A Year at Sea: What I Learnt on the Boat and Applying It to the Working World

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Bracken Marketing Account Manager Philippa O’Sullivan got back from sailing around the world in the Clipper Round the World yacht race a few months ago. Having sailed 40,000 miles around the globe with a crew of 20 people on a 70-foot racing yacht, here she talks about things she learnt from being in such close confines with fellow crew and how she can now transfer this to the working environment.

When I was on the boat sailing around the world in the Clipper race, I never thought that there were many similarities between being in the middle of an ocean over 1,000 kilometres away from land to sitting in an office in the bustling centre of London. I couldn’t see many similarities between things like making a cup of tea – which meant being clipped to a boat at a 45-degree angle, being doused by waves as you try to get down the stairs on the boat to then take on the challenge of keeping the kettle flat and making tea for 8 people on deck. You then had to get these 8 cups of tea back up on deck with only one hand as the other one was used for bracing yourself against each wave. Usually by the time the cup of tea got on deck it had some salt water added for good measure. This didn’t really compare to standing in the warm canteen of my old office, waiting for a cup of tea to be made, before I took it back upstairs in the lift.

However, now I am now back on dry land and have started working again for Bracken Marketing I realize that there are similarities. At Bracken Marketing it is different from  working in an office.  We are a virtual agency which means we work the hours that suit us from anywhere in the world. So although I haven’t thrown myself straight back into an office environment, I am back in working life.

Something I have realized is that people are people. Whether this is sailing through a hurricane in the North Pacific or preparing to present to 100 people in a work environment, we are all still the same deep down. We all still have anxieties, nervousness, excitement, happiness and trepidation. We all want to do a good job and have a strong work ethic. Everyone wants to work hard to deliver what is expected of them. This could be cooking a meal for 20 people in gale force 8 winds while the boat is on its side or getting a client something ahead of time.

I have learnt from a number of experiences on the boat as well - everyone has different struggles, has bad days and we need to appreciate that. You can’t expect everyone at their best every day, that would be completely unnatural! I learnt on the boat that a bit of compassion goes a long way – sometimes people want to talk about feeling a bit rubbish and sometimes they don’t, and we need to be aware of other people’s feelings. This can be the same at work. You can usually tell if someone is having a bad day – they are either vocal about it or unusually quiet and I have learnt that firstly, that’s ok, and secondly, they may need a helping hand. Even in a very confined environment like the boat, you never knew what was going on in someone else’s mind. Something that you may find quite easy, others may have been really struggling with and vice versa.

I also realized on the boat that different problems are thrown at us all the time and these problems are there to be solved. They are a challenge, but they should also be seen as an opportunity. When sailing, if something had broken on the boat or a tactic hadn’t gone to plan, it was very easy to despair a little and give up.  But the sense of achievement when you had played a part in fixing it or helping get the boat back on track was huge. I have had the same at work since getting back – if you know you’ve had a hand in helping a client or had really good feedback, you feel a sense of achievement and it makes you want to do more.  

At the end of the day, we still had to get the boat from A to B, despite feelings and everything else. And in the work environment, you still need to get the job done even if you do have bad days. But I think as crew and colleagues, it makes us better people and it makes work a lot easier if you work together. One of our mottos on the boat was ‘teamwork makes the dreamwork’ – a bit cheesy, but we said it a lot as it really was true. A problem shared is a problem halved. I know I couldn’t have got across those oceans without my crew, I also know I couldn’t work the way I am working now without my colleagues.