Sailing’s Relationship Lessons

One of the major skills that sailing requires of most of its contestants is teamwork. On boats large and small, the ability to work well with others towards a common goal is essential to success. The lessons learned for getting in sync with others on the water can often be useful on land, applied to the relationships that we carry on in our daily lives. These lessons need not be limited only to relationships of the romantic variety; they can apply to anyone we work and live with, between family members, spouses, friends, coworkers, or a number of other interpersonal dynamics.

Goals Need to Align

Sailors teaming up together for the first time are best served by discussing what the objective of their racing will be. Some approach every regatta with a burning passion to win, while others are just happy to take part in the event. Frustrations can arise for everyone when it becomes apparent mid-race that not everyone on board is after the same result. The same can be said for our relationships with the people with whom we live or work. Many relationships, partnerships, collaborations, or employments come to an end simply because it becomes apparent that the two parties aren’t after the same things. Only through open communication can such issues be addressed so both parties can determine their compatibility through understanding of each other’s goals.

Keep up the Communication

Sailors have to provide feedback, positive and negative, to their teammates throughout a race. By letting each other know what’s working and what isn’t, the crew can make adjustments quickly before the boat’s performance is hurt too much. Relationships can be the same—when one person finds that the relationship is getting sluggish or unsteady, they may be able to address the cause with their “teammate” in order to get back on track and “stay in the race.” The way that feedback is provided is significant to its ultimate value; an emphasis on the negative can lead to resentment and ultimately close the communication loop. It’s far easier to accept criticism from another person when it is paired with positive feedback as well. When all a person hears from someone is what they’re doing wrong, they lose interest in hearing anything the other person has to say at all.

Timing is Critical

For a competitive sailor, there are moments to hold back, and moments to plunge ahead and seize an opportunity. Likewise in a relationship, choosing your moment to take appropriate action can make a big difference for better or worse. For example, addressing a particularly awkward or stressful topic of discussion is best done at a time when the other person can devote their full focus to the matter, rather than simply tossing it out when it comes to mind. The marriage proposal is another example; there are plenty of men who have gotten less than favorable responses to their proposal by casually tossing it out in conversation or by blurting it out impulsively at the wrong time. Like a sailor choosing the right moment to make a move on the start line or at a mark rounding, pick your moment before making a big move, or risk disqualification!

Be Patient and Seek Common Ground

New sailing teammates likely won’t be in sync right away. They often have to spend a great deal of time talking over their methods as far as technique and communication before being able to get into a working groove. A challenge when starting off in any new relationship, whether in work or life, is the initial learning curve as you get to know how the other person operates. Getting to know the other person’s personality, habits, strengths, and weaknesses often requires a little extra patience where personal differences arise. Roommates in particular can find this to be a challenge when it comes to matters like cleanliness or noise levels. The odds are that in the course of our lives we will have to work to find common ground with people very different from ourselves more than once, and doing so requires patience and tolerance. When two people find themselves in an “odd couple” scenario, willingness to compromise where necessary and to allow time to adapt to each other can give a potential mismatch a much better chance at survival.

Use Your Instincts

Over time, sailors develop their senses to detect slight changes in their boat and in the weather. Little sounds on the boat, smells from offshore, visual clues on the water, and the feel of the motion of the boat can all come together to give a sailor an ability to make tactical decisions that seem almost psychic. As we grow closer to the people in our lives, our instincts get developed about them, as well; we get to know little expressions and sounds they make that provide some insight as to their state of mind. Looking for those cues and responding to them proactively allows for little unspoken understandings, which can make a world of difference. Just as sailors have to look for the little things to tell them what’s happening in their environment, so should people tune in to the little clues that others may provide in order to know whether a change in course is needed.

Adapt to Change

Conditions are constantly changing for a sailor, making the ability to adapt a huge priority in order to perform in the race. A sailor may find that the seas they’re sailing in now are nothing like the conditions they first set out into. The crew must adjust the settings, change sails, change course, and take any other necessary action to face the weather ahead. Likewise, relationships must change gears from time to time in order to move forward through new conditions. Change doesn’t have to hurt a relationship, as long as both people change together in the same direction. If they work against each other or plot completely different courses, they won’t be able to weather a storm.

Neglect Leads to Decay

Sailors know that to keep their boats seaworthy, let alone race-worthy, regular upkeep is needed. If a boat sits in its slip too long, unused and uncared for, it doesn’t take long for wear to show. Likewise, sailors need to return to the water as often as they can to keep their skills up, or they can lose their racing edge before the next competition. Interpersonal relationships also need regular upkeep to last over the long run. When people stop making the effort to stay in touch with what’s happening in each others’ lives, friendships fade, networks disintegrate, and romances wither. Any valuable asset, like a car, house, or boat needs to be cared for regularly without long periods of neglect in between, and the people in our lives certainly qualify as valuable assets.

Good Sailing!



Rick Arneson, M.B.A., is the author of Plotting the Course and a competitive sailor with over three decades of sailing experience.

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