Engineering is a field that can take a person to many places and engage them in several activities. Being such an incredible world, many engineers will often walk away from their computers, where most of their designs and calculations are stored nowadays, and go out to explore and experience the very machines they have designed and worked on from a real-life perspective. If you want a good example, take Adrian Newey, who often drives his own F1 designs
Expanding on from the automotive and motorsport fields, let’s consider other arenas, such as boats. Most vehicles (whether aerial, terrestrial, or marine) are very similar in many senses, but have distinctive characteristics associated to their mediums that make them exciting from individual perspectives. Although fond of motor boats, I have always been marvelled by sailing boats and their complexity, not only from an engineering perspective, but also how many of them are operated, especially under stringent conditions such as a race.
On that line of thought, I decided to venture myself into a hugely fun sailing event. A few years ago, before working for TECHNIA, I became aware that the Cranfield MBA programme has organised an annual Regatta with several other top business schools for the past 25 years. For those of you who don’t know what a Regatta is, in simple terms it is a series of consecutive boat races. Having experienced a bit of leisure sailing a few times before, I’ve found the sport interesting but never taken part in a race, least of all in yachts designed for 8 people. Aware of the event organized by Cranfield University, I decided to go this year. The event took place between the 8th and 10th of July, and I must say, what a weekend I had.
Prior to the event, I was informed by the organizers that I would be assigned to sail with the crew from the London Business School alumni sailing team, who were short on 1 person. Settling all the preparations and recommended gear through e-mails with the team, I made sure I had all the required items, including some motion sickness pills, which I thought might come in handy in case my stomach decided to reject the food I had so kindly ingested for it, while being on the boat.
On Friday 8th July, we took off to Portsmouth. The first stop was at the Royal Navy base by the port, where an incredible tour around a Type 45 Destroyer was awaiting. The ship is one of the most advanced pieces of technology in the hands of the UK. With stealth technologies and the latest equipment across the whole structure, I’m short of words on how amazed I was. One thing however, really dragged my attention. The ship is electrically propelled, which makes it a one of a kind. Two reaction engines, similar to those on an airplane, provide electrical power to the whole structure, while diesel engines serve the purpose of redundancy.
The tour took us all the way from the rear deck to some of the command stations and then the bridge. Being such a modern machine though, it was also possible to experience the heritage embedded within. References to old ships and battles were everywhere, some even in the very names of the modern battleships, which are often named after ones dating centuries back. This gave it a very solemn atmosphere that enriched the whole experience. In a nicely suited and comfortable room, we met with some of the head engineers in charge of different areas of operation within the ship, to later be introduced to the captain himself, who was not only very welcoming, but also talked us through the importance of each and every member of the crew, while also explaining the relevance of the ship to the UKs interests. All in all, it was a very rare privilege to have the opportunity of observing this machine from up close, and understanding some of its functionalities from the very inside.
After the tour through the Type 45 Destroyer, we headed to the Naval Museum to spend the rest of the afternoon, before going to our final destination prior to the regatta. The museum was full of surprises, amongst which it was possible to see some incredible very old ships. To give you an idea, the sort that you can see in a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean, although I would be heavily undermining the experience of having a close look at these ships with such a comparison. With the night approaching we then headed to Port Solent, starting point of the regatta.
Having spent part of the day getting to know some of the guys from the Cranfield MBA, who I must say were all quite nice, made the experience all together even more enjoyable. At Port Solent, while waiting for the arrival of the other schools, I helped with some of the preparations at the venue before the welcome dinner party. When the schools started arriving we were walked to our boats where we left our luggage and got changed for the party. That night, we were all wearing pirate or sailor costumes. It was a fun evening, meeting new people, enjoying a nice BBQ, and playing some tug of war; all activities that helped the whole group of participants bond together. That done though, it was time to go back to our boats and have some sleep, next day would be both very exciting and tiring.
At this point I should talk a bit about the crew. The night before, I met four of them. Rob; who could be said was the equivalent of our captain, Simon, Fiona; the only woman in the crew, and Nick; who after myself was the youngest within the team. I met the rest in the morning, prior to our departure for the race. There was Ciaran; very nice Irish man, Klaus; the only Dane within the crew and the man behind the yacht’s wheel, and Benjamin; evidently experienced and good with navigation related tasks.
Before I continue, if you are a sailing enthusiast and are acquainted to the terminology involved, do forgive my ignorance on the subject, which may be reflected in the coming paragraphs.
Most of us, among other responsibilities, were tacking crew. Tacking, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a sailing manoeuvre by which a sailing vessel (which is sailing approximately into the wind) turns its bow (front) into the wind through the ‘no-go zone’ so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other”. Basically, when the sailing boat is cruising and the wind is blowing into the sails from any other direction apart from the front (bow) or the back (stern), it will have an inclination towards one of either sides (port/starboard). Part of the crew will be shifting sides depending on this inclination in order to keep a specific angle, which should in theory help the yacht cruise faster. When the boat performs the tacking manoeuvre, the tacking crew goes from port to starboard, or vice versa to help control that inclination by shifting the centre of gravity.
