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Natita captain: Crew rotation is the only schedule that makes sense

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Capt. Charles Dugas-Standish has worked 25 years to land the gig he has now on M/Y Natita. 


Sure, it’s a beautiful 217-foot (66m) superyacht, and a captain isn’t likely to end up on one of those without a career behind him. But it’s not the size that matters; it’s the schedule.


Capt. Dugas-Standish works four months on, two months off. Perhaps the most unique thing about the program, though, is that all crew are on rotation.


“I love it,” Natita First Officer Don McKee said. “I like to have time to not do courses, to go home and reconnect with family.”


“And you know in advance when you’re leaving so you can make plans,” Natita Stew Tiffany Faulkner said.


On the yacht now two years, Capt. Dugas-Standish said it’s taken much of that time to work the program in. It started with the engineers who were already working a one-on, one-off schedule. He pulled in the second engineer to have a three-person rotation for the two positions and made it four on, two off.


“It was just a matter of time to see the benefits,” he said.


He then added the wheelhouse, where he pulled in Capt. Don Anderson of the 187-foot (56m) M/Y Bad Girl (also owned by Natita’s owner) and relief Capt. Steve Hilton to make a three-person rotation of four on, two off on both vessels, which are both on display at the Antigua Yacht Club in this week’s Antigua Charter Yacht Show.


Natita’s senior crew were soon worked into the scheme, and junior crew were placed in a rotation of five on, one off. On Bad Girl, senior crew are on the same schedule, but junior crew work three on, one off. (It’s an older yacht with four bunks to a cabin, so it’s hard to go five months without a break, Anderson said.)
So now, the entire crews of this owner’s megayachts work on rotation.


“I love it,” Capt. Anderson said. “I actually have a life now. I’ve never done a rotation before but now I see why it’s something everybody strives for. … It’s by far the best program I’ve ever heard of.”


Capt. Anderson has been with Bad Girl just a few weeks and said he can already see the advantages.
“The biggest thing is the morale issue because crew know they’re going to get time off,” he said. “Everybody is very happy.”


The rotation schedule costs the owner more since more crew are on the payroll at full pay, so why would he do it?
“Because he’s a great businessman,” Capt. Dugas-Standish said. “You’ve got to remember, the fundamental goal behind the whole thing is professionalism, in how the yacht is run and in how it is maintained. What crew gain out of it is what he gets out of it. It’s his investment.”


Capt. Dugas-Standish minces no words when talking about the sense — or lack of — behind cutting crew to save on operating costs.


“It’s stupid,” he said. “You’re a businessman with a hundred-million-dollar project and you cut a $30,000 deckhand? It’s just stupid.”


For the cost of that one extra deckhand, he said, all the maintenance gets done. Cut just one deckhand and those left employed pick up the workload. Usually, something doesn’t get done.


“It’s a tough learning curve,” he said. “As soon as you cut crew, things get pushed aside. You’re upping the ante for things to go wrong.”


For example, heading into a shipyard period with a list of work to do, it wouldn’t be unusual for a smaller crew to only get 90 percent of it completed before the yacht is back in service. Do that a couple years in a row and it’s easy to see how a standard can quickly fade. So, too, will the value, Capt. Dugas-Standish said.


“The first thing they want to do is cut crew, and that’s the worst thing they can do,” he said. “What you do is anchor the boat. I can cut a guy $30,000 like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.


Adding extra crew to the payroll to ensure time off buys much more than an up-to-date maintenance schedule, too.


“Crew morale is another aspect,” he said. “You don’t get people who are checked out, who get 10 months in and go, ‘Oh, I broke that, sorry.’”


And they tend to stay longer so turnover — and all its ancillary expenses — is reduced.


“If you know you’ve got a bit of leave coming, you can push through and work that much harder,” said McKee, Natita’s first officer. “I know what I’ve got with this rotation. I would never leave for another first officer job without a rotation.”


The charter yachts offer the added benefit of tips, of course, but there is no 13th month or other kind of bonus. Instead, it pays for flights to and from the vessel for time off, and health insurance. Plus the time off, of course.


A few stars are properly in line for this schedule to work on these yachts.


First, it helps that the owner is familiar with the oil/gas and commercial industries. Having engineers on rotation was a no-brainer, so it wasn’t a hard sell to get the owner to see the benefit of having the rest of the crew in similar work situations.


Second, the owner has an independent yacht manager who works exclusively for the owner and who handles the logistics of his fleet of vessels. And he does a good job, Dugas-Standish said.


“What solidifies this is the manager,” he said. “You have to get past the [captains’] egos. You’ve got to sort out tips, the money, how you’ll interact with the boss. The manager takes the egos out of that.”


But even without those stars aligned, other yachts can make a rotation work if the owner agrees it is worth the cost.


To Capt. Dugas-Standish, it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way. With the savings from lower turnover, the better experience from a happier crew, and a better yacht from more consistent maintenance, he says operating without rotation is the expensive way to run a yacht in today’s economy.


And he’ll likely not do it again.


“I’ve been on yachts since 1989,” he said. “I’ve been trying my whole career to set this up.”

 

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com.

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