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Triton Survey: Yacht Captains allow cell phone use, often regret it

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This month’s survey comes after a lengthy discussion with a captain friend who is worried about the role cell phones play in yachting. He first mentioned his concern to me a couple years ago and I must have rolled my eyes at him, dismissing his concern as a generational rift. I may have even told him he’s getting “old.”

Click here to read comments to this survey.

He didn’t forget my reaction and called me on it recently, so we sat and chatted. We got pretty philosophical about young people and their reliance on not only the device but on instant contact with friends and family. What really troubled him was young crew’s withdrawal from human contact and his struggle managing humans like that.

I thought a lot about that conversation in the intervening weeks, and I now believe he might be on to something. So I decided to ask captains and crew a little about cell phones for this month’s survey.

It’s hard to get philosophical in a statistical survey, so I limited the questions to rules and reactions (but don’t be surprised to see the philosophical side of this topic come up in a captains lunch someday soon).

More than 200 captains and crew responded to this month’s survey, the highest in months, so we knew right away we touched a nerve.

We began by asking captains Are your crew members permitted to have their cell phones with them — and on — during the work day?

Triton survey on cell phone use.

Triton survey on cell phone use.

Nearly half of the 131 captains who responded said their crew can always have their phones with them, and the bulk of the rest said they can have them with them some of the time.

“Clear guidelines need to be communicated for cell phone (and iPod) use,” said the chief stew of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Crew must be aware, available and active. I want to be able to text my stews at anytime with directions, requests and status reports.”

“We are witnessing a social and psychological evolution,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his late 60s. “We are becoming completely connected, intercommunicative creatures. Who knows where this experiment will take us?”

Only 8 percent said no.

“Crew are not permitted to have on their possession or in their workspace personal phones during working hours,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet. “They check their phone on breaks and after work. Department heads have a boat phone on them to respond rapidly as needed with e-mail, text messaging and voice.

“Best bring this up at interview and part of standing orders,” this captain said. “It is a culture thing with crew today, and as we don’t provide for prayer during working hours we equally do not provide for the distraction of smart phones. I have no problem with either on your own time.”

We asked crew this same question: Are you permitted to have your cell phones with you — and on –during the work day?

Eighty percent said yes, they always have their phone with them. Most of the rest said some of the time. Just 5 said they are not allowed to have them with them during the work day.

“They can be extremely useful for contacting vendors, repair companies, other crew (on shore), checking weather, checking parts, etc.,” said the first mate of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 30s. “They are a necessity for staying up to date and keeping projects or tasks moving. When personal calls and texts are allowed though, they would be a huge distraction. There is a time and a place for them.”

“We are pretty flexible,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in his/her late 30s. “Most of these crews have family on the other side of the globe.”

We wondered if personal cell phones were important communication tools onboard yachts, so we asked captains Do you communicate with your crew through their phones?

Two-thirds said yes, but only when one party is off the yacht. Onboard, they use radios to communicate.

Most of the rest say they communicate with their crew through their phones on and off the yacht.

Just 3 percent do not communicate with crew via cell phone.

So if personal cell phones have become vital tools for communication and crew are permitted to carry them during the work day, would there be rules about them? My captain friend who struggles with this issue is hesitant to impose rules about cell phone use onboard because of the backlash he believes crew will give him. Plus, he wonders if they would even work.

So we asked captains and crew Does the yacht and/or the captain have rules about cell phone use onboard? The interesting part is in the comparison of their answers.

Captains were split half and half on having a policy. Among the half that do have rules, the biggest group (37 percent) offers them verbally. Seven percent have a formal written policy that crew must sign as they begin work on the yacht, and 6 percent have a written policy posted in the crew mess.

“I’m getting ready to implement stricter policies regarding cell phone usage during work hours,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 30 years and in his early 50s. “This will apply not only to phone calls but Facebook, Pandora, WhatsApp, etc.”

Among the half who don’t have rules, most say their crew know not to abuse the privilege of cell phones. About 4 percent said crew can use their phones as much as they like.

“Cell phone use is limited when one of the senior crew notices abuse,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 40s. “After the first warning, their use is restricted to off-work hours.”

