I stepped ashore in March to take break from Yacht Captaincy; to get to know my family again after two years of more time afloat than ashoreand, a home–time punctuated with boat business. Something I am sure is familiar to so many Captains. Seven-months later it is a different World than that last tender ride ashore in the Pacific.
With 2020 travel restrictions forcing a greater slowing down than planned, I sought to use this time as a period for growth, allowing me to work on aspects of my Captaincy where I felt I could improve. Listening was one.
I had been a Captain for so long that it had damaged my conversation. I was good at quickly absorbing information and finding solutions. This served me well in the fast flow of daily yacht operations but let me down on supporting others and working on solutions to longer term problems. I realised that within the gunwales, it felt easier for me to speak, and others to follow, rather than to take the time tolisten to what a crewmember was trying to say or contribute. Even though this limited the solutions available.
To address this, I searched for information on better listening. It is a topic fraught with poor information though within the coal heaps of the internet there were some diamonds. These are summarised in this OnlyCaptains knowledge piece.
“We assume a winning negotiation strategy is about talking, when in fact it is about listening.”
William Ury (founder Harvard Negotiation Project)
Having discovered William Ury’s TED talk it then led me to Sheila Heen. Heen is a senior lecturer on Law at theHarvard Law School and member of the Harvard Negotiation Project, she is renowned for her work on communications and negotiations. Specifically, difficult conversations. A topic that seemed to match about 80% of my Captaincy. I listened to her being interviewed before further researching her work. She is an engaging speaker and,whilst all her points were of interest, there were a couple of phrases that woke my attention:
“[We use] Listening as a strategy of last resort, we really just seek to give our opinion.”
“I will pretend I am listening whilst I am trying to figure out what I am going to say.”
Ouch! These seemed personal to me and, for the slightest moment, I thought Professor Heen was speaking directly to me. Her talk identified a couple of my known weaknesses and prompted me to dive deeper.
Following more dead ends I chanced upon Jenifer Garvey Berger who echoed Professor Heen’s words, but then defined and framed them further. Garvey Berger spoke of levels of listening that we all unknowingly move through. The first I recognised, the second I understood, and the third was new to me.
Without trying to duplicate the tone and eloquence of Heen or Garvey Berger, the levels in order of their prevalence were;listening to compete, listening to solve and listening to learn.
Listening to Compete / Win
An example of this can be found when captains and creware exchanging stories in a social situation; with each competingto beat the other with aneven more outlandish and unbelievabletale of life onboard. It’s one–up–man–shipand, mostly there is no harm in it, but there is little value either. Engage in this for the fun but be cautious of ever thinking this is a true or ‘self-defining’ conversation.
The darker side to listening to compete is moving the conversation to your preferred outcome, to win the conversation. Rank being the lever rather than the merits of your solution. Unlike the almost comical competition aspect, listening to Win is very negative when, “[you are] no longer talking with someone, you are talking at them”. I use this phrase as I was correctly accused of this by a former second officer (now excellent Captain). It sat me back with self-awareness and I sought to avoid this toxic conversational style.
Listening to Solve:
Using the blunt feedback and some maturity my ‘winning’ conversations reduced, but they seemed to be overtaken by me seeking to hear just enough to solve the speaker’s problem and move on. I like being recognised as a problem solver and would be in such a rush to provide the solution that I often missed thesignalsexpressedby the other party. With onlya superficial grasp of the situation I sought to act.A bit like walking into a garage where the attendant did not listen to what the problem was and replaced the wing mirror when it was the suspension that was broken.
Identifying and reducing Compete/Winapproach was not too hard.Avoiding the Solve approach was much harder, many times the crew member has come to the Captain seeking a fix and you feel it is your role to deliver this, and in simple cases this is often correct, but our haste to resolve sometimes we can make things worse.
When a conversation was more strategic and there was not a binary solution, I tried to see past the problem itself and, by actively listening, probe for the root cause of the situation. If I could unlock this, I was then able to help them find asolution themselves. What I learnt was that it was often not a lack of knowledge that prevented the crew memberfrom finding a solution themselves, but a lack of confidence in themselves or, more often, a lack of confidence that I would support their solution if it was not 100% aligned with my own.
