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Communicating with Captains

Ian Bone

This article isn't about a watch-keeping function or whether there is a risk of a collision.

It's about how you communicate as captain, and the techniques and communications skills you use, all of which reveals much about your leadership style.

Your crew will assess your leadership capability primarily on how you communicate with them and how they feel about this communication interaction.

“Of course I’m a good communicator”, says the captain. “I know what all of my crew want and know about the issues on-board”.

Stewardess says, “He just does not listen to seems like he is looking right through me or that he has something more urgent to deal with”.

“I never know if I’m getting my point across?”, says the engineer “ I’m not sure that he understands what I am saying?”

“What do you mean that we spoke about this before?” says the captain.....

“I must have had other important things on my plate”.

Clearly these examples and many more like them are typical of the types of interactions that are experienced from time to time onboard.

One of the biggest complaints from staff/crew/followers in any business or organisation is that of poor communication. How often have we heard the phrase “he/she/they did not listen to what I was saying” or “I might well have been talking to a wall/rock/stone” or other memorable lines. These words and phrases go to the heart of communication problems between leaders and followers.

One of the primary differences in the views expressed by captains and by crew in the survey undertaken by The Triton earlier in the year was that of views about communication between captains and crew. The survey findings revealed that crew were critical of the communication interactions with captains. Crew rated communication as one of the key features determining a yacht captain's leadership competency and felt that poor communication skills were a key indicator of poor leadership.

Poor communication has not only resulted in the breakdown in relationships in organisations, but has played a major part in causing tragic accidents and calamities experienced across all the ages. Investigations into the causes of accidents continually demonstrate a correlation between poor or unclear communication and the occurrence of catastrophes.

It would seem that communication is a human attribute that can always be improved and an activity that has to be continually assessed for clarity and understanding. One can never assume to be a communications expert.

ian bone articleIt is not my intention to discuss the theory of communications or what strategies need to be implemented to invoke clear communication. These topics are covered in any good book concerning communication. My intention is to discuss communication in the context of leadership and particularly how communication is impacted by attention and focus in a yachting setting.

Being a capable communicator is clearly a fundamental attribute of a good leader and a platform for well developed social skills. Communication activity in all its manifestations being verbal, written and non-verbal expressive actions are all highly desirable attributes for any leader.

In previous articles I have written about leadership capacity being inextricably tied to a fundamental self awareness and understanding of ones own traits, techniques, strengths and weaknesses. Communication attributes fit squarely into this mix, in that a good leader has a clear understanding of his/her communication style, strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, a good leader will have analyzed his/her capacities and will generally favour one preferred communication technique over others.

Furthermore a good communicator, through a clear understanding of his/her own attributes will be able to manage their emotions and possess a calmness and patience required in many circumstances. It's about having a self control and being in a state of neutrality.

It is quite clear that good communication skills differentiate between great and mediocre leaders. Good communicators can adopt a patient, calm and controlled disposition. They have the skill to put aside all competing interests for their attention and can engage fully with the group or person they are communicating with.

Goleman in his article “The Focused Leader” refers to focusing on others as being one of three key attributes of an effective leader.

Clearly focusing on others requires good communications skills and developing these skills should be a primary strategy for an aspiring leader. The progressive leader will recognise his/her communications shortcomings (and seek advice in determining these attributes from a leadership/communications specialist) to develop a strategy to improve areas of communications weaknesses.

The attribute of being a good listener is a fundament part of being a good communicator and a good leader. Listening skills are often overlooked as being important and are often assumed to be highly developed. However these assumptions are far from correct and a good leader must practice listening skills and be seen to be continually practicing good listening skills as well.

The outcome of good communications is the sharing of understanding, knowledge and ideas between individuals and or groups of people. Assuming that communication has occurred is the is biggest threat to the communications process and it is incumbent on all parties, to continually affirm their understanding of the matters being communicated. Affirmation of the understanding is manifested by asking questions, being receptive to responses, seeking feedback, probing for further explanations and not interrupting.

By undertaking these actions, the leader can be reassured that communication has occurred.

In this world of never ending clamouring for attention, yacht captains must continually assess their engagement practices, their own personal communication strengths and weaknesses and be proactive in developing and fine-tuning their communication techniques.

As with many other management positions, the yacht captain has pressures and demands on his/her time from all quarters. The skill in managing those demands is underpinned by exemplary communication skills and having a firm understanding of his/her communication strengths and weaknesses. Prioritizing work programs, organizing activities and programs, delegating tasks and responsibilities and receiving reports and updates all rely on strong and clear communication processes and techniques.

Clear communications are the “glue” which holds the series of interactions and relationships together on-board and without this bond, breakdown in understanding, misinterpretation and lack of clarity soon occurs, ultimately weakening the captain’s leadership capacity and resulting in disrespect, disharmony and destabilization.

Yacht captains have the challenge before them to continually assess and develop their communication skills and thus become better leaders.


Formed by and exclusively for professional yacht captains, the Yacht Captains Association, Inc. (YCA) is a non-profit association dedicated to providing a wide range of services to a global membership, including: advocacy, regulatory monitoring, career development and educational training, and peer-to-peer networking opportunities. For more information, visit:

Formed by and exclusively for professional yacht captains, the Yacht Captains Association, Inc. (YCA) is a non-profit association dedicated to providing a wide range of services to a global membership, including: advocacy, regulatory monitoring, career development and educational training, and peer-to-peer networking opportunities. For more information, visit:

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