“With crew, as with anything they do, if they abuse it, where it begins to affect performance, then you put a stop to it,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “That’s called managing, and that is what you [captains] are supposed to do. Sounds too much like the government when you make blanket statements and make everyone suffer for a fews problems.”

“Don’t currently have rules, but I’m feeling the need to make them now,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her late 50s.

Among crew, however, more than two-thirds said there are no rules, including 57 percent who know not to abuse the privilege and 11 percent who can use their phones as much as they like.

“Privileges are often abused by younger, lesser-experienced crew, but it’s a necessity in engineering, constantly taking photos, calling contractors, taking notes, etc.,” said the engineer of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her late 30s. “I find it an invaluable tool, and yes, I do take a Skype call from a boyfriend far away, once a day, 5-minute conversation. Keeps me happy.”

Most of the rest have been given verbal rules about cell phone use onboard. Just 4 percent have formal written rules, and 4 percent have rules posted in the crew mess.

But here’s where this survey wracks the brain. We asked an open-ended question of both groups What are the rules about cell phone use onboard?

The most common rule noted by both captains and crew was that cell phones were not permitted for personal use during the work day. In many cases, they must be left in the crew’s cabin and/or off. They can be checked on breaks, at lunch, and off duty.

“During work hours, phone is allowed to be carried but it must be on silent mode and used only before work, during breaks and after work day is complete,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 50s. “No personal calls or texts are allowed during work hours.”

The reason this wracks the brain is because both groups just told us in the first question that crew are permitted to have their phones with them — and on — during the work day. So crew can have them on and operational, but use them only for work-related purposes? And how is that monitored or enforced? Though we didn’t ask that question specifically, several captains offered that they really can’t be sure that crew aren’t using them personally, and then proceeded to give examples of abuse. It seems like captains are telling us both things, that crew can have their phones on them, but that they can’t use them for personal reasons, and that some abuse the privilege.

So even though 92 percent of captains who took this survey said their crew could have their phones with them at least some of the time during the work day, about half the captains who answered this question about rules said personal cell phones are not permitted during the work day.

“Only communication devices that are supplied by the yacht may be used during working hours and used for ship’s business only,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her late 40s. “In addition to this, any Walkman, iPod or other personal music device used with earplugs are not allowed on the open working deck or interior, on duty or not, as the need to hear the ship’s whistle and fire alarms are paramount to the safety of all on board.”

The second most-common rule cited was not to use them or even carry them when the owner and/or guests were onboard, when in service to guests, or when working in guest areas.

“Interior crew not allowed to carry when interacting with guests; no crew allowed to answer or view phone when interacting with guests,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her late 50s. “If using phone for personal reasons and captain approaches or needs their attention, they must immediately hang up or put it away.”

“No cell phones on when guests are onboard,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 60s. “Cell phones can be used when guests are not onboard, but during work hours, only for incoming calls. All calls crew receive during the day should take less than a minute. (‘I’ll call you back at lunch.’) No text sending or receiving except during breaks.”

The third most common rule was personal cell phone use was permitted with discretion, and that if cell use became a problem, the crew member would be warned and privileges would eventually be reduced or taken away.

“Job first, excuse yourself when you need to take a call, don’t talk long and not in direct view of anyone,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Don’t be annoying,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in his/her late 50s.

The next two rules were mentioned equally among our respondents, including never being allowed on watch, on the bridge, under way or during maneuvers such as docking; and only permitted in emergencies.

“Masters orders in conjunction with MN 315,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 30s. “No cell phones on the bridge when on watchkeeping duties. This ‘no cell phone use’ extends to safety drills on board and anytime there is a meeting. People who play on Facebook during a time at which they should be working get warned several times, then I give them a final warning and let them know I will be looking for a new person. Warned once more, I find someone else.”

“The captain collects all crew’s cell phones prior to departing the dock, or coming in to dock, or any other critical situation where the crew should not be distracted by a text coming in,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her early 50s. “I can’t count on them to turn off their own phones; I collect them for the maneuver.”

