Are you a Shouty Skipper?

So I was at a bar the other day chatting away to a couple of people I’d just met, and as is often the case in all conversations with yachties speaking to well – anyone really, we got on to the subject of sailing.

“Ah sailing..” my companion said with a whimsical look in her eye. “I used to love sailing, but whenever I went out I just got yelled at by the skipper so much I just couldn’t bear it any longer, so I gave up.”

“Yeah me too” someone else remarked. “On the boat I sailed on, the skipper used to tear strips off me all through the race, and then wonder why I didn’t want to stay for a social drink with him after he’d been so mean to me!”

Their words resonated with me as I drove home. I wondered how many people have been put off our sport because of sailing with someone who shouted at them all day? Reflecting back on the occasional times in the past that I’d been yelled at in front of friends, family, colleagues, strangers in a variety of different settings. Being shouted at in front of people you know by people you are supposed to respect is at the very least embarrassing at the times when you actually deserve a telling off, but its just down right demeaning when you’re supposed to be out on the water having fun.

I couldn’t put it out of my mind. How terrible for those people! How many potential sailors have we lost due to this? And – heaven forbid – was I a shouty skipper?

I reflected back to a time when we were inches away from hitting a large solid channel marker that we used as a race mark, I am pretty sure the tone and volume at which I cried “EASE!!!” could have been mistaken for shouting. (For non-sailors, this means let/ease the line that you are holding out – tone and volume indicating the speed and amount of the aforementioned ‘ease’ is required) In this instance the person controlling the said line was not a sailor and had no idea what I was talking about. (Disaster was narrowly averted when I threw in a quick tack instead of my intended downwind track.) But it made me realise that no amount of shouting was going to help in that situation. It was my fault. I hadn’t given clear enough instructions to a new sailor on my boat.

I thought about my sailing mentors. Malcolm Pearson who must be the most patient kind man I have ever met, who seemed so calm and relaxed as he instructed a classroom-full of 8-10 year olds tearing around in Optimist’s in Sandy Bay, Lyttelton Harbour, and to my dear friend Ivan Atkinson, whom I’ve never heard a stern loud word ever pass his lips. These amazing life long sailors have encouraged and empowered literally hundreds of sailors without ever raising their voice. I thought back to when I was learning to sail where one kid, who was an amazing sailor had a father who used to yell and scream at him throughout the entire race from the jetty or coach boat. As far as I am aware he isn’t sailing any more, where as many of the other kids I learned with back then still are. Would I still love sailing now if my first taste of the sport involved being shouted at?

I wondered if perhaps shouty skippers don’t actually realise they are doing it, and I hoped that I expressed the same cool calm demeanour that my sailing mentors always seemed to display. But I decided to ask my crew just to confirm. “Am I a shouty skipper?” I queried?

“I’ve never seen you shout at the crew”, reported Kyra. “Thats why we love sailing with you so much.”

“You are a fantastic skipper, teacher and coach. And definitely not a of the ‘shouting variety’. Viki we love sailing and learning from you!” commented Naomi.

‘Phew!’ I thought. After all, it isn’t very “Yachtmaster” to go around shouting at people is it… 😉 I went to bed and slept with a clear conscience but awoke the following morning with the topic still on my mind. I decided to ask the opinion of the Oracle, the fountain of all knowledge on all things – Facebook…

“Have you ever sailed with a shouty skipper? Why do you think they do it and how do you handle it?” I asked.

I was overwhelmed with responses:

“In my experience yelling is always a sign of lack of confidence and skill. And some people just genuinely have horrible personalities.”

“It’s the Jekyll and Hyde guys that annoy me the most. Nicest folks you want to meet in the club, buying drinks, laughing. Then you’re on the water and they turn into monsters. No thanks!”

“I think skippers who shout are usually scared or incompetent”

“Skippers that yell are a pain in the arse and usually the yelling is to cover their own insecurities and their own mistakes.”

“Yelling is simply not taking responsibility for your own incompetence It is why many people love solo sports.”

“It’s those who know the least that yell the most.”

“Yelling is not fast.”

