In a maritime nation, the number of nautical expressions that have crept into everyday language isn’t that surprising. Sponging, in the doldrums, learning the ropes, on an even keel, loose cannons, and weathering a storm are all terms that have stowed away in mainstream language. (And if only more sailors could smuggle some plain English aboard, sailing trips might help the uninitiated feel slightly less all at sea.) Mastering the sea has been a key strand in our history.

A lot of these expressions have found their way into Business English too: above board, the whole nine yards, chewing the fat, bail out … even bigwigs, skyscrapers and slush funds were originally found at sea. It’s not hard to fathom why: not only do we have a naval history, but there’s an attractive sense of derring-do about some of the language – delivering broadsides, biting bullets, taking someone down a peg or two. The tang in the language is pure sea-salt.

But you can go overboard with analogies. One little phrase I’ve heard too often – at sea and on land – deserves a snub that takes the wind out its sails: plain sailing. Far be it from me to scuttle a treasured expression and run the gauntlet of disapproval, but surely it’s over-reaching itself as a business analogy? It’s sounding a bit pooped, and really should pipe down.

Certainly you can come up with a neat sounding comparison between sailing and business. You have a captain to act as leading light, and a team: navigators, deckhands of all varieties, even flunkeys, whipping boys, drifters and idlers. At least one of the crew might be seen as a mainstay. Some organisations – usually the larger ones – even have a figurehead, sometimes dressed to the nines. If you’re unlucky, you might attract a few fly-by-nights as well. And that’s just the crew.

But what about the actual art of it? Like business, you’re free to raise your anchor anywhere in British waters with no qualifications. If you have the capital, buy the boat and set sail. There are qualifications (Competent Crew, Day Skipper, and so on), but no requirement to take them bearing down on you. And on a calm sea with light winds, you’ll probably forge ahead. But you don’t just need a destination and know how to read the charts. You must factor in the tide, wind speed and direction, be aware of hidden obstacles and shallow waters, know how to interpret signs, and how to communicate the right actions to each member of the crew. (Who may mutiny if they’re mishandled too often.)

And you don’t have time to learn these skills when the wind turns, the swell increases, or the boat gybes. Conditions can change at a rate of knots, and you need to know to respond there and then if you’re not going to foul up. Just like leadership on land, captaincy at sea needs the right habits and behaviours to be ingrained and embedded.

Seen at close quarters, the idea of plain sailing doesn’t hold water. For those who fancy themselves as buccaneers, that might be part of the appeal – the ship’s biscuit that feeds their risk appetite. But remember the words of Amelia Earheart:

Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price”

And bear in mind that she came to a bitter end, sadly presumed lost at sea.

[For a list of several more nautical terms that have stowed away in everyday English, go to See the Sea.

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