With a career choice that for many means being on call 24/7, a personal life can be an inconvenient thing. Even for yacht captains and crew who receive scheduled vacation time or rotations, emergencies arise and the boat calls.
When they are able to match some time away from the vessel with a personal milestone such as the birth of a child or the passing of a parent, captains will say they were lucky that the boat didn’t need them, or they were lucky to be between jobs.
Is that really what it is? Lucky to work for an understanding owner? Lucky to thread the needle of taking personal time during a spate of no emergencies? Is having a personal life in yachting really a matter of luck?
For the captains engaged in this month’s From the Bridge conversation, it’s not. At least, not any more.
Most of these captains have all found yacht positions that fit with their personal life goals. One captain with a young son works on a yacht based in South Florida that cruises the Bahamas and Keys. He made the effort to find that match.
“My family means more to me than anything,” this captain said. “It might have taken me some time to find, but I did. Larger vessels won’t accommodate a lot of time away from the boat, but I told the owner from the get-go this was important to me.”
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.
Another captain was single for a long time, and credits part of that with working in yachting.
“I had girlfriends but had no life,” this captain said. “The dream was to find an owner with a white boat in Ft. Lauderdale. You’ve got to be local to have a life.”
But it’s the life of “having it all” — a career, a house with a white picket fence, kids — that is difficult to juggle in yachting. Other kinds of lives are available.
“You don’t have to be local,” another captain said. “I see my career as a very varied life. I have chosen this career because it fulfills me completely. I like my career enough that it’s OK to miss those things [weddings, births, deaths]. But it never makes me feel like I want to be a lawyer. … I’ve missed weddings. So? I’ve been in the south of France for two years. We do have a life. Where else do we get to drive $25 million toys? We have the life.”
The answer, they said, was for a mariner to know what they want, and then to seek it.
“You’ve got to work out time of leave,” one captain said. “Salary was the last thing discussed.”
“Where does everything fall in your values?” said another captain. “I think people don’t even ask because they think the answer will be no.”
A third captain said he spent three months looking for his latest job.
“One of selling points was that I was a single guy and didn’t have a pull on my personal life,” this captain said. “I accept that I will put it on hold, until that balance shifts.”
The captains talked about those captains and crew who struggle with balancing their private life with work on board, and some of them, they said, haven’t accepted the realities of a career in yachting. They go ashore to find it, can’t make the same kind of living, and return to yachts.
“It’s just a revenue stream to them, and that’s not what this is about,” one captain said. “And by the way, those people will be unhappy in any career.”
Beyond time off, we talked about handling sickness and illness. As a captain dealing with a health issue, what happens career-wise?
“You don’t get sick,” one captain said. Though it was meant as a joke, no one really chuckled at that. In a way, they are serious.
“It really depends on how understanding the boss is,” said another captain.
What about when it happens to crew? The captains said they handle each case as it arises, that there really aren’t any rules or guidelines about it.
“Back in the day, captains were less patient with crew, but now we have more responsibility to the crew,” one captain said. “I want the guy to come back.”
Does that mean you will hold the position open, maybe hiring a temp or relief person?
“It depends on the crew member and their value to the boat,” another said.
“Some people tend to be habitual about it,” said a third. “They get hurt and sick often. If they can’t fulfill their duties, you let them go.”
One captain told the story of when he was a mate and the large yacht he worked on had a crew member down. , but so valuable. we did extra watches and just covered for him.
“The captain said, ‘look, I have to run the ship. If you can’t cover for him, I have to put him ashore’,” this captain said. “He was so valuable to the ship and a friend to us that we all stepped up, did extra watches and just covered for him.”
“It really depends on where you are, what you’re doing, if there are guests onboard, and their tenure,” another captain said. “You have to ask yourself, are they worth it?”
There was a brief discussion about the legal responsibility to take care of a crew member who gets sick, but we brought it back to the logistics of handling the reality of a crew member who has this private health issue.
“Every single person on the boat is valuable,” one captain said. “If they’re not, they’re not working on my boat.”
“I don’t want people afraid to come forward to say they are sick because they might be terminated,” another said. “If it’s manageable, we’ll deal with it.”
“I have had to put people ashore before,” the first captain said. “With senior people, you claim back salary for their replacement. He was valuable; I wanted him back. And insurance covered the salary for the delivery captain.”
Another private life issue that presses on yacht crew’s career lives is the caring for aging parents. Many senior captains and crew are of an age where their parents, if they are lucky to still have them, are requiring more care.
“I’ll have somebody in my back pocket, one or two people I can call” to take over,” one captain said. “I know I may get a phone call and have to leave immediately. Then, when I go to talk with the owner, I’ll put the pieces in place and all will go smooth.”
“Good, successful people will appreciate that,” another captain said. “If they can’t see that, I don’t need to be working for them.”
Others in the room said “amen”.
“What’s more important to you: help mom and dad or the job?” one captain said. “You have to decide.”
“You have to pick the jobs,” another said. “If you’ve got a lot going on at home, you want a job closer to home.”
“It’s getting better,” said a third. “There are so many boats now, so many different owners. If an owner doesn’t understand your personal life needs, find another one. We’ve all been working long enough, we don’t work for those people anymore.”
Even the usually sensitive topic of having to quit to take courses or vacation didn’t rankle these captains
“Quit to vacation or train? That’s your choice,” one captain said.
“Most boats I know will pay for schooling,” said another. “When crew quit to go to school, it’s usually because the boat doesn’t have a position for them to come back to.”
The captains talked about the awkward position of an up-and-coming second officer or mate wanting a few months off to take courses to move up, but there being no place in the yacht’s roster to move into, which requires that seaman to quit and find a different yacht.
“Would you put somebody through that?” one captain said.
“Maybe 20 years ago,” another said, ”but not now, especially since we have to have these qualifications.”
“Most of us would work with them to do that,” the first captain said, referring to increasing the officer’s qualifications. “Especially if they were valuable to us.”
A few of the captains lamented for a moment or two on the things this yachting career keeps them from doing, such as coaching Little League or being involved in a charity.
But others pointed out that they can give back to the places they visit, too.
“The best jobs I have had, on bigger boats, we worked in communities wherever we went,” one captain said. “If we can charter 15 weeks in a season and go to an orphanage, you can find the time.
“And it doesn’t have to be a lot of time,” this captain continued. “To see the look on their faces is hugely rewarding. For people who don’t get along well on the boat, you’ll see them get along better after they volunteer together. It’s important for leaders to show their crew this side of life onboard, and support it.”
“You have to remember, none of us are being held at gunpoint to do this,” a captain said. “Yes, your options [of private time] may be limited, but you have to set your priorities, and make decisions accordingly.”
“You have to know what your goals are to manifest them,” another said. “The wealthy people who own these yachts see it and feel it, and they will work with you because they value you.”
“A better question would be, how do you stay fulfilled in this career choice?” said a third. “Trying to stay balanced. You have to bloom where you grow. If you work all day to go to the bar, that is not balanced.”
It’s that balance, not only of work and time off, but of goals and expectations that can create a balance in a yachtie’s career.
“If you are constantly looking for the perfect job and feel it’s never going to come, then it’s never going to come,” another captain said. “You never have everything right; It’s never perfect.”
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.