On Oct. 11, 29 Executive MBA students will wake up in Denver, fly to San Diego and be sailing by the end of the day. It’ll be a jarring first day and a peculiar task for seasoned professionals. But, it will be a critical learning experience. It’s been tested since the Executive MBA Team Sail Challenge was launched nearly 20 years ago.

Back then, Buie Seawell was a clinical professor of law and ethics at Daniels. Sarah Cavanaugh was a member of America3, the 1995 America’s Cup team. The two thought it would be a valuable lesson for students to learn teambuilding, leadership and ethics through sailing. They were right. It’s now part of the Executive Leadership course in the Executive MBA, which welcomed its inaugural cohort back in 1973.

“It’s sort of unusual for a landlocked university to have a sailing program, and yet, not really,” Seawell says. “Learning requires that we be put in levels of our discomfort. You’re challenged to cooperate and move beyond things that you’re competent about and do things out of a need to learn.”

Seawell says the sailing experience creates a laboratory where students get to reflect on times when things break down.

“Experiential learning is critical to teaching ethics,” he says. “Ethics is a contact support. There is no way you can be more in contact than in a cockpit of a 40-foot sailboat. You are truly dependent on each other.”

While the challenge has changed a bit over the years, the current program is a four-day experience and an excellent “practice field” for adapting and connecting; giving and receiving feedback; experiencing constructive conflict; and building high performance teams. The transfer of learning back into the world of work is an important part of the Team Sail learning objectives.

Day 1 – Forming

  • This day they are up at 4 a.m., going from land to air to boat in a day. In teams of four, with an experienced skipper and faculty member onboard, students tackle the rudiments of sailing. They are getting their feet wet at this stage, establishing ground rules and goals, and observing their similarities and differences.

Day 2 – Storming

  • This is when things get intense. With little sleep and a confusing array of sailing concepts and terminology, the stress can show. Emotions may run high, but how teams recover has a lot to do with team performance on race day, and ultimately as a cohort back in the EMBA classroom.

Day 3 – Norming & Performing

  • Teams are building agreement and consensus and assigning clear roles and responsibilities. It’s race day! It’s amazing how much they’ve learned in just a short amount of time. Students literally have the wind in their sails, and teams have a shared vision and greater efficiency. They’re focused and performing well, using skills and techniques gleaned from the last few days.

Day 4 – Adjourning

  • The final day is more relaxed, and a time to process what’s for most a powerfully transformative experience. They celebrate their accomplishments and recognize one another for all they’ve learned in a short time.

Jonathan Vaughters, CEO and co-founder of Slipstream Sports, completed the Executive MBA  program in 2014.

“We were a group of people who didn’t really know each other, weren’t close, different backgrounds. And, after three days, we were a team that was operating at a high level of efficiency that understood the differences between us; understood the strengths and weaknesses between us; and got the sail boat to move very fast,” he said.

Cavanaugh is still involved in the program and she flies in world-class skippers from around the U.S. to facilitate the seven yachts that sail along the shores of San Diego Bay.

“The skippers know our leadership curriculum. They understand what we’re trying to teach. They’re not just talented sailors,” said Lisa Grassfield, director of enrollment and marketing for the EMBA program. “Our faculty, staff and Team Sail partners take great pride in delivering an experience which has stood the test of time, and continues to be a powerful learning tool for our students.”