“No personal calls when working or on watch, especially around guests,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “I take it away from them and put it on the side when they are standing a helm watch. Texting is a big distraction when at the wheel. I let them use it to check weather and boat-related business.”

A few captains and crew noted that the rules were different for senior vs. junior crew.

“Cell phones are only to be used for work-related purposes, but that is rarely the case,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet, younger than 35. “Mate, chief stew and chef can use their phones because they have usually earned the right. Junior crew aren’t allowed as they get too distracted.”

“Cell phones are a useful tool for executive officers,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Those officers have rules of use as well.”

Most rules are based on common sense and practicality, seemingly accepting the pervasiveness of the devices.

“I never want to hear or see a phone while they are working,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her early 50s. “While they believe that I will give their phone the float test, they at least make an effort to keep them hidden and quiet.”

“Same respect as in a nice restaurant,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in his/her early 30s.

“Must be on silent in all guest situations,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “No ‘stupid’ ringtones. Answer or decline calls within two rings, if possible. No personal calls except in rest/break periods (if incoming call is personal, decline it if caller id indicates; otherwise cut conversation very short after identifying caller).”

Triton survey on cell phone use.

Triton survey on cell phone use.

The rules can be simple:

“Don’t ever let the captain see it,” said the first mate of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 20s.

Or they can get pretty complex.

“During working hours the phone (your work phone) can (if in a position where it is a necessity) be used for work and work-related calls, text and usage only,” said the first mate of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 30s. “During lunch breaks (not while you or others are eating) and after working hours, phone usage can resume to normal. If caught using it (or your personal phone) for non-work related reasons, the phone bill (of the work-designated phone) for that month is your responsibility, not the yacht’s. And/or the phone will be taken away indefinitely. You realize very quickly how reliant one is on their phone, especially for work, and how inconvenient it is without it.”

Other common rules noted were no use of phones topsides, phones on a crew’s person must be on silent or vibrate, and their presence cannot interfere with the job at hand or productivity.

A few captains noted specific rules, including no Facebook, no earphones or music only in one ear, incoming calls only, and no texting. It became clear pretty quickly that the rules, such as they are, are moveable.

“If you have it on your person, it must be in silent mode,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her early 50s. “No usage in front of guests. No earbuds or Bluetooth worn while guests are aboard. All rules subject to change.”

And at least one captain noted that the privilege can be taken away, much as in a parent-child relationship.

“No personal use on the boat’s time,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her early 30s. “If caught, they are given a warning. The second offense results in Internet access being removed for a one-week period.”

So we were curious just how crew use their phones, so we asked On an average day, how might you use your cell phone for during the work day?

The most common response was making and receiving work-related calls (95 percent), followed by sending and receiving work-related texts (73 percent). Then the personal stuff begins, with about 65 percent of crew saying they use it for personal texts, 60 percent for taking photos and 52 percent for personal phone calls. We forgot to ask about e-mail, so that was written in most in the “other” category.

One engineer noted that his/her phone was used to monitor the vessel as systems and alarms went through the phone.

Another interesting comparison of results emerged when we asked captains How often does the average crew member use a cell phone during the work day?

The bulk of respondents said it ranged from between just a handful of times a day (42 percent) to maybe a dozen times a day (30 percent).

Just 15 percent of captains said crew hardly use their phone.

“This question should have ‘… that I am aware of …’ added to the end of the given choices,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 50s. “It seems that crew will sneak phone use no matter what I say. They’re addicted.”

We asked crew the same question: In general, about how often do you use your cell phone during the work day?

About a third said just a handful of times a day, but the next biggest group was hardly at all, 28 percent, which is nearly double the amount captains who said crew used it that infrequently.

A quarter of crew said they use it a dozen times or more.

Both groups were fairly even on their assessment of who used it 3-4 times an hour (7 percent of captains and 8 percent of crew) and those who used it all the time (6 percent of captains and 5 percent of crew).

We wondered if some crew were worse about this than others, so we asked captains <<BOLD>>How often does the worst offender use it?

The percentages evened out a bit, with a third using it 3-4 times an hour, and 29 percent using it a dozen or so times a day.