Listening to Learn:
This conversation nirvana remains a work in progress for me. It is tiring and takes some re-wiring of learned and (mostly) successful behaviours. When a crew member seeks a conversation where there is no linear problemsolution path, is when Listening to Learn is so valuable.
As an antithesis to ‘Listening to Win’ where you gather information to be used to your benefit, ‘Listening to Learn’ is a deeper conversation where you must slow down and use the information to understand the other person’s perspective. This requires active listening, including taking cues from their tone of voice, eye contact, body language, etc.The hardest thing with this is to supress my own Win/Solve habit before they have chance to fully express themselves. In the times I have been able to listen more than talk, and draw more from the other person, I immediately see I have far more information and better appreciation of a situation. It was clear, that in certain situations, this shift in approachprovided much better outcomes.
Before the research gave a framework I had already implemented tools to help me. I knew I had a problem but did not know the structure for the solution, luckily the tools remain valid. They are simple and worth sharing:
In my notebook, which was always with me during conversations, I would write, ‘listen, reflect, repeat before response’ on the top left of the page – I wrote it a lot before I started to learn the behaviour and did not need to reinforce through writing.
The next was a series of questions that I still have on a page in front of my notebook that I can flip to without disruption to the conversation, they can be inserted to most topics and deliver great outcomes. These are a few examples; I am sure you can get the drift:
“what was that like?”
“how did that feel?”
“can you expand to help me understand a little better?”
“what other items are left to discuss?”
“what are the next steps?”
My last tool was taught to me by a talented Executive Assistant to a Yacht Owner. As we finished each conversation he would, by default, conclude with “is there any more I can do for you?” and “Are there any barriers left that I could help with?” It was so pronounced that I asked him about it. He said it was the way his former boss (a US member of Congress) finished every conversation. He found it so successful that he embraced it as well. I may not be quite so robotic with my own adoption, but I do think it is empowering.
So listening is a key component of better conversations and communication – knowing when to speak and, when and how to listen, is the challenge. I have found in my own journey that I as I strive to change, I am working against learned behaviours and regularly need to turn to my notes, references and mentors in order to improve. Maybe your conversational performance is way ahead of my own but, maybe there is room for little more improvement?
Being a yacht Captain is an amazing experience and a never-ending journey. OnlyCaptains seeks to join the Yacht Captain Community together to learn from collective experiences. Our articles are not meant to lecture or presume to have all the answers; their purpose is to help ignite debate, and to share knowledge, ideas and experience that others may find of value on their own journey through Captaincy.
It is often overlooked, but the most important relationship for a successful yachting experience is that between the Captain and the Yacht Owner, or Principal Charterer. Long past the heady days when deals are signed and photos are taken with designers, brokers and shipyard owners cutting ribbons, the Captain and the Crew are tasked with delivering on the promise.
I was recently asked a question during an interview, “As a Superyacht Captain, how do you manage the expectations of an Owner?”
On the face of it, a simple question but the answer is rather more complex. Let’s think of a sample 100 metre yacht; the cost may exceed €200M and the yacht owner has waited 5 years – 2 years of development with designers and brokers, and 3 years in construction. So when their dream is finally delivered and their anticipation is heightened, how does a Superyacht Captain manage their expectations?
There is no way to perfectly match the expectations an Owner has built up over the years as he waits patiently for delivery day. To take it further; how should the Captain deliver bad news to this Yacht Owner? News that may reflect that the yacht does not function in the manner presented during the design, sales, purchase cycle. Or on charter, the promotional photo that shows all watersports in use, seemingly on demand, is a guest expectation that cannot be delivered; with the Captain trying to respect the legal obligation for hours of work and rest.
The honeymoon is now over and there is a risk of a breakdown in the Owner / Captain relationship, there is nobody else in the room. The photo of the ribbon cutting may be sitting in a frame or the charter brochure open on the web browser, but the actors belong to a time long-forgotten, all shortcomings are directed to the Captain.
