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Drinking with the boss

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After all this time interviewing captains and picking their brains every month (more than 100 times now), we’re still surprised at what they tell us.

This month’s captains lunch was no different.
We posted a question a fellow captain was grappling with to see what other captains thought: do you drink with the boss?
There was no hesitation, no qualifications of “it depends” — at least initially. These captains said “yes”.
“I’ve been with the same guy for years,” one captain said. “As soon as we get to the dock, he will hand me a rum. If I try to resist and say something like ‘Look, I’ve got work to do, I can’t’ he’ll start with the wash down so we’re done faster.
“Or he’ll trick me and say ‘here, hold this’ and then walk away,” this captain continued. “After all this time, we kind of have that rapport.”
As always, individual comments are not attributed to any one person in particular so as to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in a photograph on page xx.
“Yes,” another captain said. “I was with the same owner for years. We got it down to a refined dance. The first night, you politely decline. By the last night, you are sort of obligated.”
“It’s been 50-50 of regularly and never on boats I’ve worked on the past 15 years,” another captain said.
Most captains had stories to tell of an owner who challenged them with this situation at some point in their career. And they learned — some the hard way — techniques around it.
“You can’t be rude,” one captain said. “When you are handed a drink, you take it, say thanks and go on your way, then dump it and carry on.”
“When the tequila comes out, you say ‘I’ll get the next round’ and come back with a bottle of water,” another said.
And beware the subtle clues from the boss. When he invites the captain in a formal way, calling him “Capt. John Smith”, take that as a hint that he’s just being nice in front of his guests and graciously decline, one captain suggested.
Or when the owner opens a bottle of bourbon and crushes the bottle cap, beware that he intends to drink it all with you, another said.
“It’s your chance to earn your integrity or destroy it,” a captain said. “Two or three glasses of wine with dinner is one thing, but you can’t get drunk, even if the owner is. It’s your chance to prove you are responsible. And the crew see it, too.”
Eventually, we got around to the “it depends” realities of yachting.
“It depends on the boat and the owner,” one captain said. “I’ve worked on dry boats that had it written in the policy manual. But if everything’s safe and secure, sure.
“And if it’s not, you give them the information and tell them the situation,” this captain said. “If I drink with you now, we’re not moving from this anchorage tonight. Then they decide what’s more important. If they decide to stay here, we stay here and drink. I do what I’m told to do.”
“I never tell an owner ‘no’,” another captain said. “I give them options. Saying ‘no’ is not an option.”
Do you stop at one or two drinks, even when the owner is set on drinking more?
“Absolutely,” one captain said. “Some of the crew can stay and enjoy; the rest of us will pick up the slack in the morning. And the owner is happy.”
“I worked for one owner who was a big drinker,” another said. “I was his captain/bartender. But if it becomes a dangerous situation, you have to separate yourself from that.”
This captain eventually left that job.
“I work for a new owner,” one captain began as others expressed their regrets. “But he’s great. he’s real friendly. That’s where it gets blurry. On the last night of a trip, we’ll drink out, and almost always something disastrous happens.
“But my last owner didn’t drink and I swore I would never work for another owner who doesn’t drink,” this captain said. “It’s too f***ing boring.”
When I asked what happens if a captain doesn’t drink, they all laughed. Those captains, it seems, have to find a like-minded owner or their tenure will be short-lived.
This set the conversation on a course into the philosophical as we discussed the state of mind of an owner on his yacht. Owners use their yachts to get away from their lives, they said, to decompress and to turn off their “boss” moniker, if only for a little while. A few of these captains fully recognized their role in that special relationship a man has with his yacht and his crew. And they acknowledged that it often includes alcohol.
“These guys are CEOs with thousands of employees who are always sucking up to them,” one captain said.
“His captain and his crew can party with him and we don’t work in his office,” said another.
Is that why owners will ask his captain and/or crew to go out with him for drinks?
“They don’t have their friends with them,” said a third. “And because crew are adventurous, are travellers and have good stories to share. People like to hear these things. They want to engage the crew.
“You’re on the payroll and you’re safe to party with.”
“I’ve been given a pile of money to go find girls and bring them back to the boat,” a captain said. “They want a wingman.”
When that happens, one captain said he always makes another plan for a couple hours later — a reservation at an exclusive club or restaurant — that will get them all off the boat so the crew can clean up and the boss can still be popular.
“You have to make rules with the owner as best you can,” said a third. “There has to be a chain of command. With the stew or the mate, the owner has to ask to take them to the pub.”
So the crew are permitted to drink with the owner? Again, it depends.
“The owner is the owner, not a guest,” one captain said. “He’s the only one who can invite the crew out.
“If you’ve got half a brain, you can judge the situation,” another said. “If the direction is not clear and someone gets out of line, who’s at fault? The guy at the top. The code of conduct has to be clear.”
“But it can change by the hour,” the first captain said. “They’ve got to have enough smarts because it can change.”
“The whole point is that alcohol impairs judgment,” a third captain said. “Trust comes over time. I distrust all crew from the start until I see them drunk. You’ve got to assume they’re going to be a bad drunk.”
When evaluating crew and how they’ll handle drinking with the owner, these captains offered a few tips:
Beware of bingers. Look at Facebook for photos. Ask as the crew house if they were always coming in late or waking up late.
“I take crew out to get drunk to see if they get up in the morning,” one captain said.
“It all comes down to judgment,” another captain said. “I trust my judgment. The trick now is to find crew with judgment.”
“It’s a life-long journey,” a captain quipped.

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at editorial@the-triton.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.

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