There Are Plenty of Good Sailing Instructors. But What Makes Someone Great?

The sailing school and charter company in which I am a member teaches the ASA/US Sailing curriculum in one of the most challenging locations there is. The San Francisco bay area sees high winds, strong currents and lots of ship traffic, and coastal/offshore students can face big and sometimes very rough seas, fog, shoals with breaking waves miles offshore, a minefield of crab traps, and even more ship traffic. It's a great program and they have a really good group of instructors. They are having an event next month and asked if I wanted to nominate an instructor for recognition, and this was what came to mind.

Here’s what I would say to every instructor: Instructors need to realize they are not just teachers but leaders. How they carry themselves as leaders is very much connected to how effective they are as teachers. People don’t enthusiastically follow (and learn from) someone they don’t respect, and good leaders know that gaining respect comes both from competence and from giving respect. That means being calm, strong, fair, secure, and honest along with being highly knowledgeable and competent.

There are some very good instructors in the program, but I’d highlight Arnstein as most strongly exemplifying all of those qualities. His leadership is not imposed on you but it comes naturally from within. He comfortably accepts being questioned and considers other ideas with thoughtful responses rather than dismissals or reprimands. He is stern if he needs to be, but never otherwise. He genuinely enjoys sharing his very deep knowledge – he is generous. And he can be extremely funny.

I’ll always smile at the memory of his walking through an emergency medical procedure that would only apply if thousands of miles from land and too many hours from rescue to have any other option. The procedure would only be contemplated if a major head injury led to such great intracranial pressure that the person “blew a pupil,” which meant death was certain in a few hours or less. The last resort was to drill a hole in their skull to relieve pressure. It happened that another student on our boat worked for a medical devices company that did deep brain stimulation, and they casually discussed the best size bit to use for drilling through skulls. I believe Arnstein liked a 14mm while the student used a 16 mm when she drilled cadaver skulls at work. (Arnstein did caveat that the discussion was not a part of the official school curriculum.)