This is a scene in which I have had a walk on role many times; as have most Captains. Standing before an unhappy Yacht Owner for an operational shortcoming that was built into the yacht with no way to address, is a humbling experience. And, as awkward as an operational ‘moment of truth’ can be, it is preferable to the personal rebuke that can’t be blamed on a technical or manning deficiency.
The Owner / Captain relationship has a sense of intimacy. The Yacht Owner spends significant time on the yacht, and the Captain is brought into their World. Many new Captains are swept up in the intoxication of being within this inner sanctum, wiser Captains maintain some separation knowing that such personal intimacy is fragile and can easily fracture – often without warning.
I recall from my own career, a time when I would greet the Principal on every arrival and departure from the yacht. This was and remains an accepted practice; one learnt from observing my former Captains, and absorbed automatically into my own Captaincy. It was some years into my time with a Yacht Owner when, during a particularly challenging conversation, he said, “and why do you meet me every time I move? Can’t I have some privacy?” It seemed such a small point but, over time, it had catalysed into a real annoyance for this exceptional Yacht Owner.
It should not have escalated to this level, but a Yacht Owner is not normally driven to address the issues of their day to their staff unless it is of a serious nature. Too often, a Yacht Captain’s success is measured only by the departing comment of the yacht owner who says, “Thank you, we had a great time.” This may be authentic or, likely the yacht owner is not ready to invest the time to deconstruct the trip at that point. Not unlike the automatic response when the ever-friendly waiter asks, “did you enjoy your meal?” The question is more rhetorical than a real enquiry of the dining experience.
I was only awakened to this cold reality when an Owner’s Representative confronted me with a concern of the Yacht Owner. I held my position that the Yacht Owner expressed gratitude and pleasure with the last visit. The Representative quickly cut me down and made clear what is said onboard is very different to the detailed debrief he received in the office some days later. It was a growth and career inflection point for me; I would no longer take for granted any Owner’s praise or make assumptions based on yachting’s normal practices.
I did not enjoy being admonished by the Owner’s Representative, but he caught what could have been a fatal rupture in an otherwise successful relationship. From that time on, we worked together to ensure the good health of the Owner / Captain relationship. I would no longer take for granted the warm smile on departure and would readily seek the ‘truth’ from my colleague in the Family Office.
OnlyCaptains seeks to support Captains and Yacht Owners through their model of Search, Select, Place and Mentor. We have lived the Owner / Captain relationship and realise it is the cornerstone of a successful yacht experience. We are the knowing advisor; able to listen, reflect and interpret the concerns of a Yacht Owner and use this insight to help coach the Captain to their success.
Co-founder of OnlyCaptains Brendan O’Shannassy talks of his own experience of mentorship and how this experience awakened the need for this service in yachting.
In my early yachting career I often felt the ‘imposter’ as I stepped onto the bridge ready to manoeuvre. As my experience increased this feeling reduced but there was still something missing. There is a good chance that, like many of my peers, I may have even managed a career without knowing what the ‘secret sauce’ to achieving true technical competence in shiphandling was. This same observation could be extended to decision making, counselling and the many daily challenges of yacht command – I had the ticket, but did I have the knowledge?
I had received great support by yacht captains through my career but there had been no structured mentoring and learning plan in place. And, often it seemed, that the issue of a Master’s CoC was viewed as the end game, and not the beginning of the Captaincy journey.
Taking a break from yachting to train and work as a marine pilot, I entered a formal training / mentoring programme. New entry pilots are assigned a mentor, a more senior pilot that inducts, trains and supports them in their struggle to move from former captain and nervous shiphandler to competent pilot. A competent pilot who is expected to; step onboard any ship, at any hour, in any weather, take command and bring that ship safely to the port. Whilst my mentoring was focussed on ship handling, I found the learning extended far beyond the bridge; weaving the lessons into my wider Captaincy responsibilities also improved my performance, enjoyment and efficiency.
