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Skipper, Leadership and Vessel Safety: Executive Summary

Executive Summary

William Strassberg, MD

January, 2021

Introduction by Ralph Naranjo: Advocates of the phrase, “leaders are born not made,” discount expertise and dwell on behavioral traits such as charisma, compassion, extroversion, boldness, etc. These personality attributes certainly play an important role in acquiring allegiance within a group. But when it comes to the complexity of command at sea and the risks linked to offshore racing and cruising, the inverse is true—leaders, or should I say, good leaders are made not born. The recipe for success includes sea time in challenging situations, an ability to weigh variables and a sense to steer toward effective outcomes. Sharing this wisdom requires communication skills and an ability to inspire others.

Doctor William Strassberg’s paper “Skipper, Leadership and Vessel Safety” delves into Crew Resource Management (CRM) and defines how essential leadership skills can be developed—improving every skipper’s ability to handle challenges at sea.

Dr. Strassberg's full White Paper on the topic can be found here.

A Skipper’s Leadership Skills are Significant

There is a strong link between skipper leadership and vessel safety. Strong and competent leadership skills underpin a vessel’s safety program and enable an on-board culture of safety. Effective skipper leadership develops a crew that works together within vessel protocols and standards, and fosters the development of a team that looks out for their mates and the ship. Success is measured by quiet competence, crew confidence and smooth procedures, as well as swift, effectual command if troubles develop. On the other hand, ineffective leadership can impair good practices of information transfer, communications, and safety procedures and protocols, hindering an emergency response.

Effective leadership impacts all vessel procedures and rules. Ralph Naranjo has written in his book, The Art of Seamanship: “A proficient skipper must be as multifaceted as possible, not just in breadth of knowledge but also in the kind of wisdom that’s acted out on the pitching deck of a vessel at sea” (Naranjo, 2015) and continues with the following: “The final challenge for any skipper is the transition involved in becoming a leader” (Naranjo, 2015).

  • Effective leadership translates vessel operating procedures and rules, and the safety culture they represent, into practice. Effective leadership empowers and enhances safety practice.

Leadership Skills can be Taught

Leadership is an innate quality in some, but leadership skills can also be learned. Any skipper can apply for an “upgrade” in leadership capacity via education and the adoption of techniques and practices that will help them become a more able and competent leader of their vessel. Command of a small vessel is complex and the skipper must wear many hats. He or she is often navigator and engineer, ship’s doctor and cook. The skipper must be able to banter with their crew but be prepared to impart clear, strong unambiguous direction in the event of an emergency to a team of crewmates ready to communicate and exchange information smoothly and concisely, while at the same time adeptly carrying out necessary procedures. The crew must not only be primed to both follow directions and ships’ protocols, but also input information, data and questions as warranted.

Enhancement of vessel safety via improved leadership skills begins with an acknowledgement of the link between leadership and safety. A captain can study elements of leadership and carry them aboard, implementing leadership techniques and practices in command of their vessel. Experience and passage of many blue-water miles will nurture leadership capacity. Experience also helps develop the ability to handle all types of problems in all types of systems and helps a skipper develop a sense of what might be coming next, also critical factors in vessel safety. But even experienced captains, on the water or airborne, can make major and dangerous errors.

  • Elements of leadership are composed of multiple factors: some are innate, some are developed with time and experience such as competence, situational awareness, and good decision-making and some parts lend themselves to being taught and learned readily such as effective communications and protocols. 

Crew Resource Management

Preoccupation, narrow focus, and communication problems can and do happen aboard cruising yachts. To enhance vessel safety and minimize opportunities for errors, a skipper can adopt the practice of Crew Resource Management (CRM) aboard their vessel. The objective of CRM is to reduce human error and potential mishaps via standard protocols, crew communication tools and teaching. Conceived in the airline industry in 1978 and initiated by United Airlines in 1981, CRM has subsequently been adapted to enhance safety in other venues including firefighting, and surgical practices and patient safety. CRM training focuses on both interpersonal and cognitive skills.

  • To enhance vessel safety and minimize opportunities for errors, a skipper can adopt the practice of Crew Resource Management (CRM) aboard their vessel.
  • CRM best practices include situational awareness, problem solving and decision making, effective communication and leveling of the organizational hierarchy.

Components of CRM

Situational awareness is defined as ongoing assessment of environmental information and integration with existing data to understand current vessel status and anticipate responses to future events. Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs) help vessels operate within risk-managed boundaries and maintain situational awareness through the use of predetermined procedures. Procedures and protocols should facilitate crew data transfer through specified communication styles.

Problem solving is a multi-step process which includes decision making as an integral part. Crew identifies a problem, gathers information, and then uses that information to define potential solutions. Effective decision making involves the accurate understanding of implications of a situation, formulation of a plan and contingencies and implementation of the best course of action. Equally important is the crew's ability to recognize a change in situation that requires reinitiating their decision-making process. Inaccurate perception or inadequate consideration of the potential implications of a situation increases the risk that a decision will produce an adverse outcome.

Increased stress levels can impact a captain’s ability to perceive and evaluate cues from the environment resulting in attentional narrowing (TSB Canada, 2011). Attentional narrowing is an unintentional failure to process potentially critical information and can lead to confirmation bias, when people seek out cues that support their desired course of action to the possible exclusion of critical cues that may support an alternate, less desirable hypothesis. The ship’s procedures and protocols should designate it duty of the vessel’s crew to communicate their concerns and instigate reappraisal of questionable situations.

Effective communication improves crew situational awareness and optimizes decision-making, but communication can be a challenge when faced with stressful situations and competing priorities. Human nature tends to defer confrontation, especially on small craft, and SOPs assist rapid communication and confirm mutual understanding. Crew members must also feel comfortable when providing conflicting opinions or alternative inputs to a skipper, as often, ineffective assertion is linked with ineffective communication.

