Welcoming in the new year seemed like a good excuse to ask yacht captains if they had any resolutions for the industry for 2015.
Their answers surprised me. They were a lot tougher on themselves – and on all captains – than I thought they would be, and they even took a different tack when it came to owners getting out of yachting, which we talked about tangentially last month.
The conversation began slowly, as it often does, with the assembled captains first honing in on crew attitudes as the top thing they would change in 2015.
“Crew attitudes have all gone downhill rapidly,” one captain said. “Their whole approach to the job is off. They come in demanding, complaining.”
“Crew agents should explain to them what to expect,” another said. “Don’t come on my boat demanding anything. When I got my first deckhand job, I was just happy to have a job.”
“The first thing they ask is ‘do we get weekends off?’ “ said a third.
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.
The captains felt today’s technology was a primary culprit in what they saw as crew misbehavior, and so their first resolution would be to require crew – as well as vendors – to put down their cell phones.
“I hired three guys and told them it was just for a day or two,” one captain said. “I didn’t tell them I was looking for one full-time crew member. After one day, I fired one because he was on his phone. Three days later, the most experienced guy was goofing off so I fired him, too.
“I ended up hiring the least experienced guy,” this captain said. “Now I’m teaching him everything I can and he’s working out really well.”
“We can be more clear and tell these kids, ‘this is what our expectations are’,” another captain said.
This turned into a conversation about how relaxed the industry has become, how less formal operations onboard have become. Not less professional, they were careful to say, just less formal.
“When we all first started, we weren’t wearing T-shirts and shorts,” a captain said. “There was more respect. It was always polos and belts.”
“The industry should go back to a little more formality,” another said.
Taking a broader industry view, these captains thought ethics and transparency were issues that all of us in yachting needed to work on.
“Transparency is the biggest problem in the industry,” one captain began. “The captain who takes a $30,000 backhander for buying a tender from this vendor instead of that one.”
“Transparency is an issue on lots of levels,” another said. “Brokers, that’s a big one. They should say clearly who they are working for, and it’s not always the owner.”
It would take a bit more discussion to reach a resolution here.
When I asked about education, these captains said they found their best instruction from other captains, those more knowledgable than themselves, their mentors as well as their peers.
“From veterans, and word of mouth,” one captain said. “There’s a whole world of knowledge with all these guys that have been around a while. Once you get into that realm, you find a lot of really good, ethical people.”
“I remember once, a veteran broker who was a captain came on my boat and took one smell of that blackwater odor we all have and he said, ‘yeast’. You can’t learn that stuff in a classroom.”
This conversation led to their next resolution: less classroom learning, more hands-on instruction.
“Go back to record books,” one captain said. “Every kid needs to do a refit. I learned so much about boats the first time I did a refit.”
“Whatever happened to apprenticeships?” another asked. “That’s where you learn how to listen, and how to please. Where you learn that it’s more about them, less about me. You learn how to anticipate the needs of guests.”
When it came to owners, these captains brought up transparency again.
“Don’t hide anything from the boss,” one captain said. “And don’t lie. While they’ve made their money, they’re used to people making mistakes. They just want someone they can trust.”
The captain has the power to dissolve conflicts with the owner and smooth over obstacles with the boat. With one grumpy owner, one captain tried humor, and it worked.
Another captain said regular crew dinners were stopped after the owner saw the credit card receipt. He didn’t argue or resist.
“In three months, it’ll change,” he said. “The owner is new. You have to pick your battles.”
They discussed how they would handle a similar situation. Those crew outings – be them dinner or excursions – build familiarity and team, so they are important. But arguing with the boss about it won’t work.
The same holds true with any number of large line items on a receipt. If they work to save time and money in the long run, owners usually support them.
“You have to take the time to educate them [owners] and explain your decision-making process,” one captain said. “If they trust you, they will begin to understand why you spent this money.”
This conversation led to another resolution: Be more responsible.
The captains discussed that their level of responsibility stretches into several areas, including training the crew behind them, educating the owner and interacting with vendors.
“We have massive influence on the owner, on crew below us, where the boat is going and how it’s maintained,” one captain said. “Why do we lose owners? They’re tired of seeing crew change, the boat not maintained as it should be, accounting problems.
“We are the base of the problem,” this captain said. “It’s our fault.”
Last month, captains shied away from taking full responsibility when we discussed crew management issues and why owners leave yachting.
And while not all captains at this lunch believed as strongly as this one did that captains were at the crux of it all, they did not object, either.
“Starting there, we have to look at our problem as managers,” another captain said. “If we’re losing crew, we’re not managing them properly.”
“And it’s our fault if we choose the wrong contractor,” the first captain continued. “We are the ones who agree to pay $8-$10 a foot to park the boat. We’re the ones who accept it. If the boat was ours, we’d never pay that for dockage, so why do we pay it for the boss?”
The captains discussed “astronomical estimates” that they sometimes get from vendors when looking for work to get done, criticizing the vendors for the practice.
“They charge anywhere from $50 an hour to $150 an hour for the same job,” one captain said.
“It’s our fault,” the other captain said again. “We’re in a rush and don’t ask each other to find the proper price. We’re the ones who create the monster. As long as you treat it like it’s your money, the boss is happier.”
But why does it matter if one captain or yacht pays a higher price for something if they choose? Why does that bother some captains?
“It bothers us because we lose owners,” this captain said. “And we lose a good, clean industry.”
So their resolution here: Stop losing owners.
To do that, they vowed to check their own attitudes and be more concious of the attitude onboard.
“It’s attitude, and it starts at the top,” a captain said. “Stop the drama. Stop talking about the drama.”
“Get excited about the job again,” another said. “Then the crew will get excited about the job, and they’ll respect their job and take pride in it.”
“Correct what’s wrong, but don’t talk about it all the time,” said a third. “Fix it. Concentrate on that and the industry will improve.”
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.
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