The past few years have changed things in the cell-phone-and-work arena on yachts. Thanks to technological advances, phones are much more than things with which to make phone calls on or even send texts.
Accessibility to social media has changed how we interact with our cell phones, now known as smart phones, and to many middle-aged captains, the fascination younger crew have with these devices verges on addiction.
But to yacht crew born in the 1980s and ’90s, who experts call the millennials, it is simply a part of their lives. Their smart phone is part of their dress code.
Last month, we asked captains and crew to share their thoughts about cell phones in our Triton survey and learned that the rules about their use onboard — when there are rules — vary widely. Because statistical surveys can only go so far, we wanted to bring this topic up again with captains in our more intimate monthly captains lunch to learn if smart phones have impacted their ability to manage young crew.
It has, and it has them at a loss as to what to do about it, other than lay down the law.
Our assembled captains varied in how much cell phone use they permitted onboard. But most of them agreed, like most of the yacht captains and crew who took our survey last month, that it’s a thin line between use and abuse. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not so much about phone use or abuse as it is the captain’s interpretation of that activity.
“They have been a blessing, I can’t lie,” one captain said of smart phones, noting all the apps available on them. “I don’t mind using a tool on a boat to get things done. The mate’s constantly checking the tide and weather.
“But I tell them, no one needs a phone in front of the boss,” this captain said. “It’s an addiction, this social networking thing.”
And therein lies the root of the issue: how one captain interpretes use as an “addiction” when another doesn’t.
“The technology is so great on these boats,” another captain said. “I don’t mind my crew using it, just as long as the work gets done. I have a stew who listens to music in one ear, has a Skype conversation going and she’s making menus and researching on the Internet. She doesn’t miss a beat. She gets it all done so I don’t have a problem with it.”
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.
An entire psychological industry has popped up around explaining the millennial generation to the generations who will manage them. Books have been written to point out the chasms between them (and we’ve included a few tips in an accompanying story, Key to managing millenials is knowing how they see things.)
Millennials have never known life without Internet. Being connected and constantly available is part of who they are. It’s not bad, the experts say, just different.
And middle-aged captains just don’t get it.
“We’re enabling this younger generation to use their phone as an excuse not to do work, and we’re ruining the crew experience,” one captain said.
This captain told the story of the change he saw in a green stew he hired five years ago. A lovely young woman back then, he encouraged her to get experience on larger yachts. When he hired her back recently, she returned a completely different creature.
“She had a great personality so I brought her back, but she didn’t fit,” this captain said. “She would sit in the crew mess on her phone, not listening to us, or participating.”
The change in her saddened him.
“She was addicted,” this captain said. “She was absolutely stunned when I fired her.”
But in that time, just the past five years, really, smart phones do so much more than ever. And who can blame a crew member for reaching out to family, friends and lovers when traditionally, yachting has made all those things so hard to have.
“We’re competing with a culture that says it’s OK to use the phone,” another said. “You have to ask the owner, ‘what are your rules at work for devices?’ and then use those same rules onboard.”
“It comes down to a responsible use of the phones,” a captain said. “As captains, you have to explain to them what the issue is and lay the ground rules.”
A lot of the conversation revolved around the tendency for crew to use their phones while on break in the crew mess, a time when traditionally crew got to know each other a little better. On the one hand, that’s the time the captains have set aside for their crew to interact with their world. But on the other, it takes away from camaraderie on the boat, they said.
“It’s simple: if you’re at lunch, have good manners,” one captain said. “That means no hat, be clean, and no phones because it’s rude.”
“We have to show them what the good behaviors are,” another said.
“And there have to be swift, severe consequences,” said a third. “You take the phone away and, by the way, guess who’s on watch this weekend?”
“I’m not taking your phone away,” another captain said, and others agreed. “If it gets to that point, you’re out the door.”
“If I have to come to you and tell you I’m disappointed in your actions, you better look for another job,” still another captain said.
“When I hire people, I set the standards,” said a captain who requires crew to leave their phones in their cabins. “I’ve never had to fire anybody [over it]. If you remove the temptation, they’re more focused.”
One captain disagreed, noting that when he feels stressed, even he will take a break, sit on the bridge and surf the Internet for a few minutes “to unplug.”
“And afterward, I look up and feel better,” this captain said. “It’s like ‘wow, I really needed that.’ ”
As the millennials enter yachting and begin to move up, several captains wondered how it will all shake out.
“Is this something that’s going to work itself out over time?” one captain asked. “The younger captains don’t seem to have as much a problem with it as the older guys.”
“It’s a shift in the culture, so how do you blend?” one captain said. “Yachting’s a service industry. In a restaurant, you wouldn’t expect your server to do it.”
“There is no established code of conduct for cell phone use,” another said.
“On cigarettes, it says they can kill you, and the alcohol industry now tells us to ‘drink responsibly,’ ” said a third. “No one teaches them courtesy with their phone. There’s no code of ethics for social interaction.”
“Part of what’s missing is that it’s about safety, and it’s up to us to instill that,” another captain said. “Put it in the rules and we have to watch them.”
Most of the captains said they don’t want to worry about watching their crew, catching them using their phones inappropriately. They expect the rules they set to be enough.
Several captains noted that with crew radios, there’s no need for crew to have their cell phones onboard.
“We’re mariners first,” a captain said. “It’s about safety, not service, at this level. The radio is your communication device if you get trapped or something.”
But then one captain told a story of the stew who, coming off the 12-4a.m. watch, went into the walk-in for something to eat and got trapped inside. She didn’t have her radio, but she did have her smart phone so she got on Facebook to communicate with family in Southeast Asia, who called the yacht to have someone open the door.
“It’s the culture, it’s not the technology” a captain said. “It’s like saying we’re not going to use GPS because we have sextants. But there’s this entitlement feeling when crew say ‘I’ve got to have Internet access.’ No, you don’t. It’s always me, me, me. Social media entitles them to be more self-centered. We’re a service industry; it’s not about them.”
There was a subtle debate about this “service industry” view. Whenever that idea was brought up, another captain would bring yachting back to safety.
“You can’t multitask and totally know what’s going on,” this captain said. “We’re mariners first. Shit can go wrong quick if you aren’t paying attention. There’s no way people can multitask and be aware of what’s going on.”
It’s about awareness, this captain said, and then told the story of a woman who got hurt onboard while a deckhand was working nearby with earbuds in, completely unaware.
“You have to set the ground rules,” this captain said. “There are always exceptions, but it’s about safety.”
“To me, it’s more about the job,” another captain said. “How productive is your crew in an eight-hour day versus how super productive can your crew be when they’re multitasking? I’m fine with it because she’s getting the job done.”
We didn’t resolve the issue of smart phones and yachting, but we did discover that appears to be more about the captain than the phone.
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.