Managing to Win

Managing to Win

Atlantic Team small file.

This past winter I completed the 25th Annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC)[2] – a transatlantic race that started on November 21, 2010 in the harbor at Las Palmas in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain.  Sailing through the Canaries, we headed for a December destination in St. Lucia’s Rodney Bay in the Caribbean, 2,700 nautical miles away.   Among the 233 boats in the race, I competed on Europa Horizons 01 (called EH01), a UK-flagged 47’ Beneteau First.  In a race marked by unusually strong headwinds and high seas – and improbable aberrations in established trade winds – after 20 days, 20 hours and 32 minutes EHO1 finished first in the Class A racing division and first overall.

I love competition of any kind, and I have always been interested in what leads to winning.  Prior to the race, I had just completed my MBA in Entrepreneurship from the Acton School of Business in Austin, Texas where I learned, through rigorous analysis of 350+ business cases, what makes organizations and their leaders successful in the business world.  Since winning the race, I have consulted with dozens of businesses through my membership in SCORE—where I provide pro-bono consulting services to small businesses in my community—and through my consulting firm, The NorthStar Group where I help small and midsized businesses with social media, marketing and business improvement. In my day-to-day  work, I began to reflect on the 21 days I spent on the Atlantic.  It came to me after a few days on the water that the same principles that drive success and effectiveness in business were also reflected in the winning behavior of the crew of EH01.

Importance of Mission and Priorities

Countless books on management and stories of the most successful companies of our time stress the importance of a clear and compelling mission to align the members of an organization.  As a member of the crew of EH01 I saw this concept in action.

The night before the race, our captain Andy Middleton, a Brit, sat the crew down and in his thick Essex accent said, “Look, there is no reason why we can’t win this bloody race.  If we are going to win we are going to have to be giving it 100% all the time.  The key to winning will be consistently high boat speed with no mistakes or missteps.”  So our mission and priorities were clear:

  1. Get there.
  2. Get there fast.
  3. Get there safe.

At that point we all knew that this was not going to be a leisurely cruise across the ocean…and we were all on board.

The importance of mission was amplified just over a week into the race.  In the beginning of the race we were well back in the pack.  The leader – rather than taking the traditional route of “going south until the butter melts,” catching the trade winds and then heading west – turned west immediately out of the Canary Islands, taking the rhumb line to St. Lucia.  But eight days into the race, after forging ahead of the rest of the pack, the prevailing winds forced the leaders to make a sharp turn to the south.  By that time, we were in 3rd place and realized we had a real shot at winning.  Reinforced by the validation of our early decision to turn west, we all rallied around our mission to WIN.

By this time into the race, our crew had become self-governing, “Catch the vision or catch the bus” – and in the middle of the Atlantic there was no bus.  We were constantly asking ourselves what we could do to make the boat go faster.  If the man at the helm was a few degrees off the intended course he would get a gentle reminder from the crew.  If the crew did not hear the Lewmar winches cranking, constantly trimming the spinnaker, the trimmers were called on it.  We didn’t need a leader to govern us; we were governed by our mission.

Priorities were also clear.  Get there—Are we taking care of our equipment?  Get there fast—Are we taking the best route and trimming the boat to go as fast as possible?  Get there safe—Is everyone drinking water?  Is everyone wearing life-jackets and strapped to the boat?  These three priorities, all essential to our mission of winning, were always front of mind.

In business, you must first identify what winning means—at what it is you will be the best in the world (and define your world, i.e. your industry, your product, your discipline, etc.)  Then figure out how you will get there, operating from a set of aspirational, performance, and ethical priorities.

Get There

If you don’t get there you can’t win.  We knew our destination and we knew that we had to take care of the boat, checking daily for chafe and at one point dropping the sails altogether for three hours to attend to a deteriorated mast collar.

In business, you also have to identify what might prevent your business from “getting there,” – the blockers that could keep your business from reaching its destination or spoilers  that can sink your business before it can become great –  and do your best to make sure they don’t materialize.

Get There Fast

For us to accomplish our mission we had to keep a consistently high boat speed.  We were constantly trimming and changing sails to make the boat go as fast as we could – all the time, 24/7 for 20 days straight.

In business getting there fast is analogous to tenaciously seeking a competitive advantage and using it to acquire, serve and retain your customers.  What will you do to convince your customers to use your product or service rather than your competitor’s and move you ever closer to your company’s goal?

