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How yacht crew couples impact the rest of the team

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Bring up the subject of couples onboard and many captains will rattle off a story about how they were burned once by a couple, losing a great crew member when the weaker one was fired or resigned.

Of course, those in committed relationships will tell you that two strong crew in a couple make for better crew, less late nights out, and more stability on board.

So which is true? And more importantly, which is real?

About 80 yacht captains answered our survey this month, sharing their onboard policies as well as their personal policies about couples onboard. A captain who struggled with the issue of one partner being strong, the other not so much wondered how other captains handle couples, so, with Valentine’s Day as a backdrop, we asked.

There are lots of scenarios when it comes to couples, so for the sake of statistics, we asked our respondents to consider only couples who are committed. They might be married, or they might simply be long-term partners who want jobs together.

Do you have any couples on your current yacht, including one you might be in, both of whom work onboard?

More than half do. Of the 56 percent who have couples onboard, 40 percent include just one couple, while 16 percent had several couples.

“Happy couples on board can be an asset and don’t tend to head to the bar after work,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

About 43 percent of our respondents said they do not have couples onboard.

We crunched the numbers another way and discovered that nearly a third of our responding captains were part of a couple onboard.

Have you ever worked on a yacht with couples?

Almost all of our responding captains — 96 percent — have worked on a yacht with couples. And most — 91 percent — did so more than once.

“We worked for a company once that had a firm no-couples policy,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “They hired us because they were in dire need of our skillset. After a few years of working for them, they changed the policy so they now seek couples. So it can and does work.”

“I worked with my wife on a yacht for four years until she fell pregnant with our second son,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

Did having a couple or couples onboard impact the crew dynamics?

Triton survey

Triton survey

These answers were fairly balanced, with about 40 percent saying couples impacted crew dynamics in a good way.

“Couples tend to be more settled and disciplined,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “They are usually better behaved and mature. The singles are out late, seeking social interaction, whereas couples tend to be less pressed to go out and be part of ‘the chase’.”

“I have had chef/stew and first officer/stew couples in the past, and it worked out fine as they were committed couples as well as very professional,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

“They can entertain each other; one can be down or slow and the other usually sees it and tries to pick the other up mentally,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “It’s really the same, in a way, of having individual crew, only you have a couple of advantages as the couple already knows each other and the individuals don’t.”

But the good impact wasn’t always so straightforward.

“Oh, but it gets complicated very quickly,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“This is a borderline answer,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “It often has a negative impact, too.”

“At times, we have had unnecessary problems from one or the other part of a team,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “These same type of problems can come from individual team members but they’re easier to deal with, causing less crew (or captain) tension.”

About a third of our respondents said couples impacted the crew dynamic in a bad way.

“Seems that there is always some drama on board that is not there otherwise,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“One is always compared to the other, unfairly perhaps, and the lesser of the two is a target for unfair treatment,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Also, when one of a couple is having a bad day, now two are.”

“Couples tend to break the crew moral and dynamics,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “They often are off by themselves, excluding the rest of the crew. This makes it difficult to build a strong, cohesive team when part of the crew are trying to separate themselves from the others.”

“Discipline one of couple and have attitude from both,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“If they are getting along, things are great; when they’re not, it affects the entire boat,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

“Sometimes you get one strong and the other not so,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “When this happens, it can cause a split in the crew where sides are taken in an effort to get someone else off the boat to make room for advancement to better themselves and cover the short.”

A quarter of respondents said couples had no impact on the crew dynamic at all.

“If the couple is married or long term, that makes a huge difference; They understand not to be making out every second they get,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “New couples are always getting caught making out. I have no problem showing affection but doing it during the work day amongst other crew only makes crew uncomfortable.”

Several captains wrote in that this impact is both good and bad in equal measure.

“Can go either way, depending on positions,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If one is in a leadership position, it can tend to empower the other.”

Do you have a policy about hiring couples?

Because of the way we asked this question, there are two ways to look at the responses. Initially, we can see that 65 percent of our respondents said they have no policy about hiring couples, leaving 35 percent who do.

