Any yachtie will tell you that no two jobs are the same. Every yacht, every owner, every crew is different, and it’s tough to follow the same rules from one boat to the next.
So how a captain steps onto a new command depends on myriad factors. Is the boss the same, or is it a new relationship? Is the yacht new, or previously owned? Are the crew new, or already in place? And as the departing captain, is the new captain willing to listen?
Each handover situation is equally unique. At this month’s From the Bridge captains luncheon, we discussed the procedures at play when a yacht changes captains. The captains in attendance agreed that unless you are on a large yacht over 500 tons, there aren’t any industry standards about it.
“I’ve run 18-20 yachts in my career and rarely is there the handover that we would like there to be,” one captain said. “There’s usually some traumatic event where the old captain wants out quickly and the owner wants a new guy in quickly. You may get a phone number, but my experience is that you have to learn on the job, real fast.”
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.
It was that learn-on-the-fly situation that resonated most with the attending captains.
“When you take delivery of a new boat, you have a nice, written manual,” a captain said. “Taking over a second-hand boat is a totally different story. When the owner moved up, I handed down to new captains and both times they were younger guys and they’re too shy to ask any questions. Then I get 2-3 phone calls a day.”
“I’m still getting calls, three years after leaving,” another captain said. “It’s the third captain since I left and I’m still getting calls. I did a handover manual and they have all my logs, but the quickest thing to do is call. I’m fine with it. I really like the boat and when you have that situation, you want to see it work out.”
“When you’re staying with the owner and getting a new boat, you know how the play goes, you’re just changing the stage,” said a third. “If you’re coming to a new boat with a new owner, it’s much different.”
Each captain had a handover story. The captains who have worked on larger yachts seemed to have had a more professional experience.
“You must be professional about it,” one captain said. “There’s an official handover document under ISM. You have an obligation as a professional to write down passwords, procedures, safe combination, things like that.”
Another captain told the story of a previous captain who had wiped the computer clean.
“That’s wrong,” the first captain said. “You have a professional obligation to hand over the boat.”
“Of course you do, but it often is not that way, even on vessels over 50m,” the second said.
One thing captains appreciate when they step into a new command is the existing chief officer and chief engineer, if there are any. Having those senior crew makes the transition much easier, they said, especially with crew and in operations.
“Smaller boats are harder,” a captain said. “On a larger boat, your department heads run the crew. You get out of the way and let it run.”
“But the crew usually change within a few months,” another said. “The crew are still there for a while, but eventually they leave or you ask them to leave. There’s no way you can make it happen the way you want it to.”
The hardest situation is when there is no captain, no handover, no one who can point out the problems and procedures.
“My guy bought a boat that had been sitting a long time,” one captain said. “I wish someone who knew the boat would have been there to find out what the boat’s got and why.”
“Everything should be labeled,” another captain said. “On a boat 10 years in the water, is that still readable? Not always.”
But more than the mechanical side is the operational side.
“The guest services handover is a lot less intuitive than anything mechanical on the boat,” a captain said.
“When you want the fuel transfer switch, you can look for it, but looking for what they like when they arrive is totally an open book.”
Ideally, these captains said, a handover should take a two or three days during a time when the yacht is down so the incoming captain can not only get a run down of the boat, but get up to speed on projects and the crew as well as the owner’s expectations. They would like to take a full inventory of the boat, open every hatch, go into every compartment, find out about every switch.
“But lots of times, the owner won’t want to pay two salaries,” one captain said.
Another captain said a recent handover included the previous captain because that was a condition of his severance package, being available to assist the new captain.
“He [the owner] got some good advice along the way, because that really worked out,” this captain said. “He [the previous captain] didn’t stay onboard but he was there a few days and then always available by phone.”
The critical information are passwords and other confidential information, combinations, and the accounting side, including recurring charges on the credit card.
“If you have a properly working management company, life is a lot easier,” another captain said. “You can’t get accounting sheets to piece it together with no one there.”
“The captain should leave the business cards,” another captain said. “All that information belongs to the vessel, not the captain. He can make copies, but those contacts belong to the yacht. The engineer and chief stew, if they are not staying, have to do similar handovers.”
“One thing that’s valuable is to take the boat off the dock, to overcome nervousness or idiosyncrasies,” said a third. “It can’t always happen, but it can, it’s nice.”
One captain described his time on a new yacht, where the owner wanted to use one of his specialized water toys and the captain didn’t know how to set it up. The crew member who had done that wasn’t there. Given enough time, he could figure it out, but the owner wanted it now. That just magnified how important a proper handover would have been.
“If the owner would let crew take the boat to the Bahamas for a couple days, it would make the whole rest of the season go so much smoother,” this captain said. “You figure out how everything works. We could have made the experience much more interesting for him if we had been shown how he likes it done.”
“Your job is to educate the owner of the benefit of a handover,” another said.
“The good ones understand,” the first captain said. “The poor ones don’t and hopefully will fade away.”
When it comes to crew, incoming captains agreed that insight from the outgoing captain is invaluable, but their own meetings bear far more fruit.
“Talking to crew is right at the top of the list” of things to do when taking over a yacht, one captain said. “Talk with the heads of departments first, tell them your management style and what you expect from them. That’s critical. Crew is everything.”
But incoming captains are taking information in as well as giving it out, trying to learn about the crew as quickly and as comprehensively as possible.
“It’s difficult to find that fine line,” a captain said. “In the first few weeks, it’s hard.”
“You talk to people right away,” another said. “You know they’re nervous and looking for another job. You may want them to, but you may want them to stay, so you have to communicate with them.”
“A full takeover doesn’t happen in a week or two; it takes months,” said a third.
Of course, all captains will some day be the one leaving, so we talked about how to prepare for that.
On vessels over 500 tons, regulations require a detailed handover document, but on smaller private vessels, it’s “a whole different ballgame,” one captain said.
When was the last time the dryer vents were cleaned? What’s that odd alarm that goes off every once in awhile?
“Documentation is the key,” a captain said. “All this should be documented. It depends on the captain. His professionalism determines the handover.”
It also can depend on how the incoming captain responds.
“You offer your experience and knowledge, and sometimes they don’t just take it on,” one captain said.
One captain has a handover manual that includes things like fuel consumption rates, the start-up sequence, the tanks and their true measurements, passwords and account numbers.
“I’m doing it to cover my a**,” this captain said. “I don’t want someone coming back to me a year after I leave a boat and saying something I didn’t do was the cause of their accident.”
“It’s all just about taking the good points of ISM and applying it to a smaller boat,” another said.
“You should be able to handover in a short time,” another said. “It’s not dependent on the owner or the new captain. It your professionalism in how you leave a boat.”
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.