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Triton Survey: Time off presents challenges for crew

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One of the biggest complaints we’ve heard from captains and crew over the past 10 years has been the inability to take time off. That issue was amplified in our recent survey that asked our readers what bugs them in yachting [“Crew prioritize their top concerns,” page C1, November 2013]. Time for family and friends was near the top of the personal list, and scheduling time off joined other crew issues atop the operational list.

More than 150 captains and crew took our survey this month, and we asked them slightly different questions to perhaps show how this issue is seen from each side. It may be significant to note that about half of our respondents are on yachts with seasonal programs, ones that change locales by the season. Those tend to be more active yachts (versus those sitting at the owner’s home most of the year) so we believe it’s important to remember that when sifting through these results. Also, know that these are not necessarily the captains of the crew who responded, so resist the urge to see either side as being untruthful.

Also read Triton Survey comments from captains and crew.

We began by asking the broad question: Captains, are you able to give your crew time off? and Crew, do you get time off?

The answer surprised us, considering how often we hear this complaint. Almost 95 percent of captains said they give their crew time off; about 85 percent of crew said they get it. (Still, that left 15 percent of crew who said they don’t get time off.)

We broke this question down a bit more. Among the “yes” answers, we were curious to learn if it was easy or hard to have crew time off. Here’s where the difference began to show.

Among captains, the larger group at almost 50 percent said their schedule made it easy to give time off, leaving 45 percent to say it was difficult.

“It’s a difficult subject to solve,” said the captain of a yacht 220 feet who has been in yachting more than 30 years. “I try my best on behalf of my crew but it’s difficult.”

“No cause for complaint,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years who noted it’s often difficult to arrange time off for crew. “Fact: a deckhand on a busy charter boat makes double the median U.S. income with zero living expenses and nominal taxation. Most new money yacht owners are not sympathetic to personal agendas, as they made their money working hours that crew would frown at. Everyone has a choice: live on shore and get 124 days off per year (U.S. average including weekends) with a quarter the disposable income or work offshore and get paid for your time.”

Among crew, this discrepancy was greater, with 58 percent saying it was difficult to get time off, meaning just 27 percent of respondents thought getting time off was easy. That means twice as many captains than crew thought arranging for time off was easy.

“Our captain does a phenomenal job managing our time off, making allowances for individuals to take unpaid leave if they have no vacation time available as well as advocating vacation during down time,” said the chef of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting almost 10 years who noted that the yacht’s schedule still makes it tough to take time off. “He also fosters a great environment for each crew member to take personal responsibility to ensure our work is managed and completed in a timely fashion to make room in the schedule for time off.”

We wondered about this time off and asked Is it regular and scheduled, as in the same day or time each week or month?

The majority of both captains (60 percent) and crew (78 percent) said no, they squeeze their time off in whenever they can.

“I work by myself, with part-time crew for chef and mate if needed for a trip,” said the captains of a yacht 80-100 feet. “My schedule is pretty light sometimes and very busy other times. I take time when the schedule permits.”

We were curious to know why can’t time off be more regular and weren’t surprised to learn that the majority of both captains and crew said it was because their program changes at the last minute so they can’t schedule things like time off.

“The base cause is that we are a moveable object and therefore are always at the mercy of changing plans,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “Weather, flights, illness, births, deaths and marriages can never be anticipated a year in advance. Despite my trying to confirm our plans or schedules, the owner’s visits change at very short notice and often. The uncertainty makes for poor crew morale and for constant disagreements between the owners, management and the crew.”

“I used to run a 120-foot yacht and it seemed every time I scheduled my time off the owner would use the boat,” said a captain in yachting more than 25 years who runs a yacht less than 80 feet. “No matter what arrangement we agreed to I always had to reschedule. Same for the crew. That’s one reason I run a smaller, local boat now. Also, being away all the time was not good for family life.”

“It seems that owners/managers are reluctant to look after their crew when it comes to time off,” said the engineer of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting about five years. “They feel our job working on their boat in these nice areas should be enough.”

Just 9 percent of captains and 17 percent of crew said the owners wouldn’t spend the extra money to hire relief workers in order to give crew time off.

We asked this next question three ways to get answers we thought would be interesting to compare. First, we asked captains Have you ever lost a crew member over time off?

The majority — 58 percent — said no.

When we asked crew Have you ever had to quit to take time off, the majority — 73 percent — said yes.

“Captain and crews find a way to take off, but it is very difficult for the engineer, and the captain is not supportive,” said the engineer of a yacht 140-160 in yachting more than 25 years who has quit both for personal time and to take courses.

Then we asked captains Have you ever had to quit to take time off, the majority — 65 percent — had not.

“If you are passionate about the industry in which you work, every day will bring its own rewards,” said a captain in yachting more than 20 years now running a yacht 140-160 feet who has never quit to take time off. “Idealistic? Yes, but this is yachting. We offer the highest level of UHNWI service in the world. Its rewards are easily received. Its downsides must also be received with equanimity. There is no free lunch, and yachting is a seven-course gourmet meal there for the taking.”

That meant that slightly more than a third of captains had quit to get time off.

“A planned program is ideal,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet who has quit for time off. “Owners who know in advance where they want the boat are also owners for whom yard work, leave, rotations and down time can be planned. Any program that ‘has no itinerary’ is doomed.”

We always toss in a temperature-taking kind of question. This month it was How important is time off for crew?

Both captains and crew agreed that time off is very important, 67 percent and 85 percent, respectively.

“Getting time off is essential to crew,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “We start crew with four weeks vacation the first year. It goes up one week per year to cap at eight weeks paid vacation.”

“Yachting isn’t really a good career if you’re looking for abundant and flexible time off,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “That said, if I were running a very busy charter boat (which I absolutely will not do), I’d do my best to work in off time for the crew whenever possible. I believe very strongly that a happy crew makes for a happy boat, which makes for a happy owner.”

“I’m making a much stronger effort these days to get crew and myself the appropriate time off, even at the risk of disagreements with the owner,” said another captain of a yacht 120-140 feet and in yachting more than 15 years. “Same goes for hours of rest each work day.”

“I’m a firm believer of doing whatever the job requires, but at the end of a week charter, time off is a must,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “I’ve told the owner and broker that there will be no back-to-back charters. I’m 50 and my chef is 56. We work non-stop for our guests while they are on board. When the boat is not being used, I take weekends off. I have been lucky to work for people who believe being with family on holidays is important, so I get home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays for my son. My pay may be a little less than some, but it is important to me and my family to have the time off.”

Yet three times as many captains as crew said it was “not very important,” that this demanding schedule is what yachties sign up for.

“The yacht is ready to go at all times, on one day’s notice,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet. “Crew know what they are there for: service. And everyone is well paid, as they should be.”

“As I am usually hired as a freelance chef, if I ever get time off, it’s without pay,” said a chef in yachting less than 10 years. “If I’m working on a yacht, I’m not on vacation and don’t expect or want time off.”

Twice as many captains as crew thought it was “somewhat” important.

One way to satisfy time off and schedules is through rotations, which are fairly common in the engine room and not unheard of on the bridge. They are rare, though, among junior or interior crew. So we asked captains, If you could, would you run rotational jobs on your yacht?

Less than half (44 percent) said they would for senior positions. But more said they wouldn’t run them at all (32 percent) than those who would offer them to all crew (24 percent).

To compare this perception, we asked crew Do you think your captain would support rotations onboard?

The resulting proportions were about the same. Slightly more than half (51 percent) said yes for senior crew, 31 percent not at all, and 19 percent for all crew.

“Yachting is a very controlled environment; freedom is an illusion,” said the chief stew of a yacht larger than 220 feet in yachting more than 10 years, who thought the captain would support rotations for all crew. “By nature, crew are strong, freedom-loving and nomadic. Rotations give crew a choice to visit family or explore the world. Time off for studies benefit the crew member as well as the yacht. Yachts should aim to empower crew and understand the nature of crew to maintain happy crew and hopefully with it, crew longevity.”

“The yachting industry is an industry where we as crew get to travel on the owner’s expense,” said the first officer of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years who didn’t think the captain would support rotations. “With that being said it is also an industry where we work hard and should get well-deserved time off. This is an industry where if you don’t realize you are working during every one else’s time off you should go elsewhere.”

“Yacht owners and masters are living in the Stone Age,” said the engineer of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 10 years who didn’t think the captain would support rotations. “Billionaires are cheap. Masters are too afraid to let someone else do their job in case the relief master does a better job than they do. Time off is terrible and wages are a disgrace.”

We also asked crew Would you take a rotational job?

They overwhelmingly — 97 percent — said yes.

“Time off is very important for people who are more than 10 years in the industry,” said a first officer in yachting more than 10 years. “Money just cannot replace the value of time with friends and family and time to recharge your batteries. Our industry is very demanding, especially when it comes to senior positions. If people don’t get any time off they will eventually lose the passion for their work and will not be able to deliver the standard that is expected. They won’t be happy in their job anymore and eventually will leave yachting. Since I couldn’t find rotation, I decided to just do freelance work  two years ago. I meant a big cut in income but I am still very happy with my decision.”

We asked captains this question, too, but just three-quarters said yes.

“The industry is losing captains to the oil industry because of time off and bigger pay,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Managers and owners need to wake up to this fact and stop before good, well-trained crew cross over.”

We were curious to know Do you see rotational jobs as a solution to crew turnover in yachting or as just another expense for the owner?

Among captains, three times as many respondents considered it a solution rather than an expense, though most offered some sort of caveat.

“It depends on the use of the vessel,” said a captain in yachting more than 15 years. “If the owner would like to use his vessel all the time, rotation is the only way.”

“Rotation can work but it is difficult to find the correct alternate crew,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Some just don’t do the job and others try to steal your job.”

“For owners who don’t plan ahead, I see rotation as a solution,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet.

“I do see it as a solution but I really feel that many of the new crew are looking for a rotation job before they have put the time in,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 in yachting more than 10 years. “Some are looking after a season in the industry. I feel you have to earn a rotation job.”

That was not an uncommon opinion.

“Junior crew need to prove themselves,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “I am still a firm believer that crew who sign on and stay less than a year should not be in this industry. After one year, yes, they can receive 13th month paid and could have some rotation.”

“Unfortunately, the more crew receive, the more they want,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years.

About a third of captains said it can sometimes be a solution, most notably on large and/or busy yachts.

“For busy boats, rotations would boost morale and improve everyone’s experience, even the owner’s,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

“Done properly, the expense should be minimal, but finding the right combination is not as easy as it sounds,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“I feel it would make for owner/guest discomfort seeing different people,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 in yachting more than 20 years. “If I could find someone all are comfortable and confident with, it might work.”

Still, some noted that the additional crew member is an expense that some owners won’t accept.

“The accountants did a cost evaluation for a 10-crew vessel and it was not to the owner’s advantage,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “It was less expensive to employ new crew.”

And other captains thought it was just plain unnecessary.

“This is yachting,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “You sign up, check your life into the shoe locker, sail to exotic locales, get paid a disproportionate amount of tax-free money with no expenses. Stop complaining. Tesco (with respect) awaits those who cannot balance the risk and reward.”

Among crew, almost all respondents considered rotations a solution.

“Sharing a position with another chef/cook re-energizes both and the owners/guests benefit from more choice, variety, etc.,” said a chef/cook in yachting more than 15 years.

“It’s definitely a solution for more senior crew who may need a shift in balancing their time between work and personal life in order to maintain the value of a yachting career,” said a chef in yachting less than 10 years.

“I see it as the solution,” said a first officer in yachting more than 10 years. “It is not much more expensive for the owner once you take all related costs into consideration. Of course, crew members who want rotation have to be reasonable. You cannot expect the same pay for half the work.”

“Rotation, especially for engineers, could actually reduce costs by reducing turnover,” said the engineer on a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “We are paid 50 percent of our on-watch salary when off-watch, meaning that the payroll is increased by 50 percent of an engineer’s salary. Otherwise, we don’t get paid vacations, reducing that amount somewhat.”

“A solution to crew turnover for sure,” said a mate in yachting less than 10 years. “One of the biggest factors for crew leaving a boat is because of burnout. There would be nothing better than knowing you’ll get some valued time off at the end of a busy season and then have a great job to return to.”

“I hope they will become more common in the future,” said a first officer in yachting about five years.

“I believe it will reduce costs to the owner in the long term by keeping the right crew happy and rested,” said the bosun on a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting about five years. “I think it is the future for yachts larger than 50m.”

“Rotational works for commercial shipping,” said the engineer of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “Superyachts are no different from a real commercial vessel these days so crew should be treated the same and not like slaves.”

“I see it as a solution to retain senior crew members but only on larger vessels,” said an engineer in yachting less than three years. “Crew on smaller vessels move frequently as they upgrade licenses.”

“Rotations truly are the answer to keep crew rested and happy,” said the bosun of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting about five years. “Otherwise they end up burnt out at the end of the season. Rotation gives them somewhat of a short-term goal to work toward and keep them motivated.”

And we asked captains a few extra questions aimed just at them, including What about your time off? What best describes your situation?

Like crew, the largest group at 44 percent said they take bits of time whenever they can.

“The work never stops, even when I’m off, so I take time away but continue to work as necessary,” said a captain in yachting more than 30 years. “I rarely can take a big block of time, never in shipyard periods, never when guests are on board, never when making a passage. I take time when we’re at a dock, doing routine maintenance.”

“Almost regular weekends in winter when not cruising, though I’m still on call babysitting two boats,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Summer cruising time off is nearly nonexistent. I can manage a few weeks vacation for family or myself. But I get evenings at home when I’m in Ft. Lauderdale.”

“Time off over the past 15+ years has been spotty due to our operation,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “We are now at a point where I can take regular time off — worked around the boss’s schedule, though. It’s all good and getting better.”

The next two groups were even at 23 percent: captains who get regular, scheduled time off and those who get ample time but find it hard to plan.

“My boat is currently for sale and the owner ‘will never use it again,’ so we (the skeleton crew) work 0700-1500, Monday to Friday, with weekends off (unless something comes up),” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 in yachting more than 15 years. “We take our 30 days vacation (as per our contract) in bits and as needed for personal time/vacation, etc.”

Just 5 percent said they haven’t had time off in years.

“We are, right now, in a top position at three and a half years without a vacation and over 100 days for the whole crew without a day off,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “It’s just the job.”

And 6 percent opted for “other.”

“It’s tougher on captains to actually get time to take vacations,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “You can delegate authority, but you can’t delegate responsibility. Even when you are off, just at home or on vacation, you always have work in the back of your mind.”

“I can find time for the crew but it is very different for the captain,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “By the time you find relief and get them approved by the insurance, the plans have changed and the whole lot goes out the window. If you want time off, then be prepared to lose your job.”

 

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. We conduct our monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t been invited to take our surveys and would like to be, e-mail lucy@the-triton.com to be added.

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