What Makes a Competent Captain?

Last Wednesday, I posted about the first sail my wife Pam, our dog Honey, and I took in our new home on the water, the sailing vessel Meander.

Two days ago, we went out for our second time together. I may write up the details of that short daysail someday. But for now, the experience has led me for the moment simply to contemplate the notion of being a competent captain.


Not that kind of captain.

Competent Captains are Prepared People

A Career Guides page at the State of Virginia’s job opportunities website lists, in the unromantic, black-and-white, sans-serif visual style typical of state bureaucracies, the following Skills desired of candidates for Ship and Boat Captain positions in the Commonwealth.

  1. Controlling operations of equipment or systems.
  2. Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.
  3. Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.
  4. Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  5. Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  6. Using mathematics to solve problems.
  7. Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate in one.
  8. Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.

That list is less than one fifth of what the State of Virginia has to say about the position of Captain and the qualifications of people who would fill it.

But it is easy to see that the skills in it cover a lot of ground, and that those who have them could not have come by them overnight. . . and certainly not just by acquiring a sailboat. Rather, it takes education to become a competent captain, whether by formal study or by apprenticeship or by, as the musician answered the tourist who wanted to know how to get to Carnegie Hall, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Competent Captains are Practical People

First, a review of Items Nos. 1, 3, and 6 suggests that the page’s unromantic visual style is actually not a bad fit for the job of captain. Sure, the TV and film images we carry around in our heads are filled with swashbuckling glamor. But in truth, out on the water, there is an awful lot of gauge, dial and indicator watching to do.

At the bottom of the page, the Virginia career guide goes on to characterize the position of Captain as Realistic, Enterprising and Conventional. For Virginia’s purposes, this means that the job requires a basic grasp of external, practical realities as opposed to theoretical ideas and constructs, an ability to conceive of a project and see it through, and general conformance to a widely accepted set of tried-and-true procedures.

That general conformance to widely accepted procedure, incidentally, is one cornerstone of the cost-benefit analysis referenced in Item No. 7. Situational awareness is another. The United States Coast Guard defines situational awareness as the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. I define it as the ability to understand the implications of the train coming around that bend there for your car stalled here on the tracks.

So while captaining a ship may look and sound exciting to audiences, excitement is actually the last thing a captain wants. Excitement is coping with a fire in the engine room in the middle of storm-driven seas, or launching into your crew-overboard procedure after watching someone disappear over the lifelines.


Too much excitement.

Rather, a true captain wants the boredom of routine, the kind of routine that brings the satisfaction of a maneuver well executed, a landfall well made and a job well done.

The captain can then find plenty of excitement on shore, off the clock, on his or her own terms.

Competent Captains are People People

Competent captains may not need the people-handling skills of, say, our best (or worst) politicians. But even a captain who is sailing alone around the world will sometimes need to rely on others in order to reach that desired haven.

In fact, half the items in the skills list (Items Nos. 2, 4, 5 and 8) are about talking to, listening to, responding to, and working with people.

Most of these people will not even be on the boat. There will be the officials who just drop in to check that papers are in order. The local market stall people with whom to haggle for provisions. The parts vendors from whom to acquire a replacement for that bent rudder stock. The boatyard managers with whom to haggle for space and time to make rudder stock repairs. The technical departments of half a dozen multinational companies, located in half a dozen countries, who have the daunting job of helping you understand the intricacies of the new instrument package for which those companies’ sales departments are asking $6,000.

But the people upon whom you will rely every day at sea will be traveling right next to you. They are your crew, the ones Item No. 5 says you need to motivate, develop, and direct, the ones you need to sort out as you struggle to identify who is best for a particular job.


Pam should be so lucky.

More on that subject soon.

But I’ll tell you now: If our second sail was any indication, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Cereal box: cereal mutiny via photopin (license)
Mud-streaked ship: Queen of Sidney 3 via photopin (license)
Captain and crew: UFV_WINGS via photopin (license)

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