Person in charge Sam Davies aboard SCA. Source. This video was…

Person in charge Sam Davies aboard SCA. Source.

This video was uploaded on October 14, as SCA sailed south along the coast of Morocco. My guess is that it was shot that morning, shortly after the 0715 position update, in which they learned that by being on the wrong side of a major windshift they had dropped from third place to sixth.

I’m fascinated by Sam’s manner in this clip. A bad thing has happened, and she’s trying to help the crew not be discouraged by it. But you can hear her own disappointment, and maybe just a hint of defensiveness about the bad call (which would have been a joint decision by her and navigator Libby Greenhalgh). She’s speaking to them as equals. There’s no hierarchy, no taking of responsibility. They’re all in the same boat, so to speak.

Her approach here reinforced something I noticed when I started watching videos of the various teams before the start of the race. Sam doesn’t project the sense of authority I’d expect from a professional racing skipper. It’s true that that expectation came from watching other professional skippers who all happened to be men. But I don’t think it’s only a gender difference, or something rooted in Sam’s generally open, friendly manner. I think it’s her lack of experience in this specific role.

I’ve been thinking about that chart I posted the other day:

It showed that the then-current rankings in the race (which are unchanged now, four days later), almost perfectly line up with the number of previous times the crew of each boat has sailed in the race.

By that measure, the women of the SCA team come up short, and I think that probably is a major factor in how they’re doing so far. That inexperience isn’t anything they should feel bad about; it’s just a fact. This race is extremely grueling and physically demanding, and over the years has become increasingly professionalized. Opportunities for women to compete in those contests have been extremely few.

Team SCA knew this going in and did their best to mitigate it. They gave spots to the (few) women who actually have sailed the race before. They gave spots to the (few) women who have done long-distance offshore racing at a professional level. They filled out the team with women who have competed at a high level in other types of sailing (Olympic and one-design racing), even though that experience was mostly limited to near-shore buoy races.

And they worked hard on training. SCA started their training program earlier than any other team. They did grueling physical workouts. They crossed the Atlantic and spent months practicing in the strong winds of the Canary Islands. They competed in the Round Britain and Fastnet races.

But they faced a problem with the role of skipper. Being in charge of a large group of professional sailors racing around the world is a specialized skill — and there simply weren’t any women who had that skill. In choosing Sam Davies Team SCA got the next-best thing: someone who has raced competitively across oceans and around the world, just not while managing other people. Sam has raced across the Atlantic many times and around the world nonstop in the Vendée Globe twice — but almost all of that racing has been singlehanded.

On some level it’s an extremely silly comparison, but I find myself thinking back to my first real job after college, working as an emergency-credentialed (and largely untrained) substitute teacher for the L.A. Unified School District. Like many first-time teachers I started off by trying to be everyone’s friend, relating to the students as equals, being open and honest and “cool”. And it worked, after a fashion. But I quickly learned that that approach has its downside. Before long I was actively cultivating an air of authority, maintaining a degree of distance. I was still friendly. But I learned that it was helpful to have a more structured, hierarchical relationship with the people I was in charge of. It wasn’t something that came to me naturally. But when I learned to do a convincing imitation of it, my effectiveness improved.

Whatever SCA team’s experience gap was at the start, they have a chance to narrow it significantly going forward. And I’m especially interested in seeing how Sam develops in the role of “person in charge”.

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Tags: vor, team SCA, volvo ocean race, weareteamsca, sam davies.

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