Sailing school 2: life lessons

Sunsets are better on a boat

We ended the last blog post with our crew departing from the marina to start our five days of sailing school. Aboard our 45′ Beneteau we had Paul, our instructor; Jess, his Thai girlfriend; Rudy and Tom, beginner sailors taking their Competent Crew course; and little ol’ me, hoping to get my Day Skipper certification.

Heat on the first day

The sun beat down like the heat lamp in a giant incubator as we started that morning. What would we be growing in the next five days – knowledge or frustration? The diesel engine powered us through the milky teal water of the Andaman Sea and we hoped for wind – to sail and to cool off. Paul spent about thirty minutes going over the names of the parts of the boat for the sake of the beginners, then sat mostly quiet. We pitched a few questions at him hoping he’d take a swing. Instead he bunted them away. At one point I got my camera out to capture the crew on our first day. He refused to be in the shot.

Paul is sitting just outside the frame on the left

On my previous course in Antigua, passage time was used for teaching. On this one, there was mostly silence. I think we got the sails up once in a late afternoon breeze – a brief learning experience for the new guys – but we still jostled for position in the patch of shade under the bimini.

Sparks

After supper that night, Paul turned to me.

“You’re going to do the passage plan for tomorrow. We’ve got to get from here to Railay Beach, so figure out the route you want to take, considering the tides, and any hazards – all the usual stuff. Everything you need is on the table.”

I was expecting this task – probably one of the most challenging of the course for someone with little experience on sailboats. A good passage plan includes not just a route with bearings and distances, but data about tidal effects, weather conditions, anticipated minimum depths, hazards, clearing bearings, alternative harbours, etc. It’s complicated and, as with almost everything on a sailboat, dangerous if not done right. I mentioned that I might need to review these components to ensure my plan was complete. His response surprised me.

“Well, you should know all that by now.”
I bristled at his condescending tone, struggling to subdue the spark of my temper for fear of igniting the fuel that Paul was putting between us. Pause. Explain. Take the high road.
“Really? This is my first time creating a passage plan outside of the theory course, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have a lot of experience – that’s why I’m taking this course – to learn.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. This is called ‘Day Skipper Practical’ because it is an evaluation of things you should already know. It’s not really a ‘course'”

I knew this wasn’t true but I also knew it was pointless to argue with him. In fact, I was starting to think if I challenged him he might fail me.

“Okay. I’ll do my best.”

Trial by fire

So, I went down below and got to work. Almanac, charts, tide tables, plotter, calipers, notebook . . . this would be the most thorough passage plan he’d seen in months. An hour later he came down and told a story about a previous student who had taken all night to make his plan then fell apart the next day. I forced a smile, thanked him for the pep talk and kept working. I was almost done.

When I came up from below, I asked Paul if he wanted to look it over.

“Nope. You’re the captain tomorrow. You’re going to brief the crew and go with your plan. We can correct it as we go.” Hurray for trial-by-fire teaching styles.

Challenge accepted

Long story short, the passage plan went off without a hitch. I briefed the crew, assigned jobs and followed our course on the charts. Paul sat in one spot of the cockpit the entire day barely saying a single word. Six hours and thirty-two nautical miles later, we arrived at our destination and dropped the anchor. Dared I hope for a retrospective lesson?

“So, Matt, how did you feel about the day?”
“I felt pretty good about it, actually. The plan worked – I didn’t have to alter it. The team worked well together and we got here safely – so, yeah, I’m happy.”
“Okay, no one died and the boat’s in one piece. So, good.”

That was it.

Unmet expectations

Our mast and the moon

By the end of the five days, there were huge parts of the course syllabus that weren’t discussed, let alone practiced. Core skills like docking, picking up mooring balls, taking bearings, night sailing and more (fortunately I learned these on my previous course). On at least two more occasions, Paul had repeated his lack of will to live loud enough for everyone to hear. On a daily basis he would demean previous students and yell at other boaters who passed too close to us – “You brainless f@#$ers!”. In one blatant display of poor judgement he joked that one of our wives might be “servicing” Thai men while we were away. By the time this comment was made we’d been biting our tongues so hard all week, we just had to bite a little harder.

