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Being a Good Captain: 5 Skills to Wear the Skipper's Hat

Updated: Mar 26

By: Scott Way


Being a boat captain is like being in upper management at any company; your success relies upon your ability to handle not only the demands of your own position, but also to motivate and manage a team of people below you. It’s an art, and much like being a good artist takes time and sacrifice, being a good captain requires much the same. It’s a constant evolution in skill development and self-awareness. Whether you’re out for a day of fishing in an aluminum boat with ten horsepower on the back, or you’re chartering a luxury yacht for a family vacation, there are basic principles to good captaincy that need to be mastered in order to wear the skipper’s hat.


In the underrated 2000 film U-571, a hotshot U.S Navy lieutenant played by Mathew McConaughey finds himself the impromptu captain of a German submarine they’ve commandeered during a clandestine mission gone awry. During a discussion about how to escape using a damaged German sub with no defenses and the real Germans hot on their tail, McConaughey admits to a crew of battered sailors that he doesn’t know how they’ll survive. Afterwards, grizzled veteran Harvey Keitel pulls him aside and admonishes him for his lack of character, telling him “the captain always knows what to do, whether he does or not.” These kinds of dramatic Hollywood bromides make for great cinema, but there’s also a good lesson to be learned. A captain is responsible for everybody on board, and regardless of the circumstances will be looked upon for leadership and knowledge. As such, a captain should always be thinking ahead, have a plan of action, and should always stand steadfast when times get tough. They should know the variables at play, what to do if each variable becomes a reality, and know how to manage their crew and passengers accordingly. So how do you become a good boat captain? Here are 5 things to consider:


1) Character Matters


A good captain exudes quiet confidence and is a master of management. They possess a stable nature, are comfortable in their own skin, and know how to delegate responsibilities. There will be difficult decisions to be made, and a confident captain knows how to balance a vessel’s needs above outside influence. One of the best ways to keep a boat balanced is to establish expectations before departing. All crew, passengers, family, or friends should know their responsibilities before getting underway. This means holding court to educate everyone about their assigned roles and what procedures they must follow. If you’re in the commercial realm, there are plenty of methods borrowed from corporate culture you can institute as good business practice. This includes weekly meetings with crew to discuss current affairs like vessel status, crew needs, safety considerations, route and course plotting, and day-to-day operational concerns. Keeping an open line of communication between you and your crew can be the difference between learning about a potential problem before it break and finding out too late about an equipment or personnel failure that was avoidable.


There is also no substitute for experience and training. If the crew and passengers know that a captain has “been there” before, it’ll give them confidence to follow your instructions. Unity on a boat is paramount, and if the captain has the training and experience it’ll be much easier for the crew to follow suit. There are a multitude of resources for any sailor seeking to expand their skills. For Canadian boaters, the Canadian Power & Sail Squadrons offer a variety of courses for aspiring boaters to accrue the skills and experience necessary to lead a vessel. Being exposed to difficult situations in training means you’ll have the competency required if things go south in real life. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. As a captain pushing outside your comfort zone is necessary, but that doesn’t mean be reckless either. Explore the boundaries of your skills in training so you can exude a calm demeanor when the seas get rough.


2) Toe The Line- Know Your Boat, Safety Procedures, & Emergency Protocols


Even if you’re leading your family for a day on the water in a boat you’ve used countless times, a good captain will always ‘toe the line.’ This means educating your passengers on all important procedures so even in your absence they can undertake emergency protocols (say, should you fall overboard, become injured, or have a medical emergency). Even if you are regular boaters, your passengers, whether they’re friends, family, or employees, should know how to use the radio and call for help, how to handle the basics of the boat (steering, throttle, navigation, etc), the location and usage of all safety equipment (PFD’s, fire extinguishers, first aid kit, survival gear), and how to operate the boat safely. Every boat needs a first mate, but every boater should know the basics of emergency protocol too.