The more frequent options more than doubled: with 19 percent saying the worst offender used it 3-4 times an hour and 12 percent saying they used it all the time.

What this tells us is that, despite some crew using it more, not many crew rank up there with the worst offenders.

One of the big objections to cell phone use onboard is the potential it creates to distract crew and reduce productivity, same at it does for any employee in any work environment (not to mention people in their home lives and especially in their cars). So we asked captains Has any crew member ever made a mistake because they were distracted by their cell phone?

Almost half of responding captains said yes, with about 14 percent more saying nearly so.

“Some crew are so distracted they are downright dangers,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “I have had to reprimand that type of crew member. It seems that type of crew member does not last and has to be let go or risk damage to the vessel or themselves.”

“Having your cell phone on during times where focus is needed is a distraction that creates a safety issue,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 40s. “Many of the owners I have worked for now require me to be accessible by e-mail, phone and text, which sometimes makes accomplishing tasks a bit difficult due to the interruptions.”

Forty percent said no, they had not.

We posed this question to crew, too, and found the biggest variation in our survey. When we asked Have you ever made a mistake because you were distracted by your cell phone?, 80 percent of crew said no, they had not, with 13 percent saying they nearly had. Just 7 percent said they had.

We were curious if this was a generational thing, so we asked captains Do you find that younger crew rely on or use their cell phones more than older crew? More than three-quarters said yes.

“The new social media-age generation have different feelings, generally speaking, about the use of cell phones, and being in contact when at work, particularly when dockside without guests, or in the shipyard,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her early 50s. “March 12 was the 25th anniversary of the invention of the Internet, so consider the average 20-25 year old. They grew up with it and were taught computer skills as part of their standard curriculum. Just different upbringings.”

“For responsible crew members, the use of a phone is not a factor,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 50s. “I’ve found many less responsible crew members are frequently distracted by text messages or Facebook. Age is certainly a factor. Younger crew members use phones far more often than older crew. I believe that that is probably more a reflection of how each age group views their career. Many younger crew (and most of those who overuse their phones) view yachting primarily as a party lifestyle and their phone is really a lifeline to the primary reason they are here. Older crew are probably more serious about their career and work and so are more focused on that. I don’t think having access to a cell phone is what is causing the problem.”

“Younger crew, particularly, seem addicted to constantly being in contact, using their phones for almost endless updates with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her early 40s. “Then they get offended when you point out that it’s not professional and that they’re not being paid to play on a phone. Even better is having to explain why it’s wrong for their phone to be out and in use when guests are present or onboard.”

“I see newer crew sitting during working hours for periods of time checking social media and texting,” said the chef of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her early 40s. “This wasn’t so common a few years ago. When I am trying to get guest information and I have to repeat myself often to the stew or deck because they can’t tear their eyes away, it causes aggravation.”

“I believe for us ‘older’ people, it is hard to understand that the younger generation needs to be online all the time,” said the first officer on a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 40s. “I, for example, find it most irritating to sit at the table for a tea break with five people and nobody talks. Everybody just stares at their smart phone.”

We wondered if there were other ways that cell phones impact yachting, so we asked captains How else might the use of a cell phones affect your crew’s performance?

About 60 percent of our captain respondents answered this question, and nearly two-thirds of them said cell phones are simply distractions to the task at hand and reduce productivity onboard.

“Lack of attention to customers, distraction from monitoring operations (listening to engine speed, etc.), not making engine and deck checks on time,” said a captain in his late 60s.

“It is a distraction,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 30s. “We are not talking here about talking to people on the phone. It is access to Facebook, Youtube and all the other social media. They should be working.”

“Like smoking, the phone takes you away from your job,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 50s. “If you take 5 minutes each hour, that adds up to 40 minutes in an 8-hour day. Your crew mates have to take up the slack.”

 

The lure of constant connection causes a lack concentration, which leads to mistakes, they said.

“We once had our ash galley cabinets sprayed with oven cleaner as the stew was on the phone,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet now in his/her late 60s. “Yes, the wood turned black.”

“The safety and productivity are the impact,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

In addition to being a distraction, paying attention to cell phones can also result in alarms or radio calls not being heeded, and someone getting hurt.