Returning to shiphandling, I finally understood the importance of defining and communicating the metrics of a manoeuvre. Everything fell into place. What speed? when and why? These need to be known at all times and this must be shared with all on the bridge. It is so important because at all times the entire bridge team must be able to assess every action of the manoeuvring Captain / Pilot against an earlier briefed and agreed plan. The Captain must then be able to communicate any deviation and why.
By communicating this it does not limit the Captain, it allows the Captain to vary the plan in response to the conditions and circumstances at the time. It also allows a challenge from other members of the bridge team if the deviation is not validated, – this is the philosophy of ‘challenge and response’ that is the bedrock of effective bridge teams.
During my first days of induction as a pilot I observed several senior pilots prior to being assigned my mentor. I was intrigued that the more experienced pilots exercised greater diligence with their pilotage briefings than those more junior. Their sketches of the ship’s planned manoeuvre into port were precise, their briefing books had photographs of landmarks relative to the pilotage and during execution they communicated to the entire bridge team what they were doing and why.
I had never seen this or, thought to do this myself, on yachts. Up to this point I would take control at some point on the approach and, whilst I would seek port information from the pilot, I really set my own approach speeds, headings and approach angles based on my best judgement at the time. Often I was monitoring my speed on the simple ‘ten-through-one’ method of checking speed reductions against the last ten cables. Although an effective approach, it is crude, not tailored to wind and tide, and a little too cautious with modern yachts. Through all the training and sea service to Yacht Captain, I had not learnt to communicate my intentions to the bridge team and I may as well have been there on my own – almost without saying, this extended to all leadership decisions.
After induction I was assigned a mentor pilot that was more than I could have hoped for. Ian had emigrated from the United Kingdom to Australia and with nineteen years as a Thames Pilot he had learnt from some of the best in the World and had experienced all the conditions that UK waters could offer – this made Ian a compelling mentor.
The North Queensland commercial port was a very different environment to my yachting experience. It had large tides, strong currents, steady wind and then strong gusts form the opposite direction. It was as unforgiving as I could imagine. The ships were also very different; replacing my delightfully over-powered and easy to manoeuvre yachts, were single screw bulk carriers that were also not as reliable as their Captains would have you believe.
All of this Ian took in his stride, in fact more than that, he actually expected everything to go wrong on every pilotage. He planned for it and whilst I would never be as bold as to call him out, I think he was at times disappointed when yet another of his ship moves went seamlessly. During one memorable departure of a fully loaded Cape Size (a Cape Size ship is 280 metres long, 52 metres wide and when loaded 18 metres deep) Ian turned to me and said, “see that?” I didn’t. My body language was enough to confirm this and asked I remind him after the departure.
Ian took the ship to the port limits safely, we both departed by helicopter and walking back from the helipad after the four-minute flight I asked him what I missed. He recalled that when he had asked the question, the bow of the ship was being pushed back by the water resistance as the ship ‘cut’ across the berth pocket.
This might need some explaining. The berth pocket was deeper than the departure channel and departing the berth needed the ship to move from 5.0m under keel clearance (UKC) to 0.9 metre (UKC). This required a wall of water 280m long and 18m high to be relocated through a very small gap – the water did not appreciate being forced through the gap and pushed against the ship.
In the departure we had shared, Ian had observed the ship being pushed back by this wall of water and the bow was moving 0.2 knots in the wrong direction, a speed almost imperceptible to the eye, however Ian was using both the pilot’s precise navigation unit and his highly-tuned sense from so many manoeuvres.
Ian increased the power on the ship astern to move the pivot point to his advantage and also the forward tug was increased to lifting off (pulling) at three quarter power to recover the bow. The entire event was observed, acted upon and rectified within two minutes. Ian’s point was, if it had not have been acted upon at that point it would have been very dangerous, and with a smirk he asked, “Do you know the fastest thing in the World?” I returned the smile and let the story play out…
“Brendan, the fastest thing in the World is a fully laden Cape Size bulk carrier moving half a knot in the wrong direction!”
