• Tanya Bartram

Sailing and business success is synonymous!

I say this not just because it is my passion but because there really are a number of parallels between running a successful business and sailing.

Below I have highlighted six key areas to consider. The most important point is to enjoy what you do and sometimes it helps to look at your work environment as you would your passion.


Strategy is developed through a process that starts with understanding what the long term outcome is that you wish to achieve. Sailing like in business requires a long term strategy/plan to help maximise the outcome. Sailing is often not just one race but a series of races within a regatta or a club championship. It may also be just one leg in a journey with a further destiny in mind. The focus is on consistent performance and the end goal rather than a single win. It's possible for the winner of a regatta to not have won a single race as the scores accumulate across all the races in the series. It is about positioning yourself for success in the future.

To create a successful strategy, you need to understand where you currently stand, what are your strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. An action plan is then developed to achieve the strategy. Based on this, goals and priorities are set, with established targets and performance measures in place.


A successful business requires preparation to deliver a successful service or product. You look at market conditions, demographics (winds and tides), you ensure you comply with regulations (courses and the race rules), you understand your competitors and look for your point of difference (advantage of sail wardrobe, yacht design, crew experience) and then you plan to position your service or product to succeed in this environment (race tactics).

You need to invest some time and energy in your systems, processes and equipment. The quality and condition of your yacht and gear matters. If your hull is not clean, it creates more drag in the water, slowing down your boat speed. If your sails are old, or not well maintained, you are unlikely to go as fast. Good equipment costs money. The wealthiest sailors have an undeniable advantage. Likewise, well-funded businesses have an advantage over those on a tight budget. However, you don't need the best of everything to win the race. You do need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Safety maintenance is a significant consideration in all conditions, but when it is windy you need strong solid equipment capable of handling the extra demands.

Leadership and Team work

Sailing and business, both require effective leadership and a cohesive working environment.

Each person has a particular job, with specific responsibilities. These roles are filled based on the specific skills of the task at hand and have an identifiable title that indicates to all their expertise.

The Skipper/ General Manager is responsible to deliver successful outcomes through the implementation of the set strategy and for the vessel and crew safety.

Each role should have a clear job description with clear expectations on performance. If everyone knows their job, then the boat sails fast and smoothly. If people are confused about what they're supposed to do, or when they're supposed to do it, sail changes happen at the wrong times, the boat loses its forward momentum, accidents happen and equipment is damaged.

The expertise of the crew and the systems and processes in place are extremely important to success. When your sails (and sales) are full, it doesn't matter as much how refined your systems are, as long as they can do the job, however when your market softens and sales are hard to come by, you need the leanest, most cost-effective, efficient business systems possible, or you may not survive. Successful sailors and successful businesses are set apart from the competition by how they handle the lulls, and how efficient their operations are.

Innovative problem solving

During a yacht race, you can't control which way the wind blows, which direction it will shift next, or what the underlying tide is doing. But you have to consider these factors—the sailors that best anticipate changing conditions are those that come out ahead.

In sailing, you often cannot sail in a straight line, you have to sail at an angle and tack back and forth. Businesses often have to change tack to get to their destinations—sometimes the shortest course is not a straight line. When you change tacks, you need to be smooth, decisive, and coordinated, or you lose forward momentum and give your competitors an advantage.

You need to be constantly aware of your environment and your competitors. You also need to be innovative in your approach to finding solutions so that you can react quickly.

If you haven't been analysing the conditions, you may not realise how much it varies over the course of minutes and hours. Sailors who know the local conditions may have yet another advantage, knowing when they reach a certain island that the tides create an advantage. When moving your business to a new market or location you need to do your research so that you know how to sail in the new conditions and remain competitive.

Those who are experienced in navigating in the business waters can intuitively sense when conditions are about to change, can anticipate changes and plan for them effectively. New business owners are still too busy handling the yacht to recognise these changes, and stay on the wrong tack when conditions have turned against them.

Effective communication

Communication is a key function in establishing an effective liaison with staff and stakeholders to ensure the maintenance of effective working relationships and also to impart/receive time critical information in an appropriate understandable format and manner.

It is important to learn your boats language and that the crew understands the meaning of specific terminology. Not understanding what to do when the Skipper instructs “ready about” could be the difference of a race win or taking a swim. Effective communication is vital, whether the task is raising or lowering a sail, departing a dock, or when tacking. The language should be very explicit, clear, and timely when giving instruction. Not doing so can slow progress and jeopardize crew and yacht safety.

You need to speak the same language as your market and external stakeholders, a competitor calls “starboard” or that he “needs water” you need to know how to react.

The transfer of information is also important so that the message does not get lost from the skipper to the bowman or from management to floor staff or shareholders. In business this can take the form concise reports with a clear message or on the yacht they might be hand signals or the delivery of a clear message from one crew member to another until it reaches the bowman.


Both yachts and businesses function in constantly changing environments. Those that succeed adopt a policy of continuous improvement of plan, implement, evaluate and review.

They are resilient and innovative to meet the needs of the changing environment, sometimes with limited resources. When there are issues at sea or in a downturn you have to make do with the resources at hand in order to persevere and stay in the race.

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