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20 April 2014

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Sailing teambuilding: Sun, sea & smiles

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As far as sailing experiences go, racing a 68ft yacht in perfect weather conditions is up there with the best. Team V&E took to the Solent with Clipper Events and couldn’t stop grinning all day

Clipper Events - Clipper_Venture_014_resized.jpgTwo very welcoming sights greeted Venues & Events as we arrived in Portsmouth’s Gunwharf Quays on an early Monday morning back in May: blue skies and bacon sandwiches. Could we have asked for a better start to a day on the Solent? Surely not. Our crew of 12 – five lucky Square Mealers, six carefully selected clients and a photographer with sturdy sea legs – were certainly very excited.
We had been invited by teambuilding specialist Clipper Events to try out a really special sailing experience, crewing one of the company’s 68ft racing yachts, just before it set off on this year’s epic Clipper Round the World race.

Welcomed warmly by our skipper and his first and second mates, on whose expert supervision we’d be relying throughout the day, we were captivated by the team’s palpable passion for sailing. As qualified  Ocean Yachtmasters, these guys spend most days on the water, either racing round the world (our first mate had been round twice!) or training novice crews to do the same. Bespoke corporate events, ranging from teambuilding days like ours to hospitality at big events like Cowes Week, is also part of the job description.

As we chatted over breakfast, it became clear that the guys (and girls) from Clipper really love what they do, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Few of our own team had any previous sailing experience, but the atmosphere was rife with excitement as we boarded our yacht, Edinburgh, for a thorough but concise safety briefing. By the time we’d dressed up in lifejackets and waterproofs,
we felt like proper sailors. 

It was time for training to commence. Later in the day, we’d be racing against a corporate team on an identical yacht and our crew, competitive to the last, insisted that we learned the ropes fast – quite literally: yacht racing involves the tugging, winching, fastening and letting go of a mind-boggling array of ropes. A basic grasp of the nautical lingo is also required, and we were taught how to recognise and respond to the skipper’s cue calls to ensure every manoeuvre was done in time. ‘Ready about?’ ‘Ready!’ ‘Lea Ho!’

Clipper Venture Sailing Day - Clipper_Venture_398_resized.jpgWith sails billowing in the fresh wind, we learnt how to speed up our tacks and jibes, taking turns at various positions, from working in pairs at the ‘coffee grinder’ (the sturdy winch used to trim the main sail) to navigating through the Solent’s mid-morning traffic at the helm, all the while expertly instructed by our tutors.

Energy levels were high, no doubt buoyed by the sunshine, camaraderie and sense of freedom we felt on the water, and everyone got stuck in with gusto. Before we knew it, training was complete and lunch served.

After such a physical morning’s work, we gratefully tucked into gourmet baguettes and locally-sourced pies, all freshly baked that morning. Cheerful banter resonated on deck as the skipper and mates regaled us with tales of their time at sea and we learned that, when racing around the world, a crew of 18 would live aboard this yacht for up to 16 weeks at a time.

Clipper Venture Sailing Day - Clipper_Venture_097.jpgAs the afternoon races drew closer, it was time to talk tactics: should we specialise in our strongest jobs throughout each race or take a more democratic ‘all hands on deck’ approach? A lively debate ensued. While everyone agreed that Aaron did seem to have tamed the coffee grinder and Sara was a natural on the smaller winch, we decided to keep swapping tasks – everyone was simply having too much fun to take the race too seriously.

 As the two yachts lined up for the first race, Team V&E seemed to get off to a great start, but we were soon disadvantaged as the challengers cut our path, stealing the wind from our sails. So frustrating! But there was no time to dwell. Taking our cue from the skipper and mates, we worked furiously to gain on the opponents’ lead, tacking and jibing at furious speed. But, sadly, it wasn’t to be and we found ourselves conceding defeat – for round one.

Ordinarily, Clipper Events would advise companies to book two yachts and race against each other at leisure, but we found ourselves tied to the time constraints of a competitor that needed to head back to shore, so it was ‘winner takes all’ in the second and final race.

By now, we all felt like pros, building up to each manoeuvre, taking control of our stations and exerting as much physical energy as we could muster. Fervent determination seemed to power Edinburgh as she pushed across the Solent at 12 knots, leaving the competition trailing in our wash as we crossed the marker and a huge cheer arose. What a great sense of achievement! We could only imagine what it must feel like to win the round-the-world race.

Clipper Venture Sailing Day - Clipper_Venture_177_resized.jpgOur (admitedly small) victory was rewarded with some well-earned refreshments, as our hosts rustled up tea and flapjacks in the galley. This, we decided, would have been a good time for a company director to deliver a speech or pep-talk to their team, but we opted to simply soak up the last rays of sunshine, savouring all that we had learnt and comparing our individual highlights of the day.

We were all amazed at the extent to which the exhilaration of racing and the level of teamwork required had bonded us. Even more impressive was the fact that, after mere hours of instruction, a group of people with very little sailing experience had joined forces to crew a yacht as if we had all been doing it for many years. The sheer excitement of the day, from the frantic build-up to executing manoeuvres, to the much appreciated moments of relaxation and banter in between, had rendered us a tired but satisfied crew as we headed back to Gunwharf Quays.

Aaron Timms, MD of exhibition specialists Leading Edge Design, who was one of our guests on the day, said: ‘I will definitely be booking a Clipper race day for my key clients. You can’t beat that joint commitment of mucking in with the most physically demanding tasks. I also loved being the one told what to do for a change.’

Debbie Matthews, the hospitality business manager at Leeds Castle agreed: ‘It’s been such an enjoyable day, a truly excellent way to build a team. I’ve loved being on the water and it feels worlds away from my desk at the office.’ And Lucy Chisholm, group head of marketing at Alexander Hotels was quick to chime in: ‘Any team requiring motivation or having difficulties bonding would benefit from a day like today, as everyone needs to know when to assert themselves or when to simply stand back and let others take the helm.’

The verdict, it seems, is unanimous: a team that sails together, stays together.


This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events, summer 2011

Words: Alicia Dickinson

Photos: Tristan Newkey- Burden


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