“Too many problems in the past,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet who has a policy not to hire couples. “If you or a crew member has trouble with one, it always costs you the other partner, who has to take sides.”

“I have found over time that couples change the dynamics of the crew so much that it becomes counterproductive,” said the captain of a yacht over 220 feet in yachting more than 25 years who will not hire couples.

Taken another way, though, we see that our respondents were nearly evenly split on whether they will hire couples, with 53 percent noting they will hire couples. The majority of those — 40 percent — said they will hire the best person they can find for their open position.

“On our boat, captain/chef and deckhand/stew teams work well for couples,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet who has no policy but hires the best crew for open positions. “It would be very rare for two couples to blend over the long term.”

“It usually seems that the couple is motivated to be together, hence both want to do their best to obtain and remain in the job,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “It’s sort of ‘extra motivation’ to want to stay together.”

“If I feel both people will be a good fit and are stable, then I am not opposed to couples,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“However, you do take the risk that if one doesn’t work out, you lose both,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

Thirteen percent more said they prefer couples and seek them out.

“It is nice to not have to worry about the odd man out,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

That left 47 percent who said they avoid couples when they can (25 percent) or have a strict policy against hiring couples (22 percent).

“I like the crew to interact fully,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If there is an attraction between individuals, I have no problem with that. I enjoy them all to find out about each other, but I find that couples are rather insular and not forthcoming into such conversations.”

“I have had too many poor experiences with couples on board,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “To be frank, I have never had a couple on board that added anything positive to the crew or each other professionally.”

It surprised us that, given all the stories we hear about problems with couples and the hurdles couples face in landing jobs, the aversion to hiring couples wasn’t higher. Slightly more than half of our respondents were not opposed to hiring couples.

Does the owner have rules about couples onboard?

Three-quarters of our respondents said the owners have no policy about couples onboard.

“No policy, but there’s kind of an unwritten rule about it now since our chief engineer was crying to the boss one time about his girlfriend,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “Crying, really, while the owner is supposed to be on vacation enjoying himself.”

“He just lets us hire who we want,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “But you get two positions filled with one hire process, and lose two with one dismissal. That makes for complex crew dynamics.”

“Often, the limited crew accommodations make it easier to have couple-crew who are used to closely sharing their personal space,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

Among those owners who do have a policy about couples, they are slightly more likely to oppose hiring them (14 percent) than to prefer hiring them (10 percent).

“Only because the boss doesn’t want them, so we get stuck hiring singles that are out to hook up with the other singles, making young couples,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “I’d prefer to hire mature couples, assuming they both fit the position and are good at it, of course. Depending on the number of crew, a couple of couples works.”

What about crew hooking up once employed. Does your vessel have rules about that?

Most vessels, 59 percent, do not have rules about crew dating each other.

“No rules against it but it is usually not the preferred situation,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “If two good crew ‘hook-up’, we try to make the best of it.”

“No rules, but it rarely works to have a new relationship on a working boat,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “The couple is just beginning to work out their own power balance, all the while trying to be in the boat’s power structure.”

“I once worked on a boat that prohibited it, but that rule did not stop anyone from hooking up,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 in yachting more than 15 years. “Two couples are now happily married and the girls (who left on their own) found shore-based employment.”

Among the rest, most yachts (32 percent) have rules that say it is not permitted.

“But it still happens…,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

“We try to prevent it by keeping cabins gender specific, and our crew complement is relatively small as well,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Most live ashore.”

“You cannot stop it, but I consistently discourage it,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “The military complex worldwide has had centuries to work out these situations and they realize that couples within the system do not work well. The military and most large companies have policies about staff relationships.”

“You can have all the rules you like, but you can’t stop it,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “You have to embrace it or lose two crew.”

“Crew are adults, which means anything can happen, but in the open no couples are allowed,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Once crew cross that line and bring it to the open, then they go directly against policy.”

“No fraternizing within the crew,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If it develops, it should be kept off the boat and away from the crew. This is where you discover how professional your crew members are and how important their positions are to them.”

Just 9 percent of our respondents said their vessels had rules that permit crew to date. And usually, the rules are simple.

