Having a career in yachting never used to be something you planned. Ask anyone who got into yachting as it evolved in the 1980s and 1990s and you’ll likely get a story that sounds something like this: Hated the desk job, took a vacation to the Caribbean, discovered that someone would actually pay me to work on a yacht, jumped at the chance, never looked back.
Or perhaps like this:
Grew up on boats, met a captain one day who told me about being crew, took that first job for no pay, never looked back.
But now, in the days of amped up professional credentials, hyper-important resumes and the perfect appearance, it’s common for new yacht crew to plan their progression, understand the possibilities and work toward a goal. Books have been written to educate the masses on just how to get into yachting.
If the captains at our monthly roundtable discussion had it all to do over again, they would have planned their yachting careers better from the beginning.
“I graduated university and had a career for 10 years, but I was unhappy,” one captain said. “I would have skipped that first career altogether.”
“If I had it to do again, I’d go to maritime college and get a chief mate’s unlimited,” said another captain. A commercial license works in yachting, but a yachting license does not get a person far in the commercial world, limiting options as you get further in your career, he said.
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 A13.
Our captains this month were a mix of those who had grown up around boats and never did anything else and those who had previous careers that they left for the pull of the sea. Yachting affords them all a way to make a living doing something they love.
“Whenever there was a boat around, I would take a pier head and ask, ‘can I go?’” one captain said.
“I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” said another.
Even the captain whose job keeps him at the dock is forgiving. He knows there are many captains eager for a job that will let them be close to family so, at least for now, he keeps his head down and enjoys having a girlfriend.
That sparked a conversation about yachting and marriage, or, more precisely, the feeling of yachting or family.
“Funny how this industry ruins a lot of marriages,” one captain said.
“Yacht captains are not good marriage material,” said another.
“Unless you marry someone familiar with the industry,” said the first. “The only place to be a yacht captain and have a family is the South of France. At the end of October, they button up the yacht for the winter and then take it out again in May. That gives you six months with your family. It works there, but I haven’t found anywhere else where it works.”
“When I got married, I was coming home every night,” a third captain said. “That led to coming home every week to coming home every couple of weeks to being gone more than a month at a time. My marriage didn’t last but it’s still my career though.”
Despite the regret several captains seemed to have, they left marriages before they left yachting.
“I remember as a little boy, people would ask, do you want a 40-foot boat when you grow up?” one captain said. “I never thought I’d be on a 100-foot boat or a 150-foot boat.”
“Your career just evolves,” another said.
“We take the opportunities as they are presented to us,” said a third. “The industry is so arbitrary. You could be sitting on that bar stool, that night, and that’s where the next opportunity comes from. This industry, more than any other, is arbitrary.”
But can’t you plan a career path and work toward it, moving up the ranks, moving up in size? Here, the captains hesitated.
“Well, there’s definitely some planning,” one captain said. “Look at all the courses we have to take.”
“And the sea time,” another said.
“Those courses, that sea time, qualifies you to sit on that bar stool to meet someone who can possibly give you a job,” that third captain said. “As crew, you can plan it out. You can say ‘I want to be on a 150-foot yacht in the Med doing charters’ and find that job.
“But for captains,” he continued, “you have to be in the right place at the right time. And you should know that crew agencies don’t find captains jobs. I haven’t found one with a crew agency in 11 years.”
“Preparedness only awaits good opportunity,” one captain said, reciting a proverb an old captain used to tell him.
So it’s all about the bar stool? Really?
“Or the golf course,” another captain said.
“Even on the dock, walking by when some owner just got rid of his captain,” said a third. “Or the dockmaster knows of a boat where that just happened.”
One captain noted that there are “two groups of guys in yachting”: those captains who enter the industry young then have kids and are forced out, and the captains who either skipped that part of their life (having a family) or had another career and come in later.
“There are more older guys in yachting now,” he said. “In the last 10 years, the insurance company has had more to say about who’s running boats. They want to see more qualifications.”
“And owners are maybe recognizing that young guys are not such a great thing to have after all,” another said. “People with more experience are more preventive; younger guys are more reactive.”
I was curious to learn if any of these captains had had mentors as they got into yachting.
“No,” one captain said. “I was scratching at walls, going completely against everything my upbringing said I was supposed to want to do.”
“I didn’t have a mentor getting into the industry, but it’s part of our jobs to mentor, teaching young crew how to dress, how to act, how to keep their cabin clean,” another captain said.
But that’s different than being a mentor. Being strict and teaching crew isn’t necessarily mentoring them, is it?
“Sure it is,” this captain said. “We’re the ones who set the standard on how that boat is run. They can learn from that to help them in their career.”
“You don’t want someone on the boat who doesn’t want to be there,” another captain said. “We’ve got to be willing to bring someone on and encourage them.”
“I didn’t have a mentor, but being on boats all my life with Navy guys, you learn immediate respect,” said a third. “I learned from everyone, even the construction guy who told me when I went surfing instead of going to work, at least I should call if I wasn’t going to show up. It’s about trying to do the right thing instead of what you want to do.”
The captains talked about trying to steer their careers, but were resolved to the reality that sometimes a career takes you where you don’t want to go. Sometimes, one captain said, you take the job with the owner that the industry knows is bad because you need a job. You worry that it will taint you for future jobs — you worked for that guy? — but realize you have to pay the mortgage.
“It isn’t always what you want it to be but it’s the opportunity in front of you,” one captain said. “Sometimes you take a hit, and you’ve just got to work.”
Another captain said that’s not always a bad thing. A colleague of his with a string of those “bad” opportunities dressed his resume to say he’s not been out of work instead of highlighting that he’s worked on six yachts in two years.
When I first started in yachting, I wrote a story about a young captain leaving the industry to be home with his young family. He said an old captain once told him that if you can’t retire from yachting by the time you were 45, you were doing it wrong. So why were all these captains still in yachting?
“He was talking about kickbacks,” one captain said. “It used to be a lot more prevalent than it is now, and much more in the Med, but that’s what he meant.”
None of these captains were thinking of retiring. Sure, they have made some moves for the inevitable, buying property, making some investments, even buying a sailboat. But they aren’t planning for it any time soon.
“Will I retire? Yes,” one captain said. “ Do I know how? Yes. Do I know when? No.”
Getting them to leave the industry would take something serious such as an injury or health issues, aging parents, or maybe even the ever-encroaching regulations.
“I think I’ll always be involved,” one captain said. “I might be more land based, but I still get an enormous amount of pleasure from yachting.”
“We become mediocre quickly when we step ashore,” another captain said. And he told the story of the captain of a large, high-profile Feadship who “retired” only to next be seen getting coffee in a brokerage house.
“When we’re responsible for the safety of the ship and for people’s well-being, we’re exceptional,” this captain continued. “We work hard, but it’s exceptional work that we do.”
“I’ll take the jobs as they come in,” said a third. “Who knows where I’ll be down the road? It’s hard to tell now if I’ll even think about it [retiring].”
There is a difference how crew think about yachting and how captains think about it, another captain said.
“Crew can do it in 10 years, bank every penny, and go on with their next career,” he said. “A lot of crew use this industry as a stepping stone for something else. But captains don’t. We can’t identify with the guy who goes to work at 7 a.m. and does the same thing every day.
Yachting is dynamic. It’s always something different. In a career ashore, that’s what we need.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com. If you make your living working as a yacht captain, e-mail us for an invitation to our monthly Bridge luncheon.