“As long as the phone is on their person, they will always be tempted to use it,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in his/her early 50s. “It can be a distraction — and sometimes a dangerous one — at the most inopportune moments.”

“It is as dangerous as driving,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in his/her late 40s. “It will kill another crew member or guest one day on a vessel.”

“We have had occasions where the crew have asked a dockmaster for the wi-fi access code for the dock while performing docking operations, even before the fenders were set, before the lines were made fast, before the yacht was safe in harbor,” said the first officer of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “We were shocked at the fact that the crew were more interested in connectivity than the safety of the yacht, crew and guests.

 

“We all have to use cell phones — it is a way of life now — but we also need to be mindful of the dangers, the distractions, the abuse and the culture these gadgets can create,” this first officer said. “We can all wait until a more appropriate time to connect to the world.”

 

The next most common way cell phones impacted crew performance, however, was to improve it by making crew more accessible, giving them Internet access for research and trouble-shooting problems, and for communicating with vendors about onboard issues. Though noted by only about 13 percent of respondents, it was still the second most-popular response, albeit grudgingly.

“Makes some tasks easier at the very great risk of distraction,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in his/her late 50s.

“They can be positive, as being able to get ahold of crew and vice-versa, and it keeps them from getting too homesick, but no one seems to be able to not look at the text that just came in, and that distracts their thoughts from what could potentially be a critical situation onboard, docking, etc.,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her early 50s and in yachting more than 30 years.

“Years ago, my boss needed a picture of some parts we needed to order,” said the chief stew of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I got out my camera, took the picture and had to download it to my Mac. Then I had to put the picture on a hard drive and upload that to the boat computer. Then I had to take the boat computer to the dock office for a dial-up connection, and finally e-mailed him the picture. Two hours to do that. Today, I pull out my iPhone and have it done in 2 minutes. Technology has saved me lots and lots of work.”

 

Several captains noted that the incessant use of electronic devices and online “friends” means that some crew aren’t spending time with the humans around them, and that hurts the whole crew dynamic. Perhaps that is its most significant impact, and what my captain friend was really driving at.

“The crew mess used to be a fun place with lots of conversation going on, but now no one talks and just stares at their phone,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in his/her early 50s. “The phone is destroying the ‘yacht family’ feeling aboard.”

“Crew do not develop social skills, which they need to be part of a team, when they are constantly on the phone instead of interacting with fellow crew members,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in his/her late 50s.

“Social media has a negative impact on how we communicate,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I encourage my crew to talk face-to-face, pick up the phone and speak to vendors or contractors. I have banned the phrase ‘I have e-mailed them and am waiting for a reply.’ E-mail is good to cover details but it can have a negative effect when reading tone. Last year, I was strict on this policy about actually speaking to people and not e-mailing to organize logistics. Guess what? Our season was more productive and efficient. Go figure. If not used correctly, we are facing a more and more disconnected society. Social skills are critical.”

 

“Younger crew see nothing wrong with playing with their cell while talking to you,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in his/her late 50s. “It’s almost an extension of them. Very annoying.”

“At lunch, it feels as if all of my girls are praying,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet and in his/her early 50s. ”They are all looking down at their phones during the entire meal. This is because they have to catch up from non-use periods of work.”

 

Most respondents, though, seemed to be torn between the value they find in their cell phones and their price.

“Cell phones are a good thing, but the misuse and sometimes the stupidity of some people abusing them can be dangerous,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Smart phones are excellent for keeping in touch through social media,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I’m a big advocate for them, as long as they are not abused.”

“Cell phones are essentially a must in modern-day living, even more so in yachting due to the separation of loved ones and family,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in his/her late 30s. “But there is a time and a place for them.”

“The positive side is I can have instant communications with a crew when I need it,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “We also use text to tell each other every time we come and go from the vessel. This way everyone is always aware of who is onboard in case of an emergency as well as a sign out board. Cell phones in the hands of the right crew can make communicating much more efficient or, with the wrong crew, downright irritating and dangerous. They are here to stay so we have to get used to it and put regulations in place to control it, along with consequences for not.”

 

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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