Get There Safe

Safety is job #1 – in the factory and the field as well as on the sailboat.  In sailboat racing and business, you often take risks that may compromise money, time, facilities or equipment.  But you never intentionally put people at risk.  In fact, the safety of employees and the safety of your crew is job #1.

Based on a thorough analysis we chose a route that would send us into high winds and seas but would get us there faster.  During the worst of it we experienced 30+ mph winds and 15 foot seas.  Despite making personal safety job #1, I suffered a dislocated shoulder when a wave crashed over the side of the boat, washing me down the deck.  It would have been “man overboard” had I not clung to a stanchion.  On another occasion, mates were working the bow as it dug deep into crashing waves nearly tossing two crew members overboard – not once but several times.

Was this safe?  Most would say no.  But the risks we took were calculated risks.  The boat and the crew (my shoulder included) paid a price for those risks.  We endured five straight days of 20-30 mph winds, high seas and a boat heeled over at 30-40 degrees – leading to a special kind of pain and suffering.  The experience of novelty and loss of control was, I imagine, like a rocket-lift-off during an earthquake.  Nothing is easy in those conditions: Simple tasks like cooking, using the head, standing, walking or sleeping became difficult and took a major toll on the crew.  Taking the far southern, trade-wind route would have been safer and surely more comfortable, but it would have forced us to endure the risk of losing speed and not achieving our goal.

In business as in yacht racing, you must ensure that you “get there”.  However, playing it safe—having a me-too product or never risking investment to grow your organization—will never make your company a a high performer.

Barriers and Competition

On our boat, we divided our 10-man crew into two watches of five each.  As the race progressed and we moved up through the leader ranks, the two watches developed a healthy competition.  After every shift members of the watch stepping down would not be shy about their accomplishments.  “We had an average boat speed of 8.5 knots.  Beat that.”  The two watches pushed themselves not just to demonstrate their own skills but also for the good of the team and our progress toward our mission to win.

This sense of competition can even break through seemingly unbreakable barriers. In our case that barrier was top boat speed.  On the downwind legs of the race, each watch would push the boat to its limits trying to get the highest speed.  The speeds were 11.5 knots, then 12.5, then 13 and 14 – a result achieved by catching the wind in the massive spinnaker and surfing down the enormous Atlantic swells.  Then, in the last week of the race we began another surf in the trough of the wave, slowing the boat to 7 knots.  We watched the speed readout as the wave squeezed under our boat from the stern: 7, 8, 9,10 knots—the rudder began a high-pitched hum—11, 12, 13 knots—the hum got louder and we wondered how long we could ride this wave—14, 15 and then it happened: 16.4 knots!  A new record for EH01! (We later checked with Beneteau and were told that our speed was also a record for that boat.)

Competition is the fuel of our capitalist system.  Just as we made the boat go faster and faster without regard for barriers, businesses today continue to make products and deliver services faster, cheaper, and better.  In business you always encounter barriers, but to be successful you must first see them for what they are and then respond to them effectively.   As one successful CEO wrote, “The first job of a leader is to describe reality” – including your assets, liabilities, barriers and opportunities.  Then you figure out how to use your assets to break through (or avoid) the barriers and achieve your goal.  You accomplish this through focus and discipline along with experimentation and innovation, always keeping your eye on your mission and goal.

I have never understood why people say, “If that would work, I’m sure someone would already be doing it.”  But if everyone said that, then nothing would ever get done.  So whether you are starting a new business or growing your current business, do what a good racing sailor does: Mobilize your assets, dampen or neutralize your liabilities, and then look at barriers as opportunities to beat your competition and become the best.

You Can’t Manage What You Don’t Measure

On EH01 we were constantly tracking data to monitor our performance.  We decided that the key metric we needed to optimize to accomplish our mission of winning was average boat speed.  We would constantly watch the speed readout and trim the spinnaker to get an extra tenth of a knot out of the boat.  All night and all day for 20 days you would hear, “Grind!” and “Hold!” “Ease!” and other commands as the trimmers tweaked the sails.

After each watch we would report the average boat speed to determine how we were doing with what was expected, given the wind speed and sailing angle.  We also used software to run scenario after scenario on our computer to find our optimal route to St. Lucia, given constantly changing information about winds, currents and weather patterns.