“If the Skipper isn’t the emotional and technical rock of the vessel, then that vessel doesn’t have a skipper. I would not sail on such a vessel again until major changes were made – my boss who pays me money doesn’t even raise his voice to me or anyone, some jackass who may or may not be providing the beer that day certainly doesn’t get to.”

“A good skipper and crew combo does not require any foul language and only respectful instruction.”

“I got yelled at if I was taking too long (literally was yelled at for losing seconds), especially in really heavy/dangerous weather. It was an incredibly toxic atmosphere.”

“It’s about tone… If it’s the wrong tone, or if the skipper is just wrong, ill yell back at them.”

“I find when people yell it just makes others do things wrong faster…”

“They suffer from an intense level of insecurity and not being “good enough”. Their ego takes over and they commence hollering and howling. The only thing missing is furiously pounding their chest. I feel sorry for them. But not sorry enough to ever race with them again.”

“Some people do it because they are d**ks some because they get stressed out and overexcited. Avoid the former I guess. I tend not to raise my voice during a race no matter how stressed things are and I always say please and thank you.”

“A raised voice for an emergency situation of imminent danger is appropriate or occasionally during a ‘exciting‘ moment during a race with a familiar crew. Other than that – no place. A shouting skipper says more about the skipper & their lack of competence.”

“I have been on shouty boats and it’s not fun and no need. Talking through tactics and manouvers beforehand and positions helps and it gives team a chance to ask questions. Part of learning to be a good skipper is to keep calm and concentrate on sailing the boat and crew safety. I don’t mean to sound judgy though if you shout…I just know from joining a crew early in my sailing days how shit i felt after a race.”

“A lot of the shouty moments I’ve experienced were actually the skipper’s fault in the first place for not clearly first communicating what they were trying to achieve, not training their crew properly, not having easily understood hand signals, not being prepared beforehand, not having an understood back up plan, or simple things like not getting the boat close enough to the mooring buoy and trying to blame the crew for their own mistakes.”

“Skippers who yell will struggle to find & retain crew.”

“Skippers also yell because they never took the time to train their crew. You can’t expect your crew to nail a kite set if they don’t practice other than he race.”

“I was yelled at for a season by a frightened woman skipper who I would never sail with again, and who put me off racing pretty much for ever”

“I’ve been out rum racing with shouty skippers, who’ll yell at crew because they think it will make them move faster. Minor errors can evoke yelling, and if the skipper themselves makes a mistake then some will take it out on everyone else. I think it’s part mistaken motivation, part poor anger management, part ‘shouldn’t agree to take out beginners if they aren’t prepared for them to make mistakes’. It didn’t put me off sailing, but I did decide pretty fast that I prefer cruising!”

“Ive left crews with shouty. skippers after only 2 or three races. Im a foredeck. Not necessary, gives everyone the shits. Cant deal with their own mistakes so it has to be other people at fault.”

“As crew, I sailed with some men who were absolutely fantastic, and some who were just assholes. I never sailed again with an asshole.”

“Yelling just illustrates the skipper lack of skill and preparation. If you are yelling at mistakes real or perceived, you are blaming.”

“I’ve noticed that boats with the most yelling tend to finish deep in the fleet. We tend to ignore them as they are not competitive. Not sure there is any reason to stay on one unless you can’t get another ride.”

“Part of the appeal of doing foredeck is that it’s farther away from the yelling.”

“Our sport needs to bring new people in. Skippers need to recognize that newer people need coaching to help them grow. In the amateur/ volunteer level of crewing a skipper with teaching skills will win out.”

Some comments were from women sailing with men or their partners:

“I got shouted at and blamed when the skipper (my husband) would put us in difficult and unsafe situations. He would then get anxious and angry when he struggled to get us out of it. Then he’d have a tantrum and display offensive behaviour. Such a dick! I left him.”

“In my experience, the shouters are usually men who don’t really know what they are doing.”

“I had a shouty skipper (ex husband) and found that it was his own lack of ability and wanting to appear like he was in control”

“I found some guys would shout at me more mainly cos they were annoyed that I (a female) was a better sailor and it was their ego getting in the way.”

