racing

Spending a month and a half at sea, with 14 people on a boat, in a living space the size of a bedroom, calls for exceptional qualities. Add to that a challenging objective – to beat the round-the-world sailing record – and the experience becomes more of an ordeal than a sinecure.

Who is in charge on board? How are decisions taken? How do the sailors get on with each other? Yann Guichard, the skipper of Spindrift 2, tests the concept of “leadership” – which is not purely the province of corporate managers – during his attempt at the Jules Verne Trophy, a microcosm of the world at large.

What is a leader?

A leader is someone who knows how to make decisions – from the easiest to the most difficult. As a leader of people, they know how to convince others and create mutual confidence between leader and team, in order to build team spirit and harness efforts in the undertaking of a joint activity. A leader is someone who must be able to take decisions and command respect, particularly by setting an example.

As skipper and entrepreneur, what form does leadership take in your duties?

I lead through discussion and sharing, both with my colleagues on land and my crew at sea. I am not a leader who seeks to assert himself by force. I am always calm and ready to listen, while never losing sight of the ultimate aim and the current situation with its constraints and opportunities. Knowing how to take good decisions is the responsibility of a good leader.

How do you motivate your team to work towards a common objective and demand results?

The people in my team are those that I’ve chosen not only for their sailing abilities but also for their competitive spirit. We are there, first and foremost, to put in a sporting performance. But for challenges such as a round-the-world trial, it’s not just about the competition; the human aspect and the concept of pulling together are essential. We work a lot beforehand on developing team spirit, by playing sport together, sailing or spending time with each other to strengthen relationships. This helps each of us develop the ability to view the common objective as more important than the personal sporting objective, even though we all dig deep within ourselves to find it. Having individual skills is not enough in a team: the most important thing is to be strong together.

What type of organisation is there on Spindrift 2: military service or participatory democracy?

I’d say it’s a bit of both. Each person on board has one or more duties and responsibilities. Each one leads from their heart, experience and knowledge. However, I always make the final decision because I am the one who sees the bigger picture. A bad decision or lack of attention can have drastic consequences on a boat in terms of safety. It is therefore important to establish strict rules, such as rest periods for crew members, watch organisation, maintenance of equipment, manoeuvres and choice of sail depending on sea conditions. On board, I am responsible for the rules and their application. However, to motivate the others and make sure that they give of their best, you have to give them responsibilities and trust them. I rely on my watch leaders to delegate certain decisions within the framework of the rules in place. But I always keep a weather eye open; it’s my responsibility and my duty as a good sailor.

During the Jules Verne Trophy challenge, did you have to take any decisions that changed the course of the attempt?

Skippering a crew in a round-the-world adventure like this means you have to take decisions every day, and sometimes every hour. It’s an endurance race in which it is absolutely essential to be able to pace yourself to keep going for the duration – and this applies to both people and equipment. Sometimes you have to make the difficult decision to slow down so that you can speed up later. You must never put your crew in danger or at risk of a breakdown, even if it means losing ground. The whole of the skipper’s work is to be able to assess the situation, taking into account all the parameters – sea conditions, wind conditions, the state of the boat and of course the crew – in order to set the right speed. The skipper is really like the conductor of an orchestra. During the Jules Verne Trophy challenge, the most difficult decision was not to head south into the Ross Sea. We would have gained 30 hours by rounding Cape Horn. However, we would have sailed close to the ice shelf and the risk was too great. I have no regrets about taking that decision.

In taking decisions, are you influenced by the advice of crew members or experts on land?

In actual fact, part of a skipper’s role is to be able to manage the – sometimes conflicting – opinions of his sailors. It is not always easy to make them agree to slow down or to accept a decision such as the one not to head south. That’s when you find out if you’re a good leader who can get a team to rally round a difficult decision. The experts on land, such as weather forecasters and route planners, give us the tools to take decisions, but they are not there to decide for me. The reality on board is often very different from the theory. On the boat, I also have watch leaders and a navigator. They are my lieutenants. When I’m asleep, the watch leaders can take decisions on reefing or changing sails in accordance with the rules in place. I trust them. Just as I trust the crew member at the tiller. He has the lives of the crew in his hands.

How did you choose your crew members?

In consultation with Dona Bertarelli, we chose people we trusted in terms of performance but also sailors similar to ourselves who shared our values. Setting off on a round-the-world trip is not a task to be taken lightly. We wanted to find out what each sailor was made of in human terms. On board ship for 47 days in hostile conditions, you can’t fool anyone; the human element and knowing how to survive have a major impact on performance. To beat a record like the Jules Verne Trophy today, you have to go faster and faster and the boats have to be increasingly powerful. I come from an “Olympic sailing” background, and I appreciate the discipline that this imposes on us as athletes. I therefore chose a combination of racers, excellent helmsmen and open-sea sailors.

What are your key criteria for assembling a crew that works?

Confidence, respect, listening, team spirit and seamanship.

Is there an hierarchy on board?

Yes, there is a hierarchy and it’s important. It works exactly like a business. There is a boss – the skipper –, watch leaders and crew members, but there are also people responsible for safety, food, health, sails, etc. Everyone is ranked according to their abilities and qualifications. Everyone knows their duties and responsibilities. Each person works autonomously within the framework of their mission, and reports to their superiors.

How was life on board for the month and a half of sailing?

Everything went really well on board; the atmosphere was great. We all gave of our best and we don’t regret anything. There may have been a few minor tensions, exacerbated by tiredness, but we soon got over them. As we all complemented each other in personality, we were able to maintain harmony.