The jobs for each member of the crew were as follows: Simon and Ciaran were in charge of most of the activities happening at the front of the yacht, like mounting and unmounting the Spinnaker Pole, helping the Jib Sail (sail at the front) go through from one side to the other, among other demanding activities. Near the rear of the yacht, most of the commanding operations would take place. Rob, from where I was standing at least, would have the last word on most (or all) of the decisions and strategy in the yacht throughout the regatta, besides other responsibilities like navigation and tacking crew. Klaus was at the helm, controlling the boat. Benjamin would be key within the navigation, apart from also controlling the Mainsheet (rope that controls the main sail). Fiona was in charge of the Piano (through which the sheets pass and can be locked), was part of the tacking crew and also controlled the winches (these adjust the tension of the sail sheets) at times. Nick was both tacking crew and in charge of Trim (sail twist and angle to the wind). As for me, I was both the most inexperienced and youngest of the crew.
Under circumstances like these, many times the novice tends to be taken extremely lightly and not tasked with any relevant responsibilities within the team to avoid any unwanted mistakes due to lack of experience. I can gladly say I didn’t feel like this was my case. Instead of just relegating myself as tacking crew alone, I was also tasked with some of the navigation responsibilities, which I very much enjoyed.
We set sail in the morning, before any of the other boats, so we could have a little practice prior to the race. Rob was quite calm in general, and in that manner he explained the navigation duties I would be taking on throughout the weekend. The regatta consisted of three races per day. Each race would have a different number of waypoints through which the yachts should pass. These waypoints were given at the start of each race by the organisers, and were both indicated by radio and displayed at the starboard (right side) of their boat. At sea, these would be marked with buoys of different colours. Once the identification codes and names of each waypoint were given, time marks of t – 10 minutes, t -5 minutes, etc., would be noted before the shooting start of the race.
My job was to write down the waypoint codes with their respective names, and also whether we needed to go around them on port or starboard side (for example: 43 – Roger Swinney – Starboard). After writing these, I had to input them into the yacht’s GPS and/or an application for an iPhone called iRegatta. With the application, it was possible to keep track of our present course, the heading to the waypoint, and the distance in nautical miles to it. Throughout the races, I had to keep Rob updated with the distance and course to each waypoint, although he and the others would be constantly checking these as well.
The yachts would not start the race from standstill, so we had to be circling the administrators’ boat. This meant that if we were to start in the wrong direction, we would have lost valuable time spent in repositioning ourselves for the first waypoint. Bearing this in mind, Klaus had to be quite careful at keeping track of the time marks before the start, and manoeuvre the boat so we would be in a good position for the race. We would all take our positions around the yacht to make sure everything would run as smoothly as possible.
From what I was able to experience in my first ever Regatta, strategy plays a huge role in yacht racing. These are not manoeuvred like a car where you can rapidly correct certain mistakes. Any error would propagate down the line and most likely affect the result, which is why several parameters had to be taken into account prior to the race. Such was the case of the tides, the wind, etc. With a tide map, among other tools, Rob, Benjamin, and Klaus, could keep track of where were the most favourable conditions for sailing, and in case there was a quicker route to one of the waypoints, even if it meant not going in a straight line from one point to the other, that would be the way to go.
Each race was an adventure on its own. With constantly changing manoeuvres like tacking and gybing (stern turns through the wind), and near misses with other yachts, the regatta was not short of excitement.
I was also able to get a dip into the regulations. Whenever another competitor was considered to perform a dirty manoeuvre, we would raise a protest, represented by a red flag. This would then be discussed with the administrators, who would hand over a verdict. If the protested competitor accepted their error, they would raise a yellow flag.
Having completed the first race on Saturday, I got a bit sick due to a lot of movement from the boat. When the yacht is moving and you are outside, it’s more difficult to get sick as you can see the horizon and feel the breeze. Down below though, the movement appears more aggressive and there are no external reference points to fix the sight on. This makes it uncomfortable and getting motion sickness can happen rapidly if you are not used to the moving conditions. Fortunately though, after a bottle of Coca Cola, the uneasy feeling faded.
After the three races on Saturday we docked at Cowes marina. That night we had a formal dinner party that involved lots of chatting and a bit of dancing to local music. It was all good fun and even the Vice-chancellor of Cranfield University, Sir Peter Gregson made an appearance. The evening ended with a beer at a local pub called The Anchor with great live music provided by a cover band, who were playing classics from Queen, Abba, The Rolling Stones, etc. Good for me, the water was calm that night and I slept like a baby.
Next morning we set sail a bit late. Fortunately for us, the race started late as well. With the exception of one of the races that Sunday, we did very well overall. The last race we got to take the Spinnaker out, and despite a mistake of mine where I forgot to take closer track of the distance to one of the waypoints and led the crew to confuse the previous to last mark, we managed to finish at the front.
We headed back to Port-Solent and tidied up the yacht before handing it back. What was a very fun weekend, ended up with us winning the event.
Although being an incredibly exciting activity to participate in, sailing is not easy. It is demanding and requires from the people within the different teams to work together. How then, could we add value to this sport from an MBA course perspective? More than just leisure, this sport presents a perfect opportunity to develop leadership skills, as well as developing a better understanding of the importance of each person within a team. A yacht, racing in a Regatta, is like a downscaled version of a company. The world, although slowly, seems to be evolving into a different view of what management represents, and how important the role of an employee, no matter the job, can be to a company. Rather than looking at a modern company as a pyramid, we can now see it as a big team where the achieved results are only as good as the performance and commitment of each one of its members. A yacht, like an organization, is subject to ever-changing environmental conditions, which can be dealt with efficiently or poorly depending on the harmony within the team. The leader is on levelled grounds pulling the load as hard as, or even harder than the rest of the crew.