Lessons In Teamwork From The Treacherous Sydney To Hobart Ocean Race

The crew of the AFR Midnight Rambler reflects on teamwork, and a captain's leadership, during Australia's most treacherous--and prestigious--sailing race.

Hurricane-force winds howled, reaching speeds over 100 miles an hour. Waves as tall as eight-story buildings dwarfed the 35-foot sailboat, AFR Midnight Rambler. Rain and spray pelted the sailors' faces like gravel, and the screaming of the wind made communication nearly impossible.

The boat would fly off the back of an enormous wave, and the Rambler would be suspended in midair--then drop thirty feet or more. The impact, when it came, was like crashing into cement. Then the boat would be knocked down the face of a mountainous wave, and the crew would struggle to stay alive and avoid a fatal capsize.

No one said it aloud, but they all knew that they could die in the storm. Yet in spite of their paralyzing fear, the crew supported each other with remarkable teamwork. Competing in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race, skipper Ed Psaltis and his amateur crew did more than survive the deadly storm. The AFR Midnight Rambler went on to become the Overall Winner of the race--the smallest boat in ten years to win the prestigious Tattersall's Cup.

AFR Midnight Rambler

The Sydney to Hobart Race is unknown to many Americans, but it is an iconic event for Australians. Held every year on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, this 628 nautical mile challenge is often called the "Everest" of offshore ocean racing. With unpredictable weather and seas, the Sydney to Hobart Race is considered one of the toughest in the world. It is always a challenging race. But in 1998, conditions were extraordinary. Extraordinarily dangerous.

One hundred and fifteen boats and over 1000 sailors crossed the starting line. By the time the race was over, only forty-four boats reached the finish line. Five had sunk, seven were abandoned at sea, twenty-five crewmen were washed overboard, and fifty-­five sailors were rescued in the largest search-and-rescue operation in the history of Australia.

In the wake of such tragedy, one story went largely untold: the incredible achievement of the AFR Midnight Rambler.

There are two central themes in Into the Storm. The first is the importance of exceptional teamwork in overcoming challenges at The Edge. The second is the value of distributed leadership--a team culture that allows every person to provide direction when he or she has expertise that will help the team succeed.

The story of the AFR Midnight Rambler exemplifies the power of exceptional teamwork and distributed leadership. But where does this leave a formal team leader--the skipper of a boat, the CEO of a corporation, the commanding officer of military unit, or the President of the United States, for that matter? Is there a unique role that he or she needs to play? I believe there are some critical things--some unique responsibilities--that fall to the skipper.

The leader needs to keep the team aligned.

The varied performance of boats in the Sydney to Hobart Race underscores the importance of having a coherent, unified team. Some boats, like the Midnight Rambler, demonstrated extraordinary cohesiveness even under the most terrifying, life-threatening conditions. At the other end of the alignment continuum, some crews were fragmented, with key team members at odds with each other --in a leadership vacuum.

Adrienne Cahalan, one the world's best navigators, has had a chance to observe the role of the leader in more than twenty-five years as a professional competitive sailor. She has been named Australian Yachtswoman of the Year twice --and has been nominated four times for World Yachtswoman of the Year.

Cahalan characterized the leader's role this way:

"Skippers need to keep the team focused. They need to keep an eye out to see if someone is wavering, or a faction developing. They need to have the skill to manage all the personalities, to bring them together and to get them working toward their common goal. Not everybody's perfect, so a good leader is able to deal with imperfections. And they need to be able to do it all under pressure."

Managing personalities and bringing people together can be challenging in any situation. But the pressure of a storm--or a tough business obstacle--calls for exceptional leadership.

The leader needs to demonstrate passion.

The leader's passion is a magnetic force that pulls other people in. Describing the impact of Ed's enthusiasm, one crewmember observed:

"What makes Ed an exceptional leader is his desire to win. He is committed to driving the boat as fast as it can go. And he can take risks because of his comfort and trust in the team."

No one who has ever sailed with Ed Psaltis has any doubt about his absolute, total commitment to winning. He is so passionate that his excitement sometimes needs to be offset--by humor, or by the composure of others. But there is no mistaking the electric spark that comes from a leader who is excited to win. That enthusiasm is contagious, and it is a contagion that leads to victory.

The leader needs to instill optimism and confidence that the team will succeed.

Ed Psaltis and navigator Bob Thomas have a close relationship. They have complementary personalities, with Bob's cool demeanor balancing Ed's passion. Both Ed and Bob joined forces during the storm, and their combined leadership provided a reassuring presence for the crew. Crew member "Mix" Bencsik recalls:

"Their leadership played a large part in making sure that no one gave up. Ed and Bob constantly instilled optimism and confidence that we could handle the conditions, and that the crew had the ability to win."

While there was no question about Ed's formal role as skipper, Ed and Bob together reinforced a sense of unified leadership. And because of their close personal relationship, they were able to send a joint message of reassurance and optimism.

The leader needs to set an example.

Ed realizes that people are watching him, and he makes a conscious effort to set an example. Coming off his watch as helmsman, Ed will take a forward position on the rail. In this exposed position, he is subjected to the first onslaught of water and spray. It is cold and uncomfortable, but it is clear that Ed is not afraid to do his share.

Ed will also take his turn in "the bad bunk." It seems that every boat comes equipped with a berth that--for one reason or another--is undesirable. Nobody wants the bad bunk, but Ed makes sure that he takes his turn. He is sending a message.

Leaders need to set an example on a daily basis, but there are some moments that are different. There are times when leaders need to inspire others though fortitude, courage, and skill. One such moment came for Ed Psaltis in the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race.

Mix Bencsik reflected:

"I've been through a lot of storms with Ed. Sitting on the side of the boat -- wave spotting while he was helming -- was something that made me feel really proud. I thought, Here's a person who has my life completely in his hands. He was performing extraordinary feats of strength and seamanship, holding a 35-foot boat on the right course in those conditions."

"Ed was giving more than 110 percent. The well-being of the boat and crew were in his hands, and he didn't falter. It was an outstanding feat of seamanship. Even to this day, it's quite emotional to talk about. That was his finest moment."

Not every leader has the ability to steer a boat through a storm like Ed Psaltis. But there comes a time when every leader needs to be willing to step up and give "more than 110 percent." For every leader, there can be a finest moment.

--Dennis N.T. Perkins is the author of Into the Storm and Leading at The Edge. He is CEO of The Syncretics Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping leaders and teams thrive under conditions of adversity, uncertainty and change. Jillian B. Murphy is the director of client services at Syncretics. She works in the areas of leadership, executive coaching, and team effectiveness.

--Excerpted from Into the Storm: Lessons in Teamwork from the Treacherous Sydney to Hobart Ocean Race by Dennis N. T. Perkins with Jillian B. Murphy. Copyright 2013 Dennis N. T. Perkins. Published by AMACOM Books/amacombooks.org; Division of American Management Association. 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

[Images: Flickr user Sergiu Bacioiu and Rolex Sydney Hobart]

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