Sail training raises trust and team spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 February, 2008, 12:00am

When Royal Skandia Life Assurance decided to introduce a team-building programme for its staff in Hong Kong, it didn't take long to settle on a suitable activity. Last April the company struck a five-year deal with the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club to sponsor sail training available to the general public, so it made perfect sense to ask the club to reciprocate by running occasional training days tailored for its employees.

The basic intention was to teach a new skill, away from the office environment. By doing this, it would be possible for staff from different levels to work together on a practical and enjoyable challenge, thereby fostering team spirit and in many cases revealing hidden talents. 'When you are sailing, you need to build up trust and co-operation,' said Peggy Wong Kit-bing, marketing manager for Royal Skandia. 'Staff learn about themselves and get to understand each other's strengths and weaknesses.'

The first training day, for about 25 participants, was last August at Middle Island near Repulse Bay. It began with an introductory one-hour talk given by the yacht club's sail training manager. This covered the key principles of sailing and was followed by a shore-based session to get a feel for the equipment and to fit life-jackets. Participants then paired off and took to the water in 15-foot dinghies. Each team had an instructor on board to guide them through the intricacies of how to manoeuvre the boat, read the direction of the wind and adjust the two sails and the spinnaker.

'It took the whole morning to get the feel of the wind,' said marketing officer Sandy Liu Sze-ki. 'You also have to work together to get the balance of the boat in order to move more smoothly.'

After an animated lunch break during which everyone was keen to compare experiences, the teams went out again to practise their new skills. They switched positions in the boat, giving each person the chance to listen to and give instructions on when to tack or where to find the wind. Towards the end of the afternoon, some crews even got to the point of organising light-hearted races.

'The participants loved it,' Ms Wong said. 'People have realised it is a sport they like, and that they have the ability to be leaders as well. They have seen you can't get on by ignoring others. It takes a high level of co-operation if one person is trimming the spinnaker, so each of them must be responsible for the part they play.'

She said the exercise had provided several direct benefits. It had given everyone the opportunity to explore their potential, boost their self-confidence, and hopefully absorb lessons which they could apply in the workplace.

From the management perspective, it was a chance to see who had leadership potential and who was an effective team player. And the way certain individuals dealt with unfamiliar problems was a revelation.

'Some colleagues are quite junior in the office, but their leadership skills really came out when they were in a different role,' Ms Wong said. She said beforehand, some staff - particularly those who were poor swimmers - had been sceptical about the idea. But afterwards, they said they'd had fun and picked up new skills quickly. 'As management, we have evaluated the benefits and found this is a good activity for building a bond between colleagues,' Ms Wong said.

'It was a good chance to have fun together, try different things and push beyond our boundaries,' said Ms Liu. 'It has made me feel more confident at work and in life. The big lesson for me was that I could overcome some scary things. The instructor was very professional ... otherwise I would have fallen into the sea.'

Building on the initial success of the programme, Ms Wong already has plans to expand it. She intends to include a sail training day as part of the general induction for new recruits, and will encourage staff to sign up for longer courses at the yacht club. She's also offering Skandia clients the chance to do the one-day programmes, and hopes to extend it to school-age youngsters and underprivileged children. 'We think sailing is a good sport and want to encourage more people to take part,' Ms Wong said, noting the company's ongoing sponsorship of international events such as the famous Cowes Week regatta in Britain.

On course

One-day course teaches staff the basics of sailing

Expert instruction provided by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club

Benefits include team spirit, self-confidence and identifying leadership potential

Enthusiastic response from staff, who have fun and learn a new skill