When a yacht has an accident, the yachting world seems to know about it. Call it the coconut telegraph or blame social media if you like, but it’s fellow yachties spreading the word, some seemingly eager to criticize whenever a colleague has an accident.
What is that all about? Within minutes of a yacht bumping a dock or, worse, gone aground, we get e-mails and texts, tweets and posts from some other yachtie gloating about the incident.
Yet over the years, captains have repeatedly said that a captain who has never hit anything hasn’t spent much time at sea. So that got us wondering: Are accidents part of yachting or something inexcusable? Are they an invaluable learning experience or grounds for dismissal?
We gathered eight captains to find out.
Our conversation started slowly. Mention accidents and most yacht captains will say they’ve never had one. But capture them around a lunch table for an hour and they eventually come around.
This wasn’t an exercise to see who had had an accident but rather to find out what accidents mean to a yacht captain’s career. And the answer is “it depends”
But first, those accidents. These captains began by telling stories of accidents they saw or knew about, someone else’s accident.
“This is a funny topic,” whispered a captain sitting beside me. “Nobody’s going to admit to an accident.”
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 this photograph.
So why are some accidents just accidents and others cost you your job, or maybe even your career?
“It’s how we evaluate the accident,” a captain said. “If you tear the running gear out of a boat, you probably shouldn’t work in yachting again. If you have a mechanical failure, it’s not your fault.”
“Well, you lost steering and hit the dock,” he said. “Yes, it’s my responsibility that the clutch cable came off, but …”
That sparked another round of stories about lost steering, which happened to several captains in the room. One captain said it happened once while the boss, an experienced yachtsman and good boat handler, was driving.
“Now, every time before I head into harbor, I put it in neutral, back and forth,” this captain said. “That way, if there’s something wrong, I have time to go down and fix it before heading into port. Yeah, the owner had the issue, but I learned from it.”
One accident that sparked a lot of conversation was the 196-foot (60m) M/Y Dream (ex-Excellence III) running over Devil’s Backbone in the Bahamas soon after being bought by a new owner. The discussion was less about the accident and more about the actions of a new, young captain.
“That was a young guy who was moved up who didn’t have experience enough to reign himself back in, and ended up doing something that we can all, in hindsight, see is stupid,” a captain said.
They also acknowledged that inexperience isn’t cause for dismissal, and neither is bowing to pressure from an owner.
“When I was a new guy, I did stupid things because the boss wanted me to,” another captain said.
“But the guy who says no can get another job; the guy who says yes and does something like that will never work again,” said a third.
All the captains agreed that they have done things in their career, made decisions they perhaps shouldn’t have, and got lucky to make it through. The captain of Dream on that day likely hoped the same thing would happen to him.
“If I’m a young guy reading this, I want to define an accident,” a captain said. “Am I liable, is it negligence or gross negligence? That’s significant.”
Are accidents acceptable in yachting?
“Of course,” one captain said.
“They are a fact of life,” another said.
“People make mistakes,” said a third.
“Every time you publish a story of the follow-up to an accident, I learn something,” the first captain said. “I like looking at accident reports.”
One captain regularly reviews MARS reports, Marine Accident Reports Scheme, published by The Nautical Institute (www.nautinst.org, click on “knowledge”, click on “MARS”) to learn from others’ accidents.
“A captain who is a mediocre manager will say no, they don’t have accidents,” a captain said. “A captain who is a leader will say ‘you don’t have enough time to hear about them all.’ You make a thousand good decisions every day and more than a few mistakes.”
“We have a culture of protecting ourselves,” another captain said. “I would love to learn about accidents from other captains, but we’re so tight-lipped about it.”
That prompted one captain to tell the group about his $30,000 loss when he went aground with dead controls. He wrote about the incident for the insurance company and keeps that statement with him whenever he’s interviewing. In getting his most recent job, he offered the information to the owner.
“I think it’s a positive,” he said. “It established a rapport of trust. He felt right off the bat that I wasn’t hiding anything.”
Accidents cost different captains different things, not the least of which is pride.
“And you can lose your license,” one captain said.
Can you? While it may be technically possible, has anyone ever heard of anyone losing their license over an accident? They admitted that they had not.
“Lots have lost jobs because of groundings, though,” said another captain.
Another captain told the story of grounding and pulling the prop, causing the shaft to damage the stuffing box and take on water. The owner was furious and stormed off, firing the captain as he left. But the captain stayed all night anyway, taking care of the boat, stopping the ingress of water, getting it to a safe place.
“That justs shows he lost more than you,” another captain said.
That accident has come up in job interviews, but the captain doesn’t think it has hurt his career. He soon found another job.
“With an inexperienced owner, you have to convince him it’s OK — not OK, but acceptable — that you had an accident,” one captain said.
“And the older you get, the less likely you are to have an accident,” another said.
“But we’ve all had situations where we were lucky,” said a third.
One captain who admits he is old enough to know better told of taking a yacht that was borderline in dimensions into a marina that could barely fit it.
“I was overly confident,” he began. “She’s a new owner and I knew I could do it.”
But while the marina was deep enough for the keel, it didn’t extend much beyond the center of the channel, so his stabilizer fin hit the rocks, causing damage.
“I did the same thing,” another said.
“We all had this happen to us,” said a third.
“If you haven’t been aground, you haven’t been around,” another captain said.
“We all push the boundaries because the owner wants us to,” said another.
“I was pushing my own boundaries,” the first captain said. “I was cocky.”
If accidents are part of life as a yacht captain, and sometimes they cost you your job and other times they don’t, what is that missing ingredient? Why is it OK for some captains to have accidents and not for others?
“Assuming the captain is a prudent mariner, the whole issue is the owner,” one captain said. “Some owners trust and respect you, but with other owners, even after you’ve been with them for years, they challenge everything you say. It’s different with how they handle their jet pilot. If the jet pilot says no, we can’t go, it’s no.”
One captain had a former mate who made it to captain and one of his first tests was to go out in inclement weather, a choice he resisted.
“He called me and I told him to go out and turn the stabilizers off,” this captain said. “The owner respected him after that.”
But this new captain had a mentor to call. Not all of them do, do they?
“The young guys all have someone to call,” another captain insisted. “If they don’t call, it’s their fault. They have the infrastructure to call.”
“But their ego gets in the way and they don’t ask,” said a third.
“It all boils down to experience,” another captain said. “In my 20s, I didn’t understand that the decisions I made could cost someone their life. Now, I truly realize what it means when I make some of the decisions I make, knowing the engineer could lose an arm. If there’s any question, I certainly will say no.”
“It’s a funny business,” said that captain who whispered to me at the beginning of the lunch. “If you do run aground, everyone’s going to know about it. Eight minutes after I ran aground on the sandy bank off Key Biscayne, I got a call that said I had hit the rocks. Eight minutes.”
“And no one knew when I ran aground in Yarmouth,” said another.
This business of accidents is contradictory for captains. They are embarrassed when it happens, but once their peers opened up to their own mistakes, it was almost as if they wore their experience like a badge, part of the price they pay to become good at what they do.
“Experience comes from bad judgment,” one captain said. “Good judgment comes from experience.”
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.