In business, data are of vital importance.  Once you have defined your mission, it is essential to determine your key financial, economic, market size and other drivers and how they will guide you in managing your company toward accomplishing its mission. On the boat it was easy because we had instruments to tell us that information, but as a manager you should develop your own dashboard to tell you how you are doing; This may include customer satisfaction, profit per square foot of retail space or a host of other measures that give you a window on your performance.

We were able to push ourselves because first, we knew the goal and second, we knew how we were doing.  One is of no use without the other.

Bold Decision-Making and Execution

The importance of bold decision-making and execution showed when we decided to turn west.  We were faced with a crucial decision: Continue south and hope the trade winds would establish, or turn west and beat into 20-30 mph winds for days.  Our skipper was analyzing the two decisions when one evening, the first-mate woke up the skipper and said, “I think we should turn.”  The skipper looked around, looked the first mate in the eye and said, “OK.” He then went back to sleep.  He trusted his first-mate’s judgment.

We decided to turn west a few hundred miles north of the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast.  This was a bold move but not as bold as some.  A few boats made the westward turn immediately south of the starting point in the Canary Islands, which brought 30 mph headwinds and high seas almost immediately.  These boats were well ahead of us at the point we decided to turn, but then came a lesson in geometry and a lesson in execution.


The geometry lesson:  In sailing, the shortest distance between two points is still a straight line; but the fastest route may not be a straight line.

The execution lesson: After we turned west, we soon faced the same weather as the boats to our north who turned west earlier.  It was bad but we held our course and executed, doing our best to catch up with the northern boats, almost 200 miles ahead of us.  But as we tracked the course of the other boats, our computer monitor told us the lead boat was taking a sharp turn south.  Reason: The head winds and seas were too much for the boat and crew; they wanted relief.  They continued south, crossing our path well behind us, putting us in 2nd place and eventually in the lead.


Above is our path in red and the path of our closest competitors in, We Sale for the Whale in blue and Blue Nights in purple.  Note our Southern route turning west before the Cape Verde Islands and crossing paths with Blue Nights as they turned south.

Bold decision making and execution go hand-in-hand; one is no good without the other.  If you make a bold decision but don’t execute or execute on a weak decision you will be doomed to mediocre performance.  In business, establish your company’s goal, analyze how you will get there, get the right people on board, determine how you will measure and evaluate your progress, then execute, keeping an eye on your own performance and that of others in case mid-course corrections are warranted.


In speaking with successful entrepreneurs, I often hear luck sited as a key reason for success.  But my experience studying business, running a business, speaking with many successful entrepreneurs and crossing the Atlantic have shown me that, yes, luck is a factor in success, but to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “I am a great believer in luck: the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

In over 20 days of racing over 3,500 nautical miles of ocean, we only won by 40 minutes – 40 minutes out of more than 28,000 minutes of racing.  We may have experienced luck:  The winds could have changed; we could have selected the wrong course; our equipment could have failed.  But these things didn’t happen.  Instead, our preparation, our good assets (people, equipment, technology, and information),our training, the long watches, the constant trimming, the endurance of everything from hellish weather and equipment failures to dislocated shoulders gave us the opportunity to win.  But actually winning?  The crucial ingredients were focus, discipline, perseverance and leadership.  Those who work hard may not get lucky and may fail; but for those who don’t work hard – and those without focus, discipline and perseverance – no amount of luck will bring success.


The winning crew of Europa Horizons 01 (called EH01), a UK-flagged 47’ Beneteau First, at anchor in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, after completing the 25th annual ARC race from Spain’s Canary Islands to the Caribbean.


Ben Burgess lives on his restored 35’ Pearson sailboat in Sarles Marina in Annapolis, Maryland, where he is involved in marketing, boat rentals, and other aspects of the marine industry.

The ARC is the world’s largest sailing event.  See  ARC 2010 included 233 yachts from 26 nations.  EHO1 was one of 19 yachts competing in the IRC Racing Division, run under the auspices of the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC).  The racing boats were first to start, crossing the line towards the southwest of the Grand Turk Islands lying off the northwest coast of Africa.  All 19 boats flew spinnakers for the start.  EHO1 (GBR), was the first across the line – followed by Alcor V (ITA), Caro (GER), Marisja (NED), We Sail for the Whale (AUT) and Nibani (ITA). 


I am the President of The NorthStar Group where we help small businesses start or grow their business through branding, digital media, eCommerce and strategic planning.

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