Sometimes shouting is important and necessary:

“Making yourself heard over the wind is important. Not everyone is good at it.”

“We’ve got a rule…yelling only occurs if the boat or our bodies or lives are at stake. If someone needs to yell because of that it’s over when the situation has ended and no one gets offended.”

“In some close call situations you might really need to raise your voice, but those happen rarely. If you find that your skipper constantly has close call situations, that’s also a sign that they can’t read the course, weather etc.”

“There’s a difference between raising a voice slightly in urgency and yelling”

“As a skipper myself sometimes I do use a loud voice when necessary to get heard or convey a degree of urgency perhaps but never to tell someone they screwed up. That’s always on me.”

“There is a big big difference between raising your voice to be heard (and a little bit of panic), to shouting at someone (or everyone) and berating them for what happened.”

Some people thought that a bit of shouting at the crew is ok:

“I don’t care about yelling, we just make sure that the skipper never manages to get his hands on a winch handle!!”

“Is it really the skippers or are the mates just over sensitive?”

“I honestly think at times that “yelling” idea is subjective. One person’s raised voice is another person’s yelling.”

“I think it’s hilarious but it gets annoying. Unless it gets personal I’m good with it. It is just a sense of urgency that exists in racing.”

“I always tell people interested that if you can’t handle some occasional yelling then sailboat racing is probably not for you.”

“As crew in that situation I had an interesting reaction. I came onto a fairly competitive boat looking to learn more, and was surprised by the yelling. At first it started to put me off, but when the skipper congratulated me one day after a race I started using that to push me harder.”

“Guess I’m used to it having grown up sailing with a lot of guys and racing most of the time. As long as it’s not the whole time you’re sailing then it seems to alright. I think theres some people that yell cos people arent going fast enough, some yell cos the sh#@ hits the fan or due to excitment and then there are others that can achieve the same by speaking loud and clear so people can hear instructions. I’ve learnt to take it with a grain of salt and have had my own moments of raised voice due to excitment, feeling like I wasnt heard or cos things have gone pear shaped. At the end of the day we all say great job team and good sailing. Bit of friendly banter. Overall everyone has a good time and gets the job done. It can feel stressful at times but we all have a good time and our boats normally pretty competitive. I can understand it’s a bit intimidating if you’re starting out so just hunt around and find a crew you gel with and have fun sailing.”

“I learned over the years that there is no such thing as “getting yelled at too much”!!! What all sailors need to understand is that the foredeck is constantly performing an OHS service. By getting yelled at, we are releasing pressure from the back of the boat, otherwise those maniacs with the tiller in hand are likely to go “postal” and ram someone!!! (And yes it was always my fault, even if I didn’t think so at the time!!)”

“All this only works if you don’t fuck up, in which case you deserve a good thrashing…”

“I have no issue with being yelled at during a race. (After a race is different.) Everyone is in the heat of the moment and need to raise their voice to hear each other. I completely understand that and don’t take offense.”

“I’m usually at the mast or bow. Zero concern about yelling it’s just how communication needs to happen under pressure at times I tell the skipper yell at me all you like when the heat is on nothing you say will offend me and it’s always a case of what’s said on the boat stays on the boatI don’t see why people get offended it’s not personal when your out there providing that’s where the yelling stays.”

“Obviously if a skipper is being outright disrespectful that is a different thing, but the best skippers I’ve sailed with yelled. Sailboat races get intense, and yelling is part of the game.”

Some people have worked out strategies to deal with the potential stressful situations:

Rule #1 Give all the directions for a maneuver before *anyone* leaves the cockpit. Rule #2 face the person you’re addressing and use their name. Rule #3: if they don’t hear you, stay calm and see rule #2. If chaos ensues, remember rule #1 next time.

“The best one I remember is when 1/2 the crew is in the water, hanging on to life lines after a particularly bad broach, and the skipper calmly tells us that this approach is not working too well. Shall we get back on board, and try again? Never screamed…. He was the best.”

“All that’s required is planning and patience. If your crew can’t get “ready to tack” in a timeframe that works for you, it’s your timeframe that’s wrong, add some buffer.”

