Democracy ends at the Gangway

Democracy ends at the Gangway

I’ve heard George, my husband, use this phrase from time to time.

George joined the Royal Navy as a boy sailor at the tender age of 14. I always imagined this was a saying he had been taught then. Perhaps it had first been uttered by Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir Walter Raleigh, or some other famous captain, and then passed down to generations of British sea cadets?

‘Who invented the phrase ‘Democracy ends at the Gangway‘ ? “I asked him.

He thought for a moment and then replied “Hmm, probably me …”

So, although it didn’t come from a famous old seaman, it did come from an old seaman! George has over 50 years experience of being on board boats and ships of all sizes.

He firmly believes, as does any professional skipper I’ve spoken to, that the only successful way to run a yacht (or any other type of vessel) is by having a clear command structure. There should be one person with overall responsibility for making decisions regarding the safety of the boat and crew at any one point in time.

Another similar saying he uses is “You can’t skipper a yacht by committee”.

I’ve seen for myself several times that this is true. Especially in tricky situations, the worst thing that you can do is to have a lengthy discussion about what action to take.

Some years ago we were anchored in a bay in Alonnisos island in the Sporades. A yacht came in with a dinghy attached to the side of the yacht and prepared to anchor nearby. While they were looking for a suitable spot the yacht went astern and the dinghy floated forward under the bow (as they do when the boat goes backwards).

No-one on board spotted this. Consequently, when they lowered the anchor, it landed firmly in the dinghy, tipped over, and got hooked under the seat.

The sound of the anchor chain piling up alerted the person on the windlass who looked over and discovered what had happened. Due to the anchor being caught, they were unable to either lower it or to raise it again.

Pandemonian then appeared to break out with lots of waving of arms, gesticulating, and running up and down the boat to peer over the bows.

After watching this for several minutes, during which no action had been taken, George climbed into our own dinghy and went over to offer assistance.

When he was near enough to hail them he asked ‘Who is the Skipper?’

The four men on board all looked at each other uncertainly, then replied, almost in unison ‘I am’.

Not knowing which individual to direct his remarks to he had to speak to all of them, asking what he could do to help – at which point they all came up with alternative solutions!

The problem was eventually resolved. I don’t remember how but I do remember George muttering loudly when he returned “You see – you can’t skipper a yacht by committee!”

Democracy doesn’t work at sea. But that doesn’t mean that yacht captains should act like despots; they should be more like benign sovereigns.

A good skipper will always take into account the ability and wishes of his or her crew. They will keep the crew informed and quite possibly involve them in planning where to go and what to see.

But once on board, only one person can take ultimate responsibility for getting them there safely.

While on passage, a good skipper will take care to keep the crew well and happy. For some people that means allowing them to chill out and just read or sunbathe. Other people want to get involved with sailing the yacht. It’s important for the skipper not to hog the wheel – most crew love to help steer the yacht, so give everyone a turn.

If the sea is rough or you have inexperienced crew, it’s important for the skipper to keep a look out for the signs of sea-sickness. If someone becomes very quiet or pale, check if they are okay. If they start to feel unwell the best advice I can give you is to make sure they are warm, put them on the wheel … and feed them ginger biscuits,

The lack of democracy on board can cause problems for couples sailing together. Most modern relationships are based on equality and compromise and to be in a situation where one of you is definitely ‘boss’ can cause friction.

Men in particular need to be careful. Wives and girlfriends generally react very badly to being shouted at! Even being ordered around can feel uncomfortable to an independent female … and I speak from experience here 🙂

Just adding a ‘please’ or ‘thankyou’ and asking rather than commanding can make all the difference to harmony on board.

Although the skipper is in overall charge, it works well to delegate some aspects. When George and I cruise together, he is always the skipper but I am always the navigator. I pick our destination, plan the route, decide when we’ll start, plot our course etc. George will glance over the plan beforehand to check he is happy with it but he rarely changes anything. I decide where we’ll go and he is then responsible for getting us there – that works for us.

Use your crew wisely. If they can navigate, delegate some or all of the navigation. If they are stronger than you, delegate the tasks that need strength. If they steer better than you, put them on the wheel. If your crew feel useful and valued they will be happy under your command.

And remember that you’re only human. You will make mistakes like all of us. It’s good to have de-briefing sessions, even if they are just chatting informally over a drink at the end of the day. Encourage the crew to discuss anything that happened during the day. Be prepared to explain what you did and why … and, if things didn’t go quite right, be prepared also to admit that in retrospect you were wrong. You’ll learn from what happened, and your crew will respect you for admitting your error.

Knowing that you can have your say once you are ashore (back in democracy-land) may avoid the wish to mutiny!

Plato, the Greek philospher and mathematician, is credited with being the first to use the metaphor ‘the ship of state’. He likened governing a state to being in command of a ship and understood well that democracy was not the best way to run a vessel.

“Suppose the following to be the state of affairs on board a ship or ships. The captain is larger and stronger than any of the crew, but a bit deaf and shortsighted, and similarly limited in seamanship. The crew are all quarrelling with each other about how to navigate the ship, each thinking he ought to be at the helm; they have never learned the art of navigation and cannot say that anyone ever taught it them, or that they spent any time studying it; indeed they say it can’t be taught and are ready to murder anyone who says it can. They spend all their time milling round the captain and doing all they can to get him to give them the helm. If one faction is more successful than the another, their rivals may kill them and throw them overboard, lay out the honest captain with drugs or drink or in some other way, take control of the ship, help themselves to what’s on board,and turn the voyage into the sort of drunken pleasure-cruise you would expect. Finally, they reserve their admiration for the man who knows how to lend a hand in controlling the captain by force or fraud; they praise his seamanship and navigation and knowledge of the sea and condemn everyone else as useless. They have no idea that the true navigator must study the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds and all the other subjects appropriate to his profession if he is to be really fit to control a ship …” Plato, The Republic 488b-d

Over the years I’ve come across several wives who absolutely refuse to sail with their husbands because they get shouted at. It’s such a shame think this may be due to the husband feeling stressed by the responsibility. Training is often the best cure – the more competent you are, the more confident you feel, and the less stressed you become. The less stressed you are, the less likely you are to feel you have to raise your voice.

If your partner yells at you on board, why not both come on an RYA course or mile-builder to learn how to sail together more harmoniously?


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