There’s a difference between taking a job and choosing a job. As the yachting industry gets busy cruising again, there seem to be more captains moving around. It’s less about needing a job, it seems, and more about landing a good one.
Many times, of course, the choice is easy, depending on how long they have been on the dock. But captains gathered for our August roundtable discussion said they are far enough along in their career to be a little more selective about job offers. And while their impressions of the owner and the salary play a part, they agreed there’s other stuff more important to them now.
“I’ve turned down three positions in the past eight months,” said one captain. “I’m honest with the owner and we agree it’s not a good fit. I have a two-way interview and interview them as much as they do me. The best part is when they ask if I have any questions and I pull my list out. I want to know what the program is, what the benefits are, who hires and fires, and how they handle crew. I’ve been stuck with crew I can’t fire.”
“Nothing’s worse than that,” another captain said. “It doesn’t end well.
“It doesn’t end well because you end up emasculated in front of other crew, and pretty soon this one is getting away with stuff, and then this one, and that one,” the first captain said. “Where do you go from there? You end up looking for another job.”
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 here.
The captains shared their stories of inherited crew and they agreed that they often resist jobs where the owner participates in crew management decisions. Another deal breaker is salaries.
“Before the interview, I have to know they’re going to pay industry standard,” one captain said. “I’ve wasted so much time and miles on my car to get to interviews only to be told they don’t. Crew agencies lead me down the wrong path.”
“Is it their job to negotiate your salary or put you up for a job?” another captain said.
“Point taken,” said the first.
But beyond the money is how the owner funds the boat.
“For me, it’s not the salary, it’s the operating budget of the boat,” a captain said. “That’s what I like to pin down. What is the budget in terms of how we handle safety issues and class? And who hires crew? I work for you; the crew works for me. You don’t need to be involved in the issues of time off and crew. I’ll decide with you what you want to offer and then disseminate that to the crew. The last thing I want is for the owner to come on the boat and get cornered by some stew or deckhand wanting a week off.”
The reputation of the yacht and its owner can play a part in a job choice, too, but not as much as I thought.
“If it [the boat] changes owners, it’s easier,” one captain said. “I was up for a job on a bad rep boat that sold. I spent the day with the owner and he was a really nice guy, so I took the job.”
What do you do when it’s not a new owner?
“You don’t take the job,” several captains said in unison.
“That one’s for the watch-standing guy who wants his first captain’s job,” one captain said.
“We all paid our dues working for guys we didn’t like,” another said.
“I was warned about it [a boat with a bad reputation] but I needed the job,” said a third. “A boat’s reputation sometimes rubs off on the captain.”
“Only to those who don’t know you,” said another captain. “If we’ve done this for a while, there’s no defense with people who say something about you. You have your own reputation, and the people who know you know you.”
The captains were confident in their ability to talk to owners frankly.
“My relationship is with the owner,” one captain said. “I once worked for a guy who was very difficult. I said to him in the interview — I heard about you. If you hire me, this is what’s going to happen. You have a problem; you are afraid to lose your money and you don’t trust anyone.”
I must have raised my eyebrows at that because several other captains came to his defense and said similar things.
“You have nothing to lose but the job you don’t have,” another captain said about being honest in an interview.
“Owners actually love that,” said a third. “They like to say ‘He’s rude to me but he’s incredibly efficient.’ One of his captains stayed 25 years. It’s a compliment that you can work with a guy for 25 years that you don’t get along with.”
“I only stayed three years,” the first captain said. “I bit my tongue, learned about budgets, got raped on salary, and when it was over, I got a ton of offers. I guess they figured ‘If you can put up with that…’.”
In the grand scheme of things, the days may be gone where one job makes a career. So, depending on what’s important to captains at the time, they will choose their command for different reasons.
“I turned down a couple before I took this job,” one captain said. “I’m looking 10 years down the road. I will take a shittier job on a nicer boat, for now. Once I get my unlimited license, I’ll be looking for the best income and life choices.”
In this delicate balance of relationships, I was curious about captains who take positions without ever having met the owner. Most captains in the room had taken jobs after a phone conversation, and several had taken over boats in what they called rescue missions.
“i’m doing the job for someone affiliated with the boat,” one captain said. “I’m doing a favor for them.”
“It’s like a delivery,” said another. “Do you meet the owner on a delivery?”
“Or even see the boat?” said a third.
“You roll the dice,” the other captain said. “And not everybody is geared for that.”
“Some of the rescue missions, you don’t feel like you’ve committed to them,” a captain said. “You can interview them for a couple of months.”
“It gives you a different leverage,” another said.
“It worked out great for me; I got good experiences,” said a third. “Even if it’s not for me, I might know someone whose saddle will fit.”
There’s a captain for every owner, they agreed.
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.