It was a great lesson and, as the months progressed, and I moved from observer to the pilot executing the pilotage, the lessons still flowed. I never accepted anything Ian shared without chasing him with follow-up questions. He warmed to this and my shiphandling education accelerated at a rate where I began to surprise myself with my ability to anticipate and react to seemingly unlinked events. When I was a solo pilot and there was a complex move I would speak with Ian before boarding the ship to communicate my plan and build my confidence. My first call on completion would be to Ian to debrief; he was so good, he could picture the move from the call.
Ian had given me tools to use and these were centred around two aspects; the plan and the team available as a resource.
The planning began well before arriving to the ship. We would do the simple things of checking the radio battery was fully charged but, went further, and put a spare battery in our pockets ‘just in case’. The portable pilotage unit never failed, but nevertheless we turned it on and calibrated it ashore, every time. We would visit the control tower to look at their weather information; sure, we could look to reliable weather forecasting from our mobile phones but the control tower had real data from wind sensors on the docks and we could also look to an array of cameras that would also show detail as small as the wavelets on the water. The actual ship movement plan included; speed reference points, headings, abort points and of course final docking plan. This did not vary from the training I had received and, had perhaps previously belittled; it was just my mentor pilot had sewn it all together.
Ian had coached me to communicate each of these references in real time during the pilotage and the manoeuvring. If at 5 cables to the berth the plan was to be at 5 knots and the ship was at 6 knots, I would now say “the ship is above our agreed plan and I am comfortable with this but will reduce speed and report again as we pass 4 knots.” This narrative continued across all aspects of the plan and the ship’s Captain and Bridge team. Ian had trained me to make sure the dialogue was both ways, as the crew’s opinions were sought to the point of being demanded. It changed everything. I was no longer ‘alone’ on the bridge, everyone was working with me, as Ian commented:
“You have multiplied your safety by the number of people now engaged”.
Transferring this to yachts, it is possible to gain benefit from any crew member, even when numbers are thin. The discipline of verbalising ship movements to anyone creates confidence and accountability – If you can’t communicate what you are doing, are you really in charge?
I was appointed a great mentor with a structured training plan, but this might not always be the case. I knew that moving forward if there was no, assigned mentor, I would identify the person I wanted to learn from, approach them and let them know I wanted to learn, an important factor as the mentee’s desire and commitment to learn is as crucial as the mentor’s role in supporting their development.
I find many of these great ship handling lessons can also be applied to life; Ian, taught me to:-
test and verify equipment (or ideas),
develop a plan,
communicate the plan,
amend the plan in sympathy to the changing conditions, and
engage others to support and challenge the plan.
The same sense of ‘going it alone’ that I felt on the bridge before Ian’s tutelage may well have spoken to my previous leadership endeavours as a Yacht Captain. My ability to communicate and embrace the support of a team to safely bring a large ship into port gave me a new framework with which to lead a team on returning to Europe where a new Yacht Command beckoned. I would not say it was a silver bullet to success, but it certainly helped – and I still have not stopped learning.
Back on the yacht I missed my mentor and sought to replace this support and extend it to all aspects of my command. Unfortunately, there was no knowledgeable Captain to air my professional challenges in confidence and, although I worked well with management, none had held seagoing command, so they could not provide effective counsel.
Often, Captains, are just expected to ‘get on and do the job’ we have the ‘ticket’ after all, shouldn’t that be enough? However, the reality is that whatever the perceived experience level, we cannot know everything and, it is a dangerous Captain who thinks he does. We are learning all the time and regularly encounter situations never faced before, where the decision making could benefit from confidential counsel with someone who has ‘lived’ experience and can add value to the decision making process and personal development.
OnlyCaptains commitment to our mentoring role was created in response to my experience and that of my fellow Captains who, when I spoke of my journey, asked ‘”how do we access a mentor?” We provide an answer by making sure command is not a solo affair by providing our Captains with support and mentoring that can help them grow and develop their skills as Captains and leaders.