Choices

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E Frankl

What would you do in a situation like this? There are many choices from getting off the boat and requesting a refund to angrily confronting his inappropriate statements and actions. Or perhaps you’re wondering if, being a doctor (ex-doctor?), I would try to help this person who is clearly unwell.

I considered all these options and more because I was confused and uncertain. A knee-jerk reaction, which, for me, would have meant open confrontation of the issues, would likely have made matters worse.

I forced myself to slow down and think of my options, channeling people I know and respect – what would they do? I also thought about what I had to gain and what I had to lose – it wasn’t just the Day Skipper certification, there was the question of safety for me and the other guys.

Mostly I thought about Paul – how he might be seeing this situation. When I put myself in his shoes it seemed clear that in spite of being unhappy and resentful, he viewed himself at the top of the totem pole, the students far lower, and the Thai people lower still. I was not a physician here – there was no therapeutic relationship and, more importantly, there was no patient. Just a damaged, bitter man in a role he wasn’t fit for.

What I did

So, I bit my tongue – continuously. The three of us students agreed to watch each others’ backs. We asked intelligent questions and listened respectfully to answers. Opportunities to practice skills and maneuvers were met with enthusiasm and a genuine effort to do well. We didn’t complain.

Tom’s patience with Paul and sailing wore thinner and thinner. On the day before the course was to end he hitched a ride on a longtail boat back to Phuket. The next day Rudy received his Competent Crew certificate and I got my Day Skipper card. It was all handshakes and smiles; us happy to leave, Paul (perhaps) trying to leave a good last impression.

Epilogue

Since departing I have been in contact with another RYA instructor from my own Competent Crew course last year, as well as a veteran sailing couple for their perspectives. In this case it seems the greatest good can be done by lodging a formal complaint with the RYA. Rudy and I have both done this on the basis of the course being incomplete and unprofessionally carried out, in addition to safety concerns largely around Paul’s mental health. What might happen when a future student takes offence and decides to engage in a confrontation? What if his mental state deteriorates?

In hindsight, the experience was decidedly uncomfortable but I’m reasonably comfortable with the decisions I made. Difficult people lead to difficult situations which leads to difficult choices. I often measure my choices by imagining my wife and kids were there to witness them. Would I consider my actions a good example for the boys? I’d like to think I made the best of a bad situation, but who knows?

Would you have done things differently? Have you had a similar experience in the past?

19 Comments

    1. I’ve learned to enjoy leaving positive reviews for so many places as we’ve traveled, so giving negative feedback feels jarring. I know my letter has been forwarded to “Paul” and it makes me a little sick, but I also know it must be done.

  1. Given the situation I think I would have done the same thing. Stuck on a boat with a suicidal unstable captain is seriously terrifying. Thankful you made it back safely to tell the tale.

    1. Thanks, Elaine. I was in contact with Linds who was worried sick for a few days (more than I was). She and the boys got to calling Paul “Captain Grumpypants” which somehow made the situation that much more tolerable! 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing Matt. I’ve encountered similar (though never while on a boat for five days!). Sounds like you guys handled yourselves like gentlemen. Love the Viktor Frankl quote.

  3. I think that so far in this journey of education for the whole family I think that you all are doing well in the life challenges category.
    You handled this sailing course with perseverance and determination as this was a means to an end for you and your family’s endeavours
    Glad you have reported “Paul” with good reason and continue on enjoying sailing with confidence.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Judy – I will admit it was really hard to hold my tongue! But, as you say, it was a means to an end. It would have been wrong to treat him like a patient.

      As the other RYA instructor I know said to me by email: at least there is value in learning how to handle difficult crew members!

  4. You certainly proved you are “Captain” material in more ways than one. Good for reporting it. Safe Sailing….Enjoy…..Love your Blog!!!!!

  5. Whoa! What an experience! I think you handled it perfectly. Quietly make your way safely through the situation. I’ll let Paul tell you about his experience this summer with an eerily similar theme. Luckily, it didn’t last 5 days. Glad you’re back safely and that you’ve filed a complaint.