“Practice civility or suffer the consequences,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

Can couples share a cabin on your boat?

If and when couples are allowed, they usually get a cabin together. Nearly half of our respondents said they get a cabin when possible, and about a quarter more said they always do.

For about 19 percent this question didn’t apply since there were no couples onboard, and just 10 percent denied couples their own cabin.

Do you have any rules regarding couple behavior? By this, we meant to ask about shared rooms, cuddling or other signs of public displays of affection (also known as PDA).

Our respondents were nearly evenly split here, with 51 percent saying yes.

“No PDA in front of guests and not in front of crew during working hours,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“When you are at work, (anytime you are on the vessel or around co-workers) you need to act accordingly,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Only that they need to be respectful yet social with others in the crew,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Some behavior had to be learned from parents and just can’t be taught.”

“A little affection around just the crew is OK, but expect full professional behavior when owners, guests, brokers, or subcontractors are around,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“If hired as a couple, I will always have a ‘couple talk’, which includes proper and expected behavior,” said the captain of a yacht more than 220 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

One captain noted that his vessels has rules allowing PDAs.

“We have a smaller vessel so a PDA is always encouraged as life is but a mist and you don’t want to regret not saying I love you enough,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “The owners don’t mind a kiss on the check or a hug; in fact, they love to see it as they are very happy together in their life.”

The slightly less than half of our respondents who said they have no rules about this issue still expected couples to behave appropriately in the workspace.

“Professionals would save those displays for private time and not in front of co-workers,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Not officially but if PDA causes a problem, it is immediately addressed as would any other activity that makes someone feel uncomfortable,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

“No written rules, but public displays of affection on the boat would be discouraged,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Cuddling and nonsense in the crew mess is usually best left self-regulated by a candid engineer or deckhand,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

“Common sense applies,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “My biggest problems were from expressions of disaffection.”

Have you ever had to take sides in a relationship issue that spilled out into the open and created a crew disturbance?

Two-thirds have not.

“I won’t deal with this,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If relationship issues affect the yacht, then the relationship has to go.”

“If I had to take sides, I would fire both,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

“Both sides are wrong by letting their personal problems be displayed,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Both crew members are reprimanded.”

“I make it quite simple: If it creates a problem, they are both gone,” said the captain of a yacht less than 80 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

Those who have dealt with this issue remember it well.

“Always a disaster,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “Now I just play dumb and hope they continue to do their job, or I have to dismiss one or both.”

“This is one reason no couples are allowed on a vessel I operate,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“As a captain, you never take sides,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “You have to deal with the couple as one person. If they are hired as a team and do not work as a team, they both have to go.”

“It caused a rift when a crew member was told to shape up by the head of department and the partner of the crew member then got involved,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “I let the couple go.”

Our captain who suggested this survey topic struggled mostly with having a strong and valuable mate coupled with a mediocre stew whom he wanted to let go. How would you handle having a couple where one is stronger than the other?

The results were pretty fairly distributed among the three options, with the most popular option (chosen by 42 percent of respondents) to fire the mediocre crew member and incentivize the strong crew to stay, knowing they risk losing the good one, too.

“I won’t be ‘held hostage’ by couples,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “They are made aware of the policy that each will be judged independently. If I lose the good half due to the other half not performing then so be it.”

“I have had this experience where a great mate was being pulled down by a needy and unprofessional stew,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “I removed the stew and the mate stayed, and I believe was relieved in the end.”

“I have made this decision a couple of times and the good crew member usually comes back after a short time, now single, to see if they can get their job back,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“Tough call, and the whole reason boats don’t hire couples,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “Tell them straight out: I’ll keep the mate but the stew is not working out. I’d try to keep the mate but it’d be up to them to split or quit.”

“I’d fire the bad one and let the chips fall where they may,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “If the good one stays, great. If not, next.”

“There is no solution here,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “I would talk to the stronger of the couple and ask their opinion, having voiced my concerns and intent. Hopefully, it would be an amicable departure for the flagging half of the partnership, but if both left then so be it.”

About a third of our respondents said they would take the short-sighted view and keep them both to get the job done, provided the mediocre crew is not lowering standards,

“Good crew are hard to find,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 35 years. “Hopefully, you can help the other improve or keep them in a lower position. If possible, make them work as a team and the stronger one may pick up the slack. However, this will not work forever and most likely the problem will solve itself.”

“If you’re in Ft. Lauderdale, you can replace crew, but if you are busy chartering down island, you would be better off to put up with it,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“It’s very difficult,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “You hate to lose the great one, but I will let them both go, though, if the lesser one doesn’t step up. I have never had the other half of a couple stay upon firing their mate.”

“That, in a nutshell, is the couple issue,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 25 years.

About a quarter said they would take the long-sighted view and replace them both.

“If there was a policy in place, then there is only one direction to go,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

And then, naturally, every case is different.

“I have used all three outcomes described above,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in  yachting more than 30 years. “Circumstances dictate which one.”

“It depends,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “If there is light at the end of the tunnel — for example, the end of the season is approaching — then keep both and make the change when appropriate.”

“This is why you do not want couples,” said the captain of a yacht 100-120 feet in yachting more than 30 years. “You lose two crew 99 percent of the time.”

If one part of a couple is fired or resigns, should that person be permitted to come around the boat to visit their partner (perhaps on watch at night or overnight)?

Three quarters said no.

“These vessels and their accommodations are not our homes and should not be treated as such,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “It would be no different in any other job setting.”

“It is not appropriate or beneficial for fired crew members to continue to interface with the crew,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “You may not be able to stop it, but you should not encourage it.”

“Sure they can visit, once the boat has either burned to the waterline, sunk out of sight, been sold to Somali pirates, or I’ve stopped working there so it won’t matter,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years.

Many of our respondents made the distinction between crew who had been fired and those who had resigned, with the latter often welcomed back.

“If one is fired, no; if one resigns with no bad feelings, they should be allowed to visit,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 30 years.

“If someone is fired, they do not come back on the boat,” said the captain of a yacht 140-160 feet in yachting more than 20 years. “If one of the couple resigns, then reasons have to be looked at. If the resignation is done the right way then visits may be allowed.”

Some weren’t committed to such a black and white choice as yes or no.

“Visit, yes, of course; it’s not a prison that we run,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 15 years. “Overnight, no, unless that other member has their own cabin.”

“The remaining crew member can visit their partner elsewhere, or dependent on the situation, at the captain’s decision,” said the captain of a yacht 120-140 feet in yachting more than 35 years.

“This is very situationally dependent,” said the captain of a yacht 80-100 feet in yachting more than 10 years.

Still, about a quarter of our respondents said former crew are allowed back on the boat.

“It has been tolerated in the past,” said the captain of a yacht 160-180 feet in yachting more than 25 years. “It depends on the circumstances surrounding the departure of the crew member and the behavior of that person. Most of my crew become good friends.”

“As long as they were not fired for gross misconduct,” said the captain of a yacht 200-220 feet in yachting more than 15 years.

“Though it depends on the terms of leaving,” said the captain of a yacht 180-200 feet in yachting more than 10 years. “If there were problems or a security risk, or it affected other crew, then no.”

As in most professional workplaces, the behavior of individuals reflects on the appropriateness of a relationship. But yachting isn’t like most professional workplaces. The bottom line, it seems, is that there is a place for couples in yachting, as long as the job gets done professionally.

“People say that they don’t hire couples because of a bad experience,” said one veteran captain seeking a position with his wife and facing opposition. “So I ask them if they ever have had a bad experience with a single. Obviously, they say yes, and I ask them why would they ever hire a single again?

“The bottom line is that as captains, we are supposed to be leaders, and whether it is singles or couples, our job is to help our crew become the best employees they can be.”

Lucy Chabot Reed is editor emeritus of The Triton. Comments on this survey are welcome at lucy@the-triton.com. We conduct monthly surveys online. All captains and crew members are welcome to participate. If you haven’t received an e-mail to take our surveys, e-mail lucy@the-triton.com to be included.

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