To become a skipper requires a significant investment of time: 360 or so days logged at sea, a number of tests and trials, in addition to an American Sailing Association certification. I was reminded of this on a recent sailing expedition in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a novice sailor. Now, I have been sailing several times, even taking lessons on Lake Michigan one summer that resulted in several flipped dinghies and a mediocre knowledge of tying proper knots on various lines. Yet every time I’m on the water trying to remember how to tack and jibe and when to release the mainsail and jib, I am reminded of the importance of intuition on the high seas. Feeling the wind. Understanding when to come about and when to heel. Remembering which wakes to avoid. Discerning your points of sail. I step off every sailboat feeling mentally drained. Meanwhile, our instructor—with 15 years of wind-navigating experience under her belt and well on her way to skipper-dom—was entirely at ease navigating the water.

Intuition. That’s what it boils down to. For her, sailing was second nature. For me, it requires thinking like a physicist. (Oh wait, that’s actually helpful on the ocean. Something about high and low pressure systems.) Of course, there is a school of thought that intuition (or instinct, or gut feelings, or whatever you want to call it) can be learned. Perhaps. It is true that with experience often comes the ability to anticipate. Which is why, with years of training, most are able to safely chart a course—whether as a captain on the water or as a captain of enterprise in the tumultuous markets of the past few years.

This month, in our annual MFE Top 50, which ranks the largest owners, managers, builders, and renovators in the apartment industry, we pay homage to those companies whose experience and intuition have helped them survive one of the worst years in real estate. Take Highlands Ranch, Colo.-based REIT UDR, which prizes its ability to predict inflexion points in the market and time its activities in accordance. (See “Youth Vote” on page 36.) Or how about Greenbelt, Md.-based The Bozzuto Group, which, despite a significant drop in construction business, was able to hunker down, demonstrate discipline thanks to surviving three previous real estate downturns, and deliver a sizable number of units in 2009 by sticking to its core business strategy.

Of course, not all players were able to capitalize on their past experiences or successfully leverage their intuition. While among owners and property managers there were very few changes in the ranks, the Top 50 Builders appeared to be the victim of a tsunami, with previous high rollers being washed away altogether. That explains why longtime list toppers such as Trammell Crow Residential, the country’s largest builder of apartments for nearly five years running, and Wood Partners didn’t break ground on a single unit in all of 2009 (though they project new starts in 2010). (See “Vanishing Giants” on page 57.)

Perhaps these companies did not follow their instincts. Maybe their business acumen was insufficient to sustain them through the credit market collapse. Or it’s possible that their leadership failed to properly brace their company for the challenges that came in 2008 and 2009.

For the firms that have survived, however, we salute you. We know you will continue to forge ahead and take this uncertain, yet eternally optimistic, new world order head on. In other words, prepare to tackle the future. Or in my case, prepare to tack.