Sailing to success: what makes a good captain?

Sailing to success: what makes a good captain?

Sailing the seas can be both exhilarating and daunting. A good captain can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable voyage for the crew.

There are plenty of skippers or sailors out there who have a captain's license. But what truly sets apart an excellent skipper from the rest? Is it their knowledge, their conduct towards the crew, or their ability to manage the boat? We have compiled a set of essential guidelines for a skipper, and you might be surprised to learn how many skippers neglect to put them into practice.

Clear communication

Commands such as "Someone tighten the rope!" or "Hand me that!" or "Check the depth gauge to see if we're too shallow." can create confusion and chaos on deck as it is unclear who the "someone" is or which rope needs to be tightened. A skilled captain addresses their crew by name and with specific instructions. For instance, "Paul, tighten the starboard genoa," or "Jana, go to the port side for balancing," or "John, monitor the depth gauge and report readings below the keel." Clear and specific instructions can help avoid misunderstandings and ensure that tasks are carried out efficiently and effectively.

A captain is always learning

Are you the captain and reading this article? That's great! A skipper must continuously educate themselves, and not only in traditional fields such as maritime navigation, but also in areas such as psychology, people management theories and motivation. Yes, being a good captain also involves being a skilled manager and leader.

Nautical navigation in charts

It's not just navigation that's important to know.

Keep a cool head

In certain circumstances, a boat's crew may find themselves in a crisis, which can be a tense and stressful situation, with lives potentially at risk. It is natural for people to become panicked and act irrationally under such conditions. However, the captain must remain calm and composed at all times, even when dealing with a chaotic crew. The captain should act confidently, make decisions quickly and logically, and display outward calmness, even if stressed internally. This will help the atmosphere on board and subconsciously encourage others to stay calm too.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Are you most stressed by manoeuvring in port? Check out our guide on how to handle port manoeuvres smoothly

Stay in shape

Many will argue that they know plenty of captains who are physically fit, do not struggle with basic tasks, and are able to navigate their boat with ease despite any physical limitations. While it is true that some skippers are able to manage without being in peak physical condition, we believe that maintaining a certain level of physical fitness is essential. Being in good physical shape enables the skipper to play various roles on board and deal with crisis situations effectively. While a skipper does not necessarily have to be a competitive athlete, they should maintain a certain level of fitness to ensure that they are capable of handling the demands of their role.

Set an example

To make sure everything on the boat works as it should, the captain must set the rules for the crew to follow. But it doesn't look good if they are "preaching water and drinking wine". The rules on board apply to everyone, and a good skipper leads by example.

Learn the art of delegation

As the captain of a boat, it is not always necessary to do everything on their own, sometimes they may not even steer the boat, as they delegate this task to someone from the crew. However, delegation is a skill that not everyone masters, and it is essential for efficient and safe sailing. After all, the skipper cannot do everything alone. Effective delegation involves teaching the crew the task, explaining it clearly, defining each crew member's specific responsibilities, and utilizing their strengths to achieve the best results. It is important to make the process enjoyable for everyone involved. Proper delegation is not just about handing out tasks that nobody understands while the skipper does nothing; it is about empowering the crew and working together towards a common goal.

Be available

The skipper should always be on hand when needed. Of course, they can take a nap below deck, but they should not be away from the cockpit for too long. After all, it is they who are responsible for the running of the boat.

Keep everything shipshape

When sailing for a week or longer with a crew, it is important to clean the boat regularly. This cleaning should go beyond basic tasks such as mopping and changing beds, and should include organising all the lines and tidying the cockpit. After a few days of sailing without re-rigging, ropes can become tangled and difficult to manage, and items may be lying around the cockpit.

Coiling ropes on the boat

The skipper should ensure that the ropes are properly organized, ideally after completing each leg of the voyage.

Love each boat as their own

A good captain should have a genuine love for boats. Whether it is a small boat, a large overseas ferry, or a classic recreational sailboat, every vessel deserves proper treatment and care. Even if the skipper is using a rental boat, it should be looked after and they should avoid unnecessarily damaging equipment, neglecting maintenance during the voyage, or scuffing the gelcoat.

99% respect for the rules

A good captain honors the maritime rules of Colreg. But why only 99 % and not 100 %? Simply because it is not always necessary to adhere strictly to the rules at the expense of common sense. This most often applies in situations of avoiding other ships at sea. Sometimes, skippers may follow the rules of priority at sea even when it is a "duel" between a large ferry and a small recreational sailing vessel. In such situations, it is important to be flexible and circumnavigate the danger in a large arc, rather than forcing the right of way or other unrealistic expectations. But there are other, unwritten rules. We've put together a comprehensive list in our guide, Yachting etiquette from A to Z.

Ferry and sailing boats

It is better to steer clear of large ferries with small sailboats.

Fair and respectful to the crew

Fairness and respect between people should be a matter of course not only at sea, but also in other interpersonal relationships. But this is doubly true on a ship. The captain should measure all crew members by the same yardstick, not to be overbearing, not to make anyone feel slighted and treat everyone with respect, whether they are a beginner, an experienced sailor, a woman, a man, penniless or a millionaire. On a boat, social differences disappear, and everyone is united by the shared experience of sailing and the work required to keep the vessel running smoothly.

Do you think being a skipper is a fantastic thing, but you don't have a license yet? Check out our range of courses that will take you from theory and practice all the way to the exam. Set sail as a skipper on your own boat this summer.

Nature lover

Not all skippers may agree with this statement, but we think a skipper should love and protect nature. When sailing, they encounters not only the sea, but also numerous animals, plants and natural phenomena. To live in symbiosis with all this at sea, they must show respect and love for Mother Nature. They will enjoy their time on the water all the more for it.

Stay sober

While not all skippers may adhere to this rule, it is highly recommended that a skipper always maintains a state of alertness and sobriety while on the boat. It can be challenging to remain focused and clear-headed when under the influence of alcohol, so it's best to leave any rum-sipping to the crew. By staying sober, the skipper can ensure a reduced risk of accidents or potential problems with the Coast Guard, as well as avoid any negative consequences that may arise from driving under the influence and causing damage or injury in an accident.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Interested in sailing superstitions and customs? Check out our article on the most famous sailing customs and superstitions. Many clients also ask us if they can drink on a boat, take a look at the legal limits in popular sailing destinations. And if you're a bit of a party animal, we recommend reading our guide, How to enjoy a party on a boat: 10 tips to keep your crew and your boat safe.

The art of not sailing

If you can handle harbour manoeuvres, it is not difficult to sail out of the marina. But the captain must also master the art of not sailing. The problem here is largely one of ego — the captaincy goes to their heads and they think they are invincible. But nobody is, compared to the sea, the force of the wind, the waves and the weather. The captain has to be able to suppress their ego and resist the pleas of the crew who are looking forward to setting sail. The skill lies in knowing when not to set sail, especially when weather conditions worsen or are predicted to do so, as this could potentially result in an accident. The captain should be willing to delay the voyage and stay an extra day in port, without making a big deal out of it.

storm at sea

Because this isn't a nice experience.

Consideration for other captains

No matter how skilled a captain is, they're never alone at sea. A great skipper takes not only their own vessel and voyage into account, but also considers the well-being of other sailors. This means not only sailing considerately, but also helping others when it comes to docking at the pier or in other situations where assistance may be needed.

Do you want to go to sea? Get in touch and I'll arrange everything for you.

FAQs: How to be a good captain