Modern CRM training specifically addresses the importance of a crew members duty to speak by providing communication tools and techniques as SOPs. It is generally accepted that crew members should assert themselves when they are unsure of something or if there is a genuine concern about the current course of action.

A tool named SBAR, an acronym for Situation, Background, Assessment, and Recommendation, is a technique that facilitates prompt and appropriate communication. SBAR was first developed by the military, specifically for nuclear submarines. The aviation industry adopted a similar model and later SBAR was put into use in health care and surgical safety, which is where I learned of it.

Situation determines what is going on and identifies current status and any concerns in a brief description. The main goal is to communicate what is relevant - what is happening now.

Background provides context of how we got here and backfills the story.

Assessment surveys the situation and proffers solutions suggesting the most appropriate course of action.

Recommendation offers precise explanation of what is recommended to be done: an explicit statement of what is required, how urgent, and what action steps are necessary.

I have brought SBAR aboard my yacht. SBAR provides precise, compact informational exchange and is natural tool to use for general informational transfers such as watch changes, as the following 2 A.M. turn-over demonstrates. The on-deck watch gives the following SBAR briefing:

Situation: Good evening. All generally fine right now. Number 2 jib is up and we still have a single reef in the main. Wind was 10-15 knots at the start of my watch and over the past 30 minutes it has built to 12-18 knots, becoming gusty and now forward of the beam.

Background: Tonight’s forecast called for scattered thunderstorms and I have thought I have heard some thunder out there but I’m not sure.

Assessment: I sense an increase in wind pressure and have a concern of impending thunder boomers. We need to get ahead of this and be ready for a squall.

Recommendation: I’ve considered placing a second reef in the main and waited for you. I want to help you do it before I turn in. And it’s time to start a radar watch, checking for squalls on the quarter hour.

Leveling of the organizational hierarchy facilitates team communication by avoiding errors due to inherent limitations of hierarchal leadership. It does not mean the skipper is not in charge. It does not create an equal or mutual command structure, nor does it alter the responsibility or authority of the captain. CRM teaching makes it the duty of every team member to voice any concerns they might have about a potentially worrisome or dangerous situation. Simply requiring crew to speak their voice if concerns are evident goes a long way towards improved communications. The skipper’s encouragement, willingness and desire to hear dissenting, conflicting opinions and concerns are a large part of the rest. Hierarchy is leveled when the skipper encourages crew to be comfortable with the communication stream.  

CRM in brief:

  • Situational awareness assesses environmental information to understand vessel status and anticipate future events.
  • Problem solving is a multi-step process where decision making helps to formulate a plan and contingencies, with implementation of the best course of action.
  • Effective communication is enhanced by a tool named SBAR, an acronym for Situation, Background, Assessment, and Recommendation, a technique that facilitates prompt and appropriate communication.
  • Leveling of the organizational hierarchy facilitates team communication by avoiding errors due to limitations of hierarchal leadership.

Errors and a Raging Sea

In our maritime world, ineffectual leadership, poor communications and problematic hierarchal command problems continue to occur. On October 1, 2015, the American container ship El Faro sailed into the eye of hurricane Joaquin and went down with all aboard, becoming the deadliest maritime accident in a generation. Boston based author Rachel Slade wrote about the El Faro in her 2018 book, Into the Raging Sea (Slade, 2018). What was the El Faro doing anywhere near the erratic, unpredictable Joaquin, pinned between the Bahama’s Crooked Island and the hurricane? This event was heartfelt in Maine, as many of the 133 souls lost that day were from the great state of Maine and the Maine Maritime Academy.

The NTSB report noted safety issues including improper behavior and poor decision making on part of the captain, ineffective bridge resource management, inadequate company oversite and inadequate safety management systems (NTSB , 2017). Unfortunately, deficiencies in vessel SOP’s, poor communications and a harmful onboard culture can result in maritime tragedy to this day.


The bridge deck on the wreck of the El Faro, with damage notations from the National Transportation Safety Board final report.

A Culture of Safety

In 2020, the Safety & Seamanship Committee of the Cruising Club of America (CCA) advocated for creating a culture of safety aboard every vessel (Cruising Club of America, 2020). The committee noted “Good seamanship demands a culture of safety to prevent serious injury (or loss of life) to all those on board at all times. The skipper is responsible for creating that culture before going to sea and providing leadership before and during each voyage, whether the voyage is an ocean passage, a daysail or a race around the buoys.


Vessel safety is a combination of safety protocols and gear, skipper leadership and crew participation. Drills and practice of protocols engages crew and integrates them in the safety process. Their involvement reinforces safety culture on-board, as the crew communicates and problem solves as a team. The true culture of safety is only realized when yacht practices and skipper leadership results in a crew ethos that not only adheres to safety practices, but develops a crew actively participating in the safety culture of the ship. The transformation of crew from one that follows safety protocols to one that participates and builds a culture of safety is the mark of both a successful safety program and effective leadership.



Canada, T. S. (2011). Aviation Investigation Report A11H0002.

Cruising Club of America. (2020, March 1). Creating a Culture of Safety: The Skipper’s Responsibility. Retrieved from

Naranjo, R. J. (2015). The Art of Seamanship. Camde, ME: International Marine.

NTSB . (2017). Sinking of the US Cargo Vessel El Faro Accident Report NTSB/MAR-17/01. Washington, DC: National Transportation Safety Board.

Slade, R. (2018). Into the Raging Sea. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

TSB Canada. (2011). Aviation Investigation Report A11H0002. Gatineau, Quebec: Transportation Safety Board of Canada.