    1. Hi Jane – a sincere thank you for the validation.

      Over the last few years I’ve presented a few times on how to handle patient complaints well (one of the worst parts of our job), so it was interesting to be on the complainant side of things this time. I think there is an art to complaining well – honesty, objectivity, clarity – a good complaint can really help improve a bad situation that was flying under the radar. I hope I have made it as easy as possible for the RYA and “Paul” to respond productively – although I have my doubts about the latter.

      Looking forward to hearing about your Paul’s experience.

  6. Oh man. Funny enough same thing happened to me.

    Jane and I rented a houseboat on Lake Powell. Houseboat had multiple mechanical difficulties and we got stranded on a beach. While waiting for repairs a “nice” guy (mid-fifties, in good shape) in a speedboat took us for a ride to another beach where we hung out with other boaters. “Nice” guy was very animated wanted to talk about politics (Trump fan) and religion (had we found Jesus?) but we politely declined those conversations. At the end of the day repair boat still hadn’t arrived so “Nice” guy offered to take us to the Marina to talk to the repair people if we paid for some gas. I was desperate so my Uncle and I got in “Nice” guy’s boat for the 45 min trip to the Marina. Five minutes into the trip my emergency physician spider sense started going off. Turns out this guy is a commercial pilot for a well known private jet company. Tells us he is on a mission to prevent depression and suicide because of his “experience”. The FAA pulled his license because of mental health issues. It’s at this point I see him open a beer and pour it into his cup. Did I mention he was piloting the high power speed boat? I immediately went into ER doc mode trying to doing a risk assessment on this guy. I quickly realize he is clearly in a manic phase. He says many other alarming things but I keep my cool.

    Relieved when we get to the Marina I talk to the repair people and get back to the boat. My Uncle looks concerned, “nice” guy has filled a red portable gas can and is putting it into his boat. Problem: There is no cap and he has taped paper towels over the leaking mouth. We protest and he says “Well, you can swim back”. We are at a remote desert Marina, it’s getting dark and my wife and children are alone, an hour away, on a non-functional boat. I get in the boat and sit beside the open gas can with the drunk, manic, delusional guy with a history of suicidality. What could go wrong? On the way back “nice” guy stops in the Marina to show us the timeshare houseboat he bought during a manic phase. (It was nice!) He then says he’s going to stop in the middle of the bay to make a few calls because that is one of the few places with cell service. He stops the boat and places calls to his girlfriend, father and Psychiatrist on speaker phone. He says, “I’m on a boat with two Canucks who really understand depression.” It was sunset on the water and the cliff faces at Powell are beautiful and I thought this might be the last thing I see.

    He took us back and the greatest moment of terror was when he decided to hot dog the speed boat at high speed close to the 300 ft. vertical canyon walls. He tried to get close enough to touch the canyon wall with his hand while travelling at maximum speed. I used every redirection technique I knew to get him to chill out. We survived and at least I have a good story to tell.

    1. Holy cow! Yeah, last I checked the lithium content of beer isn’t quite within the therapeutic index for bipolar. I’d take depressed in a sailboat over manic in a speedboat any day of the week. I can picture the high speed fly by the canyon wall – yikes!

      I’m sure your ER experience helped you keep your cool but did you find it unnerving to be relatively powerless in that situation? I know I did.

      1. Yes. Felt powerless but retrospectively felt stupid about the lapses in judgement. I should have seen this situation coming a mile away but I didn’t. It’s funny now but I seriously could have ended up as a smear on the canyon wall with my wife and children waiting on a boat in the dark for me to come home.

  7. Kudos for keeping your cool under intense circumstances. Without haldol, security and four point leather restraints you did not have a last resort at the ready if confrontation were to have failed you.

    A popular family saying (unknown origin) is that you needn’t accept every invitation you are offered to a fight.

    Fondly,

    CD

    1. That’s a good family saying. While we were on board discussing whether or not to openly confront our captain, Rudolf was the first to object by quoting his father: “Trying to talk to someone like that is like wiping your ass with plastic – it would just spread the shit around.” ‘Nuff said.

      1. Ha ha! Sounds like something my dad would say. And so very true. But in all seriousness, sometimes it’s just to best to keep your head down, not poke the bear and get through and out of the situation. Being trapped on a boat (for 45 minutes with a drunk manic show-off or 5 days with a depressed “instructor”) sure is not ideal!

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