There is an old adage about navigating the unpredictability of life that states ‘the only thing you can control is your preparation.’ This is true of all things, and it’s especially true for a boat captain. Having the proper safety equipment, in good order and in proper quantity, is a simple detail that’s easy to maintain. Educating your passengers (who will often be friends or family) about how to operate the boat without you can mean the difference between a good day on the water and a tragedy. You have control over your preparation and a good captain doesn’t cut corners. To learn more about how you can educate your crew Transport Canada provides a full list of resources including the required safety equipment checklist and a downloadable Safe Boating Guide.


3) Do Your Homework On Shore


Preparation begins onshore before departure, and while some of it will be a little dry, it can be the difference between a timely arrival and becoming hopelessly lost. Always plot your course at home before pulling into the marina. This means scanning maps, routes, anchorages, and re-supply opportunities along your chosen path. Even if you’re headed out for a couple hours you should have looked over a map of the area beforehand. This will give you a basic understanding of your area of travel and make aware any potential dangers (low water marks, narrow passages, locks, current directions, weather patterns, etc). Most provincial and federal laws require boaters to possess an accurate map of any area they’re travelling, so even if you drop your bass boat in a new honey hole for an afternoon of casting you need to have a map of the lake. Failing to prepare means preparing to fail, and it’ll be a long day if your bass boat gets stuck on a shoal you could have avoided by using a chart. If you’re a Canadian boater the federal government provides an online catalog of nautical charts and services, so if you’ve got your eye on new cruising grounds you can prepare yourself from the comfort of your living room.


4) Educate Don’t Overcompensate- Be A Good Teacher


Part of your role as a captain is to teach your passengers about the dangers they may encounter while on the water. This includes teaching safety procedures, emergency protocols, first aid, and rescue methods as standard practice. Beyond that, it’s important to give your passengers the opportunity to grow and learn if they show interest. Gauge each member’s interest in being involved in the boat’s activity. You may find some eager passenger(s) who want to participate in the adventure, and having extra hands on deck is never a bad thing. This may pay dividends in the future as your next first mate or co-captain can ease the demands on your shoulders. Some passengers will want to lie on the deck and catch a tan, and others may be distracted by their pursuit of a trophy fish to hang over their mantle, but the wheelhouse should always carry an open-door policy. Be careful, however, not to force education on anyone- there may be egos at stake and you don’t want to start a mutiny with a close family member who thinks they already know the ropes.


If you educate your passengers or crew about the boat and its procedures, you’ll find that your days on the water will become even more enjoyable. As the old saying goes, more hands make less work. If each crew knows their role, whether it be lifting fenders or tethering the dinghy, then that means less time spent giving orders and more time in harmony. This is where being a good captain isn’t necessarily a skillset, but a mindset. The skills needed to be successful include the ability to be a good teacher, and you can carry that mindset into the wheelhouse by giving others an opportunity to take the helm. The National Safe Boating Council offers the Pleasure Craft Operator licensing course, which is requirement for all powerboat users in Canada, but it’s also a great starting point if you’ve got a young protégé onboard who wants to wear the skipper’s hat.


5) Let It Go- Harmony Over Mutiny


If you’ve done a good job as captain your crew and passengers will have a clear idea of the responsibilities you’ve bestowed upon them. Nevertheless, there will always be squabbles. In a commercial setting there are specific regulations since it’s a workplace, and that means you’ll need to exercise your skills as a corporate leader to communicate and maintain unity. If you’re a recreational boater, things can get a little more challenging. Most boaters spend their time on-water with family and friends and that means balancing your responsibilities as a captain with the conditions of friendship. Learning when to interject as the captain and when to stay silent as a friend is an invaluable skill. Sometimes, you’ll have to learn to simply let it go. As long as respect is kept and safety is secured, there’s no need to risk a bad day on the water over something minor like who’s on anchor duty or what’s for lunch. Simply put; safety first, peace second. The objective is always to have fun and nothing can scuttle a good trip faster than interpersonal conflict. If you’ve followed guidelines 1-4 above, this should rarely, if ever, become an issue. But always remember; a good captain knows when to head to shore.


#tips #culture #training

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