I once sailed with a young woman named Stephanie on the brigantine CORWITH CRAMER. We sailed from Key West on a two-month voyage to the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands and back to Key West, taking a somewhat circuitous route to collect scientific marine samples.
The CRAMER is a modern steel sailing research vessel that takes students to sea for semesters of oceanographic science and seamanship training. We were looking for the extent and condition of Sargasso seaweed (the Sargasso Sea is vanishing), the distribution of plastic debris and so on. We anchored on Silver Bank, seventy miles off the north coast of the Dominican Republic but only sixty feet deep. It’s where the humpback whales come to breed. We lowered a hydrophone over the side with a speaker on deck and listened to the songs of the whales all night. In the morning one of the whales followed close behind the ship for several miles as we sailed away.
There were about 18 student crew on the ship, divided into 3 watches. At sea the watches rotated being on duty for four hours at a time, around the clock. Half of each watch was on duty in the lab with one of the scientists, the other half, 3 students, was on duty on deck, sailing and navigating the ship with the officer of the watch. If we needed more hands to change sails, tack the ship or for some other manoeuver we could call out the crew in the lab for a little while, but this 134’, 280-ton ship was operated most of the time by one professional and three students. People had to be pretty engaged.
As the weeks progressed the student crew became more and more proficient as sailors, and in the last weeks they started taking turns being officer-of-the-watch-in-training themselves.
Late in the voyage we were off Miami before heading south to Key West. Near a city as big as Miami we expected to find increased concentrations of discarded plastic in the water column so we were taking some time to collect samples. Stephanie was the student officer of the watch, under my supervision. It was night and Captain Deborah Hayes had drawn a square on the chart, told Stephanie to keep the ship within that square, and gone to bed. To stay within the square, we had to do a good deal of manoeuvring, handling the huge sails with just the right timing.
One might have expected Stephanie, relishing her new competence and trying hard to fill the role of ship’s officer, to have been keeping close track and control over every action of her small crew, carefully directing us to be sure everything went perfectly. This was after all a test of her “leadership.” But when it came time to tack the ship, she called the other crew out of the lab, gathered us all together and said simply, with an excited smile, “Places, everyone.”
The delight of the other student crew was palpable. Everyone suddenly realized that they, a handful of university science students, knew exactly what to do to manoeuvre this massive ship and could be trusted completely to do it. Everyone headed off to the sails with Stephanie’s excited smile shinning on their faces too.
Stephanie didn’t make the tack about her. She made it about the crew. She was obviously excited about being able to trust them, which of course made them want to be trustworthy. We manoeuvered beautifully and tirelessly inside our box through the night.
As Lao Tzu said over 2,000 years ago:
The bad leader is hated and feared,
The good leader is loved and praised,
The great leader, when their work is done,
The people say, “We did this ourselves.”