When most people thinking of yachting, they likely think of pretty things: sunny days, clear warm waters, people smiling and having extraordinary adventures.
But yacht captains aren’t most people when it comes to this impression. With their intimate knowledge of yachting and their behind-the-scenes perspective, we were curious to know what constitutes a great day in yachting. Was it the things that most people think about — the scenery, the new adventure — or something else?
Turns out, it’s something else.
When we asked the yacht captains assembled for our monthly From the Bridge captains luncheon to think about their best day in yachting, it took a while for the anecdotal stories to emerge. Most were stumped to label just one day their best.
“There are so many good times, how do you choose?” one captain said.
“It’s easier to ask what our worst day was, because those really stand out,” another captain said. “We have so many good days.”
The six captains in attendance are not identified in this story in an effort to encourage frank and open discussion. They are identified as a group in a photograph that appears on page XX.
Without too much prodding, however, each captain was able to recall special days that stood out.
One captain told the story of a charter trip when a young girl who was handicapped was afraid to go snorkeling. This captain, who was a mate at the time, talked to the girl for days, encouraging her and preparing her for the excursion. It took 45 minutes to actually get her in the water, but once in, she didn’t want to get out.
“Six months later, I got a letter from the family that said all she wants to do is be in the water, you changed her life,” this captain said. “That always has stuck with me. We truly change people’s perspectives.”
Eventually, we discovered that their best times in yachting were more likely to be a great couple of hours instead of a whole day.
“One of the highlights was going to the Maldives,” another captain said. “The water was so clear, I didn’t believe the chart. I put a wave runner in the water and sent a crew over with a lead line and did a sounding of the area. We anchored there; it was like we were anchored in a fish tank.
“A lot of landfalls are always incredible to me,” this captain said. “You come into a new place, the light is just right, the weather is nice, everything is perfect. It’s an experience you can’t encapsulate.”
Sometimes, the best times last just a moment.
“Crossing the Atlantic, dolphins were playing in the bow,” one captain said. “I woke up the crew to see it. It was a great moment that lasted maybe a half hour. And I remember going out to do watersports with the crew, going diving and they see their first shark. It’s not work, but it’s still the opportunity that yachting gives you.”
Through the course of the conversation, it became apparent that the best times these captains have from their yachting careers so far had less to do with places and more to do with people and the sharing of life’s experiences.
“Many days in physical locations are good days,” one captain said. “But it’s also the people you’re with and the experience.”
“There was a volcano erupting in the Aeolian Islands,” another captain recalled. “We had a charter the next day and someone had a birthday. We brought them by it. It was a damp night and they were all up on the skybridge, bundled in towels, drinking champagne. And then they see it. We had seen it, but they hadn’t. The look on their faces was great. That’s something they’ll never forget.”
That sort of situation resonated with several captains. Sharing an experience with others may be more memorable than actually having it themselves.
“Like going through the locks on the St. Lawrence,” one captain said. “I was awestruck the first time. And then going through the second time, watching their [the crew’s] reaction was amazing to me.”
Which is better?
“It’s tough to say,” this captain said.
One captain who has spent a lot of time teaching owners to sail recalls those experiences as his fondest in yachting.
“That’s the real buzz I get,” this captain said. “Seeing the joy and excitement when the owner takes the helm for the first time. That’s the reason for wanting to do what they do in yachting. And for me, that’s the really rewarding part of what I do.”
“When you first get them to pop out of the water, that kind of buzz when you teach someone something,” another captain said. “And having a good time with the crew, the owner and guests, especially when they’re people you want to be with.”
That last sentiment rang true for most of the captains around the table, and they reminisced about their best days with their crew, days that made them proud to be yacht captains.
“My best moments in yachting are the crew I had gotten to know, building a cohesive team,” one captain said. “On my last day on one boat, the owner wasn’t there. It was a normal day of trying to get everything done, rushing around to get my taxi for the airport and I’m leaving and everyone’s disappeared. Walking off the passerelle, everyone is there, lined up with their epaulettes and dress whites, applauding. I will never forget that.”
“Getting crew to come together, dock together, you know you’re achieving something,” another captain said. “It’s rewarding to see everyone happy about it, too. One time, we had a man overboard, not a drill. We got him back on board in 2 minutes. That was rewarding to see everyone come together.”
“Sometimes, the best day, even at the dock, started early and lasted long,” said a third. “At the end of the day, you shower and sit down with the crew for dinner and you got so much accomplished. You’ve all gone through it together. And you feel great at how productive you were.”
“Every day has that potential,” another said.
“Every day is a great day, until proven otherwise,” said yet another.
Here’s where the group got philosophical, and defined exactly what sort of arrangement gives them their best days.
“There no management companies, the owner leaves me alone, I have a great crew,” one captain said.
“The boat runs well, the crew clicks and the owner and guests are having a good time in a place they don’t normally get to see,” another said.
“My best day is when the owner comes to me and says, ‘We want to have fun. Can you help us with that?’” said a third.
Several captains noted that even if the owner or guests aren’t having fun — because you can’t always help everyone with their attitude, no matter the setting — even then, it’s possible to have great days if you work with great people.
“That common adversity brings crew together,” one captain said. “We had a stew who was in tears nearly every day because the owner was so tough, but we had great retention onboard because the crew were all in it together.”
“One thing it doesn’t depend on is the tonnage of the boat you are on,” another captain said. “You can be on a crappy, small boat, and have great days. And you can be on a big, beautiful boat where the owner’s attitude made it not so good.”
Even from the beginning, these captains said they knew seeing new places would be memorable, but few thought the highlights of their yachting careers would turn out to be the camaraderie they have with their crew.
“I had no idea what it would be like,” one captain said. “I came from commercial. I had absolutely no idea. I was wondering if I had to pay for my own food, let alone get a salary.”
“That’s why I take deckhands who want to work for free, the ones who want to do it just for the experience,” another said. “I remember that kid. I was that kid.”
Several captains said they’ve come to realize, too, how important their role is in giving the owner an escape from the demands of daily life. And that they get to see this person as few others do.
“How the office sees them and how we see them are completely differently,” one captain said. “We’re their exhalation, their relaxation.”
“I’ve learned a lot sharing time with these guys,” another captain said. “This is his getaway, on the yacht. Part of my responsibility is all that time leading up to his time on the yacht so it can be the best experience it can.
“If you look at the owner’s time on the vessel compared to what it costs …,” this captain began.
“No, never do that,” another captain interrupted.
Several captains chuckled, knowing how little business sense megayachts make, despite their commitment to run them professionally. Yachts should be about enjoyment, but they are expensive.
“When the owner came, he’s one way, but then he relaxes and I get it,” a captain said. “A lot of that depends on the attitude we have about it.”
And they never cease to be amazed at how great the days turns out when they feel appreciated.
“It was my birthday and we had done lots of fishing on a great yacht with a lovely owner,” one captain said. “He gave me a handmade fishing rod with my name on it. You know then that this is appreciation for what you do and how you do it.”
“Appreciation is great,” another captain said. “Don’t get me wrong, most owners are generous and kind. But it’s great when you get that feedback, even from charterers.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.