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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?