“Calm skipper, calm crew.”

“You need to remind the skipper that not all of you have the same expierience or knowledge of their boat or the maneuvers he/she wants perfected. Ask for time to practise, put it back on the skipper.”

“You have to understand the difference in yelling to and yelling at someone.”

“I dislike yelling of any kind. On my boat – I like to preempt any need for it by communicating costing in advance, making sure everyone knows their jobs and responsibilities. The only time I feel it’s necessary to raise voices is when wind or sails get so loud it’s necessary to be heard. I wont sail on any boat where critical yelling is the m.o. I’ve also found the most critical yellers are the least experienced.”

“We just get on with it and ignore the owners enclosure”

“We have tried to develop strategies to avoid yelling, like repeating back instructions to confirm we’ve heard. We aren’t perfect, but things rarely get heated!”

“When we first started sailing as a family we were given some excellent advise – always anchor before 4pm if you want to be amused by some of the latecomers and their chaotic communication methods. He said, if you anchor any later you risk becoming the entertainment.”

“Some of them are frustrated with their own existence so they have to blame on someone and the easiest one are the bowman (we can stand almost everything 😉 )”

“It’s far more pleasant to just fix a problem than have shouting across the boat. Everyone is learning, it’s much more productive to have a debrief with the whole crew and get different inputs.”

“To me the quieter the boat the better, that’s when I know that everyone is concentrating on their “role”. This does take quite a lot of practice as a team though.”

“Proper communication is the most important element in this sport.”

“We had a little trick. When the shit hit the fan and yelling began we all stopped and looked back at skipper! When they stopped yelling we started solving the mess!!! Only had to do it once! Very occasionally for a slow learner twice.”

“I stop what I’m doing, step back and ask them to show me how to do it correctly. Usually shuts them up!” 

“The best plan to mitigate the yelling is to get the Skipper to understand and actually learn and do every position on the boat. I have sailed competitively with some of the best Yellers. The ones that don’t yell and have won World Championships have done the bow with great success or have failed miserably, and thereby understand the importance of good preemptive communication and no yelling!”

“I’ve never had a skipper yell at me, other than raising their voice because of the wind, but never never never berating anyone. There’s no place for that in racing. We do a post-race debrief where everyone owns their mistakes and successes and learnings.”

And I even had comments from reformed shouty skippers:

“I was once a yeller. I failed to realise that everyone is different and has different levels of experience and EVERY ONE makes mistakes its what defines us as humans. The moment I realised that these people sailing for me are doing there best and that they are having a real go was the moment I shut up and instead of yelling obscenities I started congratulating them on doing a good job in a difficult situation watch how quick people get better at sailing when you support and be understand them. I will never yell at crew again!”

“I skippered my own race boat for 5 years, and when the shit hit the fan, yelling rarely solved the problem-it usually made it worse by panicking everyone else. If I DID yell, when things quieted down and we had time, we’d debrief and make it a learning experience for everyone.”

“Many skippers yell out of frustration for not knowing what to do, or things not being done right/fast enough. I used to yell until my crew said “stop it or we’re leaving”. After that it was please & thank you. Much more civilized and we’re still winning races.”

“I used to be a yeller. It was awful and nobody wanted to sail with me. Now I shout. It can still be jarring for newer sailors, but I always explained it this way before we go out: “when I’m shouting it’s because I’m concerned something dangerous is about to happen and I’m concerned that the sails or the wind is preventing my instructions from being heard. I am NOT mad at you.” I also always give them an explanation and praise afterwards to reinforce this perception that it’s not anger.”

“I thought I knew everything about my first race boat, if things broke it wasn’t from wear and tear, it was because of stupid mistakes caused by the foredeck, I could see the mistakes from the back. Idiot. It cost me money to fix his stupid mistake, I yelled and yelled and I paid and paid. Then I took ownership of those mistakes. Any smart skipper knows that practise make perfect. I started focusing on common mistakes and maneuvers. I soon realized that what I know having 10 years on the foredeck and took for granted other 6 month foredeck people knew already. Evidently they didn’t know. Whoops, my fault, not theirs.”

I thought back to watching the Americas Cup boats flying at 50kts around the racecourse. The TV footage had the audio from the boat. I don’t think I heard any raised voices in what must have been some pretty stressful situations on those boats. These sailors constantly obey the Number 1 rule of sailing: “LOOK GOOD” and let’s face it, it is hard to look good when you’re yelling and screaming at everyone.

Sailing isn’t the only sport to suffer from shouters putting people off. I think every kid’s sports team has at least one parent guilty of yelling at the kids, coach or referee from the sideline of the rugby, hockey, netball or football pitch.

Which one are you?

So, crunch time: What kind of skipper, (or sailor, tactician, parent, coach or crew member) are you? Do you shout? Do you feel your shouting is justified? Are you ok with being shouted at?

If you are a shouter, why do you think you do it?

Can the crew not hear you unless you raise your voice? Or does your tone sound like you are angry & blaming?

Are your crew actually useless? Or have you not trained them properly?

Is your crew too slow? Or have you not given them enough time to get ready for the manoeuvre?

Is the crew being too soft? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?

Are other yachts always in your way? Or do you not know the racing rules or COLREGS?

Do you feel out of control? Or have you not got the boat rigged for the weather conditions?

Is there a really dangerous situation? Or are you getting a bit too excited?

Are you scared? Should you really be in charge of the boat?

Do you think the crew enjoy or deserve being shouted at? Or do you think maybe you’re being a bit of a dick?

Do you struggle to get or keep crew or wonder why your husband/wife/family/partner don’t enjoy coming out sailing with you? Or do think they just don’t enjoy being ordered around by you all day?

Perhaps it is time to do some reflecting on your communication style. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and remember that while you might not think you are shouting, they might be hearing something completely different.

After all, as the skipper, you’re legally responsible for the safety of the vessel and all the crew on board. Do you really feel like you’ve got control of the boat, that the boat is fully prepared for the race/voyage you are undertaking, that you’ve trained your crew the things they need to know, given them enough time to do their job, and that you’ve got the skills, knowledge and expertise to be in charge?

Perhaps if we all make an effort to do a little bit more to make sure the crew is having a good time, giving new people a bit more training, then maybe we will encourage more people to stay in sailing and enjoy the sport.

Interested in your comments! Please feel free to let me know what your opinion is below:


6 thoughts on “Are you a Shouty Skipper?

  1. Yes! Unfortunately, this does happen. In a marina where we used to keep our boat, a brand new sailboat docked a couple of slips away. It was probably a boat show special impulse buy. The family sailed together at first but the Captain Bligh personality slowly wore on them. Each time they docked the husband would yell at the wife and kids. One tied up, they would leave the boat and let him cool off. Not much fun for them. Over time, they just stopped coming. The husband tried getting a few friends to sail with him. They only made that mistake once. Within a year, the boat was put up for sale.

    Also, I think it is important for people on the boat to understand the difference between yelling and talking loudly. If the wind is up, it is often necessary to “talk loudly” to the crew. I make sure they understand I am not yelling at them, just yelling to them. My wife and I use headsets. This is so much better than talking loudly over the wind.

    sv Cream Puff

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Training training training, for both skippers and crew. One of the themes coming through for angry/aggressive skippers is lack of confidence. How to get confidence? sail more and train more, when training it is OK to make mistakes. Then learn from these mistakes. Also the boat is probably a lot tougher that they think, learning what the boat can take and how it will react on the water with the wind in the sails, experiment! Gain confidence! Then stop shouting.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. A great article. For me it is simple. There is angry shouting usually caused by fear, and there is your voice to be heard and no anger. (The ’caused by fear’ is very well covered in the feedback in your article).

    I agree with Mark’s comment – it’s about training and being confident.

    If we (husband and me) are in a tricky situation on board and there is fear, and a raised voice, we get that, it’s okay. Always addressed in the debrief and remembering we are both just human! (We are a great team!) 🙂

    Angry shouting could create a panic in a crew member, to stop the shouting, stop the anger – they may rush and create a different problem to tackle – hurt themselves – damage the boat = not good on any level.

    Liked by 1 person

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