Individual commitment to a group effort

by U.S. Medicine

September 9, 2016
Editor-In-Chief, Chester "Trip" Buckenmaier III, MD, COL (ret.), MC, USA

Editor-In-Chief,
Chester “Trip” Buckenmaier III, MD,
COL (ret.), MC, USA

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” —Vince Lombardi (1913-1970)

The Maryland Governor’s Cup Yacht Race is the oldest and longest distance overnight sailing race in Maryland. This year marked the 43rd running of the race, traditionally held over the first weekend of August.

The course starts at the mouth of the Severn River near Annapolis, MD, and travels 68.6 nautical miles down the Chesapeake Bay to St. Mary’s College, MD. Participants in this annual event sail overnight, Friday to Saturday, in conditions that range from dead calm to small gale force winds, often during the course of the same race. Beyond the obvious challenges associated with sailing at night, the dangers of nearby land and the notoriously fickle nature of Bay weather, racers also must contend with numerous navigation buoys, tides, fish and crab traps, considerable commercial shipping traffic and more than 100 other sailboats—all making the same journey at the same time. In short, the Governor’s Cup is a challenge for even the saltiest of sailors.

My wife, Pam, and I have participated in this race annually for many years. We have enjoyed the participation of many different crew members, drawn from friends and family, and the event has become an important annual activity for our family. All categories of boats participate in the race, from large, professionally-crewed racing sloops that tend to make short work of the race, regardless of the weather, to cruisers like myself out to challenge sailing and navigational skills that are useful if you have a sailing habit.

buckenmaier-boatOur boat, Family Knot, is a Gemini 105Mc cruising catamaran that is 33 feet long, 14 feet wide and draws about 1.5 feet with the engine drive leg out of the water for sailing. The boat is rigged for racing and has an assortment of sails for different wind conditions and directions to include a spinnaker (the big colorful sail seen in magazines). Although I am able to operate the boat single-handedly, to get any performance (speed) out of the hulls requires a crew, preferably an experienced crew that is familiar with the boat. As any weekend sailboat racer will attest, experienced crew members are a rare and coveted commodity within the sail racing community.

Pam and I are the original owners of Family Knot, and I have scrubbed, sanded, rigged, wrenched and even bled on just about every square inch of the boat, so much so that I almost consider the boat a relation. While I know this boat and its systems like the back of my hand, the pick-up crews who graciously commit their time to support my sailing addiction usually are not so familiar with Family Knot’s sailing characteristics. Crew inexperience is not much of an issue in the low-key cruising and day sailing in which we are most often involved. Honestly, I can get along without a crew in most cruising situations. This is not the case in an endurance sailing race like the Governor’s Cup. 

For most years, Family Knot’s performance in the Governor’s Cup has been average. Pick-up crews, all good people, have adapted well to the strains of the race but hardly could be expected to gel overnight into a team that would make the boat competitive. Most years, we have been satisfied with finishing the race within the prescribed time limits, accomplishment of which any crew should be rightly proud. 

More recently, though, Pam and I began sailing the Governor’s Cup with Karon and Toni, our close friends from Texas. Both are accomplished sailors, and Toni is a competent boat captain in her own right. As we sailed together in cup races and other cruising trips, we began to solidify as a crew, learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses while mastering Family Knot’s systems. Without consciously trying, we had trained ourselves to be a competitive team on Family Knot.

The 2016 Governor’s Cup started on Friday, Aug. 5  into 5-10 knots of a southerly breeze that was predicted to build through the night. In sailing parlance, we would be “beating” into the wind for the entire race down the bay to the mouth of the Potomac River. Because sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind, they must sail at an angle to the wind, turning back and forth (tacking) in order to travel in the direction the wind is coming from. The term beating is appropriate for this maneuver, because the sailboat must bash through the wind-generated waves, ceaselessly pounding boat and crew as the boat travels to windward. I had some trepidation about this race, knowing the crew members were about to subject themselves to a hard slog down the bay.

We had a great start to the race, just behind our primary competitor’s boat. Through the evening and night, we tacked (zigzagged) through the eye of the wind, looking for the sweet spot that allows the boat to sail close to the wind while maintaining maximum boat speed. This can only be achieved through skilled hand steering of the boat by an experienced helm person that, fortunately, we all were. Everyone took their turn at the helm as the hours and miles slipped by and we progressed toward the finish line. My initial trepidation melted away as each tack was executed flawlessly and the boat speed consistently ranged from 7 to 9 knots. We had a crew rest policy, two on, two down, which I fully participate in for the first time. During one of my stints at the helm, early Saturday morning, I had an enormous sense of satisfaction at how well this crew, my crew, had worked the boat down the bay. I do not believe this boat had ever been handled so well for so long a sail. 

I am relating this story because my experience as the captain of Family Knot relates so seamlessly with my experiences as a physician leader in medicine. Maneuvering a sailboat at night, up wind, in a race is a complicated task with many competing variables setting the stage for considerable error or even disaster. The boat was performing well during this race, not because I was such a spectacular captain; rather, I was smart enough to recognize I had a spectacular crew. Instead of trying to perform all tasks myself or micromanage their execution, I allowed the crew to handle the boat, freeing me to work on navigating the shortest distance to the finish while avoiding the massive freighters invariably in the way. More importantly, when difficult decisions needed to be made concerning our course or set of the sails, I solicited input from the crew, gaining valuable insight and general understanding of how best to achieve our shared goal. I was still the captain and responsible for the boat, but that burden was made far easier because the crew felt just as responsible and engaged in the working of the boat. 

Good medicine, like good sailing, requires leaders that value and develop their teams. The complexities of modern medical practice demand highly-functioning teams with each member engaged and contributing toward a mutual goal. Failure to focus on the health and function of the medical team leads to poor medical performance that can have deadly consequences. Highly-functioning teams require leaders to recognize their own needs and desires must be subordinated to the team and the goal. The best medical leaders understand that nothing of significance in medicine can be accomplished individually, and any success achieved must be appropriately attributed to the team. Although this can be initially difficult, the overall performance enhancement is well worth the effort. 

We won our class in the Governor’s Cup this year, a first for this captain. This win, of course, belongs to Family Knot’s crew which I, as the captain, was smart enough to be a part of. 


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