When it comes to time off in yachting, captains say it’s tough to manage, no matter what. The rare story of an owner who schedules the boat’s use — and sticks to it — causes captains’ eyes to light up as they remember their best time in yachting.
And then there is all the rest: the last-minute vacation cancellations, the missed holidays and broken marriages, the revolving door of new crew.
Yes, being on call to the yacht’s owner is what they sign up for, most of the time, but captains assembled at our most recent roundtable discussion say having a career in yachting doesn’t have to mean they can’t also have a life. And they know how to manage it otherwise.
“It’s harder than necessary when you’ve got to be at Defcon 4 all the time,” one captain said. “When you find an owner who plans their sail, that eliminates 70 percent of the problem right there.”
“It does, it starts at the top,” said another. “I worked for an owner who planned a year out and it was great.”
“And then there are the nightmare owners where you are on call 24 hours a day,” said a third. “Not even the crew can’t get away, let alone the captain.”
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 with this article.
These captains represented a mix of industry experience and tenure, from those who have worked their way to the largest of yachts to those who have returned to smaller ones, all in the hopes of not only building their careers but of also living their lives.
“It’s tough,” one captain said of taking time away from the yacht. “I’ve done two years with no holiday at all.”
“They forget we have families,” another said.
“They think we’re living the dream,” said a third. “It’s true, I’d rather be on the boat, but I still want to be home once in a while.”
These captains noted that each yacht program is as different as each yacht owner, and trying to gage how supportive the owner is about planning, scheduling and time off can be challenging. It’s almost easier to know the opposite.
“One owner wouldn’t hire anyone who had a family,” one captain said.
Another pointed out that a current owner is family oriented, making scheduling time off easier.
“He wants to keep crew and will look after them,” this captain said. “There’s no crew car, but he will pay for relief so the crew get time off.”
“We’ve got to ask these questions during the interview process,” another captain said. “You have to know if they want someone 24/7. … It’s up to us to let them know that if they let us plan, they’re going to have a better time.”
“They have to let their pilots know ahead of time,” said a third.
“That’s the best trick, calling the pilot to ask ‘what do you know about his plans?’,” another captain said.
This veered the conversation into some of the perks these captains have enjoyed in their careers, the time the owner didn’t want to make an island crossing and invited the crew to bring their families for the journey, or the time an owner let the captain’s girlfriend fly to the yacht on his jet.
“It’s such a small thing to them — the jet was coming anyway and it had an empty seat,” the captain said. “It’s such a small thing to keep crew happy.”
“It comes down to the personality of the owner,” said another.
Most of what we aimed to discuss were the challenges of juggling the needs of the owner with giving crew time off. Several captains noted that they try to warn crew ahead of time that much of their personal life will be ignored once they get in yachting.
“As captain, I tell crew I know you have a girlfriend or boyfriend on land; that’s going to end,” one captain said. “I try to give crew time off on a crossing or let them invite their girlfriends on for the crossing. You’ve got to care about your crew and do what you can, but sometimes we can’t do much.”
“The biggest barrier to helping your crew is the management company,” another captain said. “Crew think it’s the captain not giving them time off, but it’s really the management company.”
“I think the biggest problem is Dockwise,” said a third.
What? How can a ship transport company be to blame?
“Captains say ‘that’s your vacation’, and it’s only then,” this captain said of the scheduled crossings. “What if I don’t want those days? What if I want to go to a family reunion or make it home for a birthday? It doesn’t matter. Crew are told you can take your vacation during this period, and that’s it.”
Another way to handle it is to call in temporary or relief crew to give crew time off.
“It’s a small expense, but the captain has to support it as well and push it with the owner,” one captain said.
“Crew will work their tails off if they have a structured calendar,” another said. “It makes such a difference in their work. They don’t mind having 12 weeks of charter if they know when their time off is.”
“And they can plan for it,” said a third.
“We also need to not be self-entitled,” another captain said. “Crew do have to be flexible.”
Bringing on relief crew is an added cost to the owner, but these captains agreed that it’s still possible to achieve.
“If that’s understood at the beginning, it makes it easier,” one captain said.
“No matter if they [owners] understand, they still don’t like it,” another said of the added expense.
One captain said it becomes the master’s job to show the owner that the “added cost” isn’t really a cost, but a benefit.
“If you have an owner, management company or a captain who is not willing to listen, shame on them,” one captain said. “I can tell an owner I can decrease turnover by 82 percent and it’ll only cost us 6 percent more a year, and they still say no. It breaks my heart when people don’t listen to a good idea.”
The captains rattled off the litany of expenses involved with hiring a new crew member — flights, uniforms, agency fees, time, training — that added up far exceed the cost of allowing time off.
“New crew also change the dynamics and upset the whole crew,” a captain said. “The politics change and it’s a nightmare.”
“It makes no sense,” the first captain said.
It’s not uncommon for crew to quit to take time off, and one captain noted that it’s becoming harder to do these days, especially for licensed crew.
“It used to be that you’d join the industry for a while, and if it was for you, great, but if it wasn’t you’d shift back ashore and would have had this great experience,” one captain said. “Now, you invest so much time, money and effort in your license and career you can’t just say ‘I’m moving home.’ You put up with it.”
“Owners should realize that we’re not running 80-foot, unclassed, unmanaged yachts anymore,” another said. “They’re not getting people who are jumping in and out of the industry. They need to understand that, and they need to respect their people to get them to stay.”
“If crew like the program, they’re going to stay,” said a third.
Another issue these captains raised when it came to maintaining relationships while working in yachting — a key driver in the desire for time off — was couples onboard.
“I just hate it when an owner or manager says ‘we don’t do couples; we had a bad experience’,” one captain said. “To that, I always say two things: Have you ever had a bad experience with singles, which they have; and give me just enough rope to hang myself.”
In this case, this owner gave the captain some rope and the captain and partner were hired.
“Within a couple years, we had six couples onboard, and the owner came to me and said this is the best time we’ve ever had on our yacht,” this captain said. “It makes a difference when people have relationships in their lives. It’s about management. It’s the option of having a future, having a relationship and a career in yachting.”
So are captains on call all the time?
“Yes, 24/7, and we accept it,” one captain said to unanimous approval in the room.
What about your crew, do they accept that yachting is their whole life, too?
“The senior crew, yes,” a captain said.
“I tell crew the downside: no weekends off, you can’t have a dog, a house, a relationship,” one captain said. “But the good side is the travel and adventure. And I will give you everything I can, but I can’t give you weekends off.”
“Deal with it,” another said.
“They need to be told what they have to give up and get their heads around it,” said a third.
“That’s why we get paid X and not Y,” a captain said. “For this level of service, I expect to see some grey hairs on the captain’s head. The more you are